Stepping-Stone Status

The race for lieutenant governor means nothing and everything


Nobody really knows what the lieutenant governor of California actually does. It’s a title that seems mostly to involve a lot of waiting: waiting to break a tie in the senate; waiting for the real governor to leave town (or die); and perhaps most importantly, waiting for the right time to run for a real office. In this year of déjà vu politics with a recycled governor on the left and a recycled campaign on the right (remember when Arnold was a political outsider?), the real race to watch might just be the one for lieutenant governor.

The race is between San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat best known for authorizing same-sex marriages in that city—which led to Proposition 8—and the current lieutenant governor of California for the last 130 or so days, Abel Maldonado, a moderate republican best known for crossing party lines to pass the 2009 budget and slipping his own pet project, Proposition 14’s open primaries change, into the mix.

“The office they’re running for is really a stepping stone, says David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University who specializes in California politics.

“They’re really looking past it,” McCuan adds. “[Newsom and Maldonado] have this in common: it’s a ticket to a bigger office.”

The candidates are both rising stars in their respective parties, fresh faces with megawatt smiles, who possess, if nothing else, a future in politics where the next governor of California almost certainly does not. Maldonado faces a number of challenges to keep his seat. Newsom has raised more than twice as much money so far, and some polling gives him a healthy nine point lead. But considering the hurdles Maldonado has already overcome, nine points is nothing.

Larry Lavignino is the mayor of Santa Maria, Maldonado’s hometown, an agricultural town in northern Santa Barbara County known for tri-tip barbecue and wine. He also served on the city council with Maldonado back in the mid-’90s and lived across the street from Maldonado’s family. He says that the lieutenant governor’s steady rise from small-town city councilman is nothing short of amazing.

“I never in the world thought that he would become the lieutenant governor of the state of California,” Lavagnino says. “If anyone tells you that they saw that in his future, they’re lying to you, ’cause it’s totally amazing. I’m not sure even he thought about it.”

For many Californians, Maldonado came out of nowhere. He was not elected to his current post; rather, he was cherry-picked from the State Senate by Schwarzenegger, when the lieutenant governor seat was vacated last November. His personal history is dramatic and uniquely American, though Maldonado might prefer to be called a Californian.

Maldonado’s father emigrated from Mexico and worked as a farm laborer until he bought his own land. Maldonado picked strawberries in Santa Maria and, according to legend, launched his political career after he had trouble getting a simple permit from the city. Local politicians recalled then-26-year-old Maldonado going door to door for votes during that first campaign for city council.

“At that time,” Maldonado says, “when I ran for office I looked people in the eye. I sold myself as a hard worker who would work hard for the people.”

Two years later he was mayor, and two years after that, he joined the state assembly where he stayed until he was termed out. He became a state senator in 2004, and was reelected in 2008 with an unsuccessful bid for state controller in between. Today, though his role is largely ceremonial, Maldonado can be considered the second most powerful person in California politics. Through it all, locals say, Abel is still Abel.

“Here’s what it comes down to,” Lavignino says: “He’s a small-town boy that made good, and we’re proud of him—and that’s the mayor saying that.”

Maldonado is running his ninth campaign in 16 years. In interviews, he mostly sticks to the script. He cares about three things right now: jobs, jobs and jobs. He’s a reach-across-the-aisle, post-partisan, problem-solving moderate who wants to fix this state, and change business as usual in Sacramento, of course. In real life, he is approachable, generous with his time and charming. He occasionally breaks out of the campaign routine, which includes repeating the name of whomever he is speaking to, and offers some poignant reflections about his roots as an immigrant’s son, which also happens to make a good storyline for his campaign.

“We had nothing,” Maldonado emphasizes. “We started our business with nothing. My father didn’t have two pennies when he crossed the border, but he had a good work ethic, and that’s what he taught me.”

But Maldonado hasn’t reached such great heights because of hard work alone. He’s often been in the right place at the right time, and all too willing to jump at an opportunity. When it came time for Schwarzenegger to nominate a new lieutenant governor, Maldonado was there, two years away from terming out of his senate seat.

His upward mobility has surprised many people from his hometown but hasn’t won him fans everywhere, particularly in the Central Coast’s 15th district, where he was elected to serve a four-year term. Jim Fitzgerald, a postal employee, ran against Maldonado in 2008, partly out of his frustration that voters were left without a choice. (Democrats did not run any candidate against him that year.) He also made an unsuccessful bid for Maldonado’s seat in the recent special election.

“Basically,” Fitzgerald says, “I ran against him because he is what I call a career politician; what I mean is that is he’s always looking for the next position. I think what I said then was don’t vote for him for a four-year term, ’cause he’s going to run for something else in two years.”

But that isn’t unusual in California’s volatile political scene. “Newsom has had this reputation too,” McCuan points out. “But Maldonado is someone Newsom can stand next to and not be the bigger climber.”

Fitzgerald points to Maldonado’s very first city council position, a four-year term, which he traded after two years for the mayor’s seat. In total, Maldonado has left three different public offices before his terms were up to take a better job in government. When he left the 15th District seat open, Californians had to pay $6 million for a special election, which amounts to about a million bucks for every month that Maldonado will serve in this term.

“He does have a reputation as a wheeler-dealer,” McCuan says, “someone who would have flourished during the days of Willie Brown. He likes the deal-making, and it would not be unusual that a field would be cleared for him.”

In 2008, Maldonado ran unopposed for a seat that was much hyped this year as the Legislature teeters toward a Democratic supermajority (and which was barely won by another popular moderate Republican, Sam Blakeslee), and then voted for the Democratic budget that raised taxes in what some critics have called a trade for Prop. 14, the open primaries effort. For the proposition, which voters approved in June, Maldonado broke ranks with both Democrats and Republicans, angering third parties as well. Still, he rises.

“He has long had a reputation as someone who excels at what he does,” McCuan says. “He does not have a reputation as a policy wonk, someone who’s really a deep thinker, politically. That’s not to insult his intelligence.”

For Republicans, Maldonado has a chance to make amends with Latino voters, fickle though they may be at the polls.

“Each of them [Maldonado and Newsom] presents an opportunity for the party and where they are going in the future,” McCuan says. “I don’t think that either of them are married to the seat, and with that they have problem of looking like career politicians.”

No matter who wins this race, expect to see Newsom and Maldonado in the future.

“Here’s what we have,” McCuan says, “We have two self-serving guys running for lieutenant governor, and I don’t think either of them is going away.”