Governor Schwarzenegger could appoint Abel Maldonado as his No. 2

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has complained that he doesn’t get to pick his own lieutenant governor, a position he thinks should be more first mate than political detractor — if it must exist at all.

He could soon get his wish.

If Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi wins a special congressional election Tuesday in the Democrat-leaning 10th Congressional District, Schwarzenegger has the power to appoint Garamendi’s replacement.

The Republican governor has not tipped his hand. He has the option of choosing a caretaker who will serve out Garamendi’s last year. Or he could use the appointment to reward a Republican legislator for working on his behalf in recent years.

"Everything the governor does should send a message," said Steve Merksamer, chief of staff to former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. "The message that should be sent here is, ’If you stood with me in the past, I’m standing here for you today.’ He should choose someone who reflects his policies and priorities and has a demonstrable record of doing that."

Political consultants have thrown out several names as possibilities. Chief among them has been state Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria who provided a crucial budget vote in February and who often advocates on the governor’s behalf.

Another possibility is Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis, who was replaced as Assembly Republican leader this spring after striking a tax-hike budget compromise with Schwarzenegger and Democrats. For the same reason, some have mentioned ousted Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto as a possible pick.

But there’s a catch: Any nominee must avoid rejection by majorities in the Senate and Assembly, which means Democrats have a huge say. In 1989, for instance, now-Rep. Dan Lungren made it through the Assembly as Deukmejian’s nominee for state treasurer but couldn’t get past Senate Democrats.

Republican consultant Matt Rexroad said he doesn’t see how the Democrats will confirm anyone but a caretaker nominee who promises not to seek election in next year’s June primary for lieutenant governor.

"Senator Maldonado would be Lieutenant Governor Maldonado seeking re-election, and that is what the Democrats don’t want," Rexroad said. "They don’t want to give anyone the advantage of having a ballot title."

Rexroad also suggested it would be unlikely for the two former GOP leaders to accept the nomination since Villines is running for insurance commissioner next year and Cogdill has the opportunity to stay in the Senate until 2014.

Complicating matters further, four senators not named Maldonado are expected to run for lieutenant governor in 2010 — Democrats Dean Florez of Shafter and Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, and Republicans Sam Aanestad of Penn Valley and Jeff Denham of Merced.

Rexroad suggested that each senator would lobby their caucuses to reject any nominee who would want to retain the office.

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said, "I believe it would be appropriate to appoint and confirm someone highly qualified and who will fill the term until the voters have a chance to decide."

The lieutenant governor, who earns $159,134 annually, serves as the state’s acting leader whenever the governor leaves the state, as Schwarzenegger has done for all or part of 304 days before this week’s trip to Washington, D.C. He or she also serves as the president of the state Senate in name and has the power to cast a tiebreaking vote if necessary.

The lieutenant governor also serves on the University of California Board of Regents and the California State University Board of Trustees, as well as the State Lands Commission and other panels. In the case of the Lands Commission, Garamendi cast a decisive vote against an offshore oil drilling plan backed by Schwarzenegger this year.

In February, Schwarzenegger slashed Garamendi’s budget from $2.8 million to roughly $1 million. The governor has not hidden his distaste for the lieutenant governor post, telling the Los Angeles Times in February that it was "absolutely ludicrous" that he does not get to pick a running mate.

In fact, when Schwarzenegger cut Garamendi’s budget, Finance Director Mike Genest said, "The lieutenant governor’s duties just really are a lower priority."

Downplaying any personal interest, Florez said that given Schwarzenegger’s posture, the governor should leave California without a lieutenant governor to save money. Florez noted that the Senate president pro tem — Steinberg — would serve as acting governor under the line of succession in state law.

The Legislature could take up to 90 days after the regular session resumes in January to confirm a Schwarzenegger nomination.

"The governor is the one who cut the lieutenant governor’s office by two-thirds and called it basically a meaningless office," said Florez. "Given that you would only have eight months (until the election) and we’re trying to save money, the prudent thing to do would be to let it remain vacant."

But there’s another twist: Senate Democrats may have great incentive to cut a deal with Schwarzenegger to confirm Maldonado, said Tony Quinn, a former GOP legislative aide and editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps political races.

A Maldonado appointment would cause a special election for the 15th Senate District, a seat that would not otherwise open until 2012. Democrats now hold a six-point registration advantage there, and President Barack Obama won the district by 20 points. If Democrats think they can win it, they would pick up a 26th seat next year, one shy of a two-thirds majority.

Rexroad said it would be a hard-fought race, "certainly not a slam-dunk for Democrats." But Quinn said, "If they think it through, it could be an important factor because it’s an excellent opportunity to pick up 26."

It’s always possible Schwarzenegger could nominate a Democrat, but that has the potential to completely alienate legislative Republicans in his final year.

Finally, there’s the chance that Schwarzenegger would nominate a surefire caretaker, someone with no interest in running again in 2010. Some suggest that former Democratic Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a lawyer and co-chairman of the government reform group California Forward, would fit that description.

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said he thinks Schwarzenegger would nominate a Republican, but perhaps someone who doesn’t ruffle feathers."I think if I were him, I would avoid controversy and appoint somebody not only not in the Legislature but somebody who didn’t have political ambitions to run for the seat," Carrick said.

"I just don’t think you get anything out of seemingly making a political opportunity out of this."