Maldonado calls for immigration reform and help for midsize farms

Former lieutenant governor, who is from Santa Maria, talks of his new life

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 6, 2014 

Since turning his focus away from the California governor’s race, former state Sen. Abel Maldonado has been busy helping his daughter start a wine business and working on his family’s ranch, from pulling weeds to cleaning barns.

“It’s hard, manual work, and I feel like a million dollars,” Maldonado said Thursday following one of his first public speaking appearances since dropping his bid for governor in January.

Maldonado, California’s former lieutenant governor and a Santa Maria native, was the keynote speaker at the Western United Dairymen’s annual convention, which continues today in San Luis Obispo.

Relaxed and cheerful, Maldonado fondly recalled his time on the Santa Maria City Council, even as he bemoaned partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

But when asked in an interview whether he would consider another run for office, even on a local level, he echoed comments he gave supporters in mid-January.

“I’m done for now,” he said. “I just need a break.”

The state’s largest dairy trade association has members representing more than 60 percent of the milk produced in the state.

Maldonado, 46, peppered his speech to the group with personal anecdotes, including his foray into local politics 20 years ago after frustrated attempts to build a cooling facility on his farm. A few stories drew laughs and applause, including when Maldonado shared that his 17-year-old son is now drinking a gallon and a half of milk a day.

But his comments also took a serious note, touching on immigration and a loss of the midsize farming operation.

“My time in local government was the best time in my life,” said Maldonado, who also served as Santa Maria’s mayor.

Maldonado, a Republican, chided congressional lawmakers for their inability to gain traction on immigration reform, stressing the need for temporary worker permits.

“It’s embarrassing how they can’t come together on anything,” he said.

He also expressed concern for midsize growers and farmers — a group he sees as shrinking. He would like to focus on helping grow the numbers of midsize farmers, and even expanding those efforts to other industries.

When one convention attendee asked for his opinion of Gov. Jerry Brown, who is running for his fourth term as governor, Maldonado described him in one word: “Clever.”

“He’s very smart, and he knows how to give you just a little to keep you happy,” Maldonado said. “I can say he cares for agriculture, and then he wants to put a bullet train through the Central Valley.”

But deep down, Maldonado said, some Republicans view him as the most conservative Democrat in Sacramento.

Maldonado, meanwhile, has been regarded as a moderate Republican, someone who could cut through party politics and appeal to Latino voters.

Maldonado studied crop science at Cal Poly and helped his family grow a half-acre strawberry farm into a 6,000-acre farm that employs more than 250 people.

He was elected to both houses of the state Legislature and served in the state Senate from 2009 until then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him lieutenant governor to succeed John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress.

Maldonado ran to keep that post in 2010 but failed, and he also lost a campaign for a seat in Congress two years later.

For now, Maldonado has returned to his roots: his ranch, which is in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and his wife and four children. He is helping a daughter start a wine label, Runway Vineyards.

“Right now, I want to be at home,” he said. “I missed a lot.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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