California's Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado says he was just doing his job last week when the governor left town and he was charged with running the state. But the former state senator who represented Santa Cruz County may have also won an edge in his bid for re-election against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
The 42-year-old Republican and the state's second-in-command garnered international attention when CNN crews filmed him helping families who lost their homes in the San Bruno pipeline blast. He made headlines for signing legislation that gave money to schools and returned taxes to residents of the city of Bell. And he garnered press for fending off Proposition 8 supporters who insisted he stand up to gay marriage.
"Lieutenant governors donÕt get many opportunities to get press attention, and Maldonado got some," said Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "The exposure has probably helped raise his profile."
But the recently confirmed lieutenant governor, who trails Newsom in most polls, was also on the receiving end of charges of grandstanding during his six days as acting governor. Democrats were quick to accuse him of using his short-term responsibilities for political gain, allegations that Maldonado dismissed.
"I was surprised to hear this," Maldonado said Friday, reflecting on his week. "It's something that I don't feel like I even need to respond to."On the evening of Sept. 9, just hours after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger left California for a trade mission in Asia, Maldonado was making a solo trip in his Twin Cessna plane from the Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles to Oakland to be on the scene of the emerging San Bruno disaster."IÕm very hands-on when it comes to stuff like that," Maldonado said.
"The first-responders were happy to see me there. You'd be surprised how many 'thank you's' I got."
As acting governor, Maldonado declared a state of emergency in San Mateo County and marshaled money and resources to the scene. He also found his way into plenty of press conferences and media reports, something that drew concern from Democrats.
"Instead of capitalizing on tragedy for his own political gain, Maldonado might consider spending his time in Sacramento encouraging his Republican colleagues who helped create the budget mess to work toward constructive solutions that don't involve cutting education and other desperately needed services," wrote John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, in a prepared statement.
Maldonado said Friday the criticism was unwarranted. He charged Burton, the former president pro tempore of the state Senate, with doing the bidding of his opponent in the lieutenant governor's race.
"Of all the years I've known the pro tempore, I never thought he'd be Gavin Newsom's mouthpiece," Maldonado said. "It's so political of him. He should have been focused on helping me get resources to San Bruno and stopped criticizing me."
Newsom's campaign declined to comment on the issue.
Criticism of Maldonado didn't just come from the left. Before last week's deadline for the state to appeal a federal court decision striking down Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban, backers of the measure lobbied the lieutenant governor to come to their defense, which he didn't do, drawing ire from the right.
While Maldonado supports Proposition 8, he says he didn't want to be distracted from the pipeline fires and felt like he was being inappropriately pressured.
At one point last week, his staffers say they asked members of the pro-Proposition 8 Capitol Resource Institute to put requests in writing, instead of calling his office, because they were tying up the phone lines.
"I was dealing with San Bruno and all of a sudden I get bombarded with folks asking me to sign a document," Maldonado said. "When someone calls me and says you must sign this now and fast, it tells me to slow down and make sure everything is right."
Plus, Maldonado says, he knew the governor didn't want to defend Proposition 8 so he wasn't about to overextend his authority.
The week also included Maldonado's signing of Assembly Bill 900, which refunded nearly $3 million to Bell property owners who were overcharged taxes for pension costs. He also signed Senate Bill 847 and Assembly Bill 185, which directed federal money to California education programs.
Baldassare said the San Bruno disaster will remain the action Maldonado is most remembered for during his stint as acting governor.
"It certainly isn't the only thing that will matter, but it helped create some visibility for a role that is otherwise invisible," he said.
With recent polls suggesting Maldonado lacks the recognition of his opponent in November's race, last week's events can only benefit him, observers say.
"What this will ultimately mean for the election, it's hard to tell," Baldassare said.