Maldonado’s pick for lieutenant governor has Blakeslee, others eying senate seat

The governor’s pick of Abel Maldonado as the new lieutenant governor won’t win easy confirmation in the Legislature. But already a handful along the Central Coast are eying his senate job.

Former state Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz and current Assemblyman Bill Monning of Carmel, both Democrats, say they would consider running for Maldonado’s seat. On the Republican side, Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo has expressed interest.

At stake in replacing Maldonado, a two-term Republican from Santa Maria, is not just who represents a district that sprawls across five counties between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, but the balance of power in the state Senate.

"Democrats see an opportunity here to pick up the 15th District which gets them within one vote of picking up that very important seat that decides everything from budgets to taxes," said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University.

Winning the pivotal two-thirds of seats in the Senate would essentially allow Democrats to overcome Republican opposition to new fees or tax hikes in that house. The issue will be central in the coming year as the state’s budget gap is expected to balloon, again, to $21 billion.

The 15th District also remains one of few that is competitive for both parties, meaning Democrats have a chance of picking up a seat. Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters 41 percent to 35 percent in the district, up from the one-point advantage they enjoyed when Maldonado won office against Democrat Peg Pinard of San Luis Obispo in 2004.

Laird, who was termed out of the Assembly last year and now sits on the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board, said more Democratic seats in the Senate would make state budget matters slightly less difficult to tackle.

"It’s not going to be easy either way, but at least there wouldn’t be the ideological rigidity that has kept people from coming to compromises," he said.

Laird and other Democrats hope to pick up a second Senate seat in the nearby 12th District where Republican Jeff Denham is termed out and Democratic registration there has also risen — now 15 percent above Republican registration.

While Laird said it was too early to decide on a Senate run, he said he would consider it should Maldonado become lieutenant governor. His bid would require him to move from his current home on Santa Cruz’s Westside, since he now lives in Sen. Joe Simitian’s district, to nearby Scotts Valley or points south, something Laird said he is willing to do.

"I represented a significant amount of that district when I was in the Assembly: Santa Cruz County, Santa Clara County, Monterey County," he said.

Monning, who replaced Laird in the Assembly last year, said Tuesday he would also weigh a run for the Senate.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Blakeslee, considered the Republican front-runner for Maldonado’s seat, has already raised more than a quarter million dollars to seek that office in 2012, according to filings with the Secretary of State. Blakeslee’s office, reached by phone Tuesday, declined to comment.

A replacement for Maldonado would last the duration of his current term through 2011, at which time the district is likely to shift geographically as state officials redraw the legislative districts.

Maldonado’s approval for lieutenant governor, succeeding John Garamendi who was elected to Congress, however, remains anything but certain. His appointment is subject to majority approval in the Senate and Assembly, and both legislative Democrats and Republicans have reservations.

At least two Republican senators are planning to run for lieutenant governor in 2012, and their bids would be complicated if they had to face a Republican incumbent. Additionally, some Republicans remain displeased with Maldonado’s support for a Democratic-led tax hike during this year’s budget hearings.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have voiced concern about filling the lieutenant governor post, given the $2 million cost of holding a special election for the senate seat, not to mention filling the post with a Republican.

"There’s a bit of trade-off here for Democrats: giving up the lieutenant governor position, for what might be control of the state Senate," said Gerston from San Jose State.

Gerston said the Senate seat probably is a better bet politically for Democrats. The lieutenant governor, whose biggest responsibility is replacing the governor in the event that he can no longer serve, has only assumed the governor’s seat seven times in state history.

"But imagine probable Democratic candidate Jerry Brown is the governor at 72 years old. It’s not too much of a stretch to conceive of the lieutenant governor moving up," Gerston added.

Maldonado said Tuesday he is honored to get Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nomination, which was announced on the "Jay Leno Show" on Monday.

The 42-year-old Latino and longtime ally of the governor said he wasn’t discouraged by reservations held by others in the Legislature about his suitability for the job. He said he planned to seek the support of Democrats, namely the Senate majority leader, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who expressed "grave doubts" Tuesday about the appointment.

"I’m going to discuss the nomination with Sen. Steinberg," Maldonado said. "He hasn’t talked with me about the office yet."