Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today said he would appoint Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado to fill the vacant lieutenant governor's job, perhaps setting off a partisan squabble over his confirmation.
Maldonado, the 42-year-old from Santa Maria who represents the Central Coast in the upper house, has been one of the few GOP allies the Republican governor has in the Legislature. He provided a key vote this year to help Democrats and Schwarzenegger push through tax increases and a budget plan over the objections of most Republican lawmakers.
His appointment to the slot left open by the election of Democrat John Garamendi to Congress earlier this month sets up a potentially difficult confirmation fight in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Under the constitution, lawmakers have 90 days to act on Maldonado's appointment. If either the Assembly or the Senate rejects him on a majority vote, he will remain in the Senate and the governor would have the option of finding a new nominee or leaving the job vacant. If the two houses approve Maldonado on a majority vote - or fail to act within 90 days - he would fufill the final year of Garamendi's term.
Democrats may object to Schwarzenegger appointing a Republican to a job a Democrat was elected to perform. Moreover, two Republicans and one Democrat in the Senate are planning to run for lieutenant governor next year and may be unwilling to confirm someone who then could run against them as the incumbent.
On the other hand, Democrats believe they can win the Central Coast Senate seat left open by elevating Maldonado to the lieutenant governor's job. If they did win the seat, Democrats would have 26 votes in the upper house, one shy of a two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes, approve the budget bill or override vetoes.
Maldonado acknowledged in February that that "some people are probably going to lynch me" after he cut a deal with Schwarzengger and Democrats that led to a tax increase.
To secure Maldonado's vote, lawmakers reluctantly agreed to place on the June 2010 ballot a constitutional amendment to create open primaries in state elections, a potential boost to moderates such as Maldonado.
Maldonado also pushed successfully for a restructuring of the budget's tax package - including elimination of a proposed 12-cent gas take hike - and for a ballot measure to ban legislative raises in years when the state is in deficit.
It wasn't the first time Maldonado has found himself outside the Republican embrace he enjoyed when his legislative career began 11 years ago.
A family farmer and former mayor of Santa Maria, Maldonado came to Sacramento as an assemblyman in 1998 amid much promise - a Latino Republican, the son of an immigrant who came to the United States a year before Maldonado was born.
In 2000, Maldonado, who was then 32, related his story to the Republican National Convention in Spanish - a first for the GOP - telling the national television audience, "Que viva el Gobernador George W. Bush" - long live Gov. George W. Bush.
He moved to the Senate in 2004 in the redrawn, more competitive 15th Senate District and defeated his Democratic opponent by 10 percentage points.
Maldonado championed Schwarzenegger's minimum-wage increase in 2006, despite opposition from GOP stalwarts in the business and farming communities.
But when he challenged conservative ex-lawmaker Tony Strickland in the Republican primary for state controller in 2006, the popular governor stayed on the sidelines, and Maldonado lost.
"Our governor cares about one thing only, and that's Arnold Schwarzenegger," a shattered Maldonado told the Los Angeles Times after the election that year. "I kind of felt like I got left holding the bag. ... When he needs Latinos, Latinos are always there for him. When Latinos need him, the answer's been 'no.'"
He later apologized and recanted the comments.