Editorial: Maldonado can weather lieutenant governorship

If you believe the buzz, state Sen. Abel Maldonado is almost certain to be the governor’s pick for California’s second-in-command.

Good for him — or is it?

Do we offer Maldonado our congratulations, or our sympathy?

On the plus side, the lieutenant governorship is a statewide office, and that’s a logical next step for the soon-to-be termed-out Republican senator from Santa Maria.

But this particular office is — how to put this politely? — short on political clout, and it’s not guaranteed to bring lasting political fame. If you doubt that, try to name as many former California lieutenant governors as you can. (We did a quick poll here at The Tribune office, and out of the five or six people we queried, we got only two names — John Garamendi and Cruz Bustamante.)

So if Maldonado is looking for a stepping stone to a higher office — governor, for instance — this isn’t necessarily the rock to choose.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the early days of California, lieutenant governors often went on to become governors. Over the past 50 or so years, however, the only lieutenant governor who ultimately claimed the top spot was Gray Davis, and we know how that ended.

To be fair, though, lieutenant governors have gone on to win other major offices. The most recent example is Garamendi himself. He won a congressional seat, creating the vacancy that’s now fueling so much speculation over who will succeed him.

Maldonado’s name is at the top of many lists for one main reason: The governor owes him.

More than once, Maldonado has suffered the wrath of his Republican colleagues for crossing party lines to vote with Democrats on issues near and dear to the governor, particularly the budget.

That could earn Maldonado a nod from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though securing the appointment is just the first step. It then must be approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly.

Maldonado could have an edge there as well. Democrats are expected to approve a Maldonado appointment because they have something to gain — namely, the 15th District Senate seat.

Maldonado’s coastal district — which stretches from his home city of Santa Maria all the way to Santa Clara County — has a 6 percent Democratic majority.

Democrats feel confident that they could win the seat in a special election.

Still, it’s not a slam dunk. In 2004 — not so terribly long ago — Maldonado beat Democrat Peg Pinard by nearly 10 percentage points, even though the district had 7,500 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

So don’t count out a Republican winning that seat.

And don’t count out a Lt. Gov. Maldonado eventually moving on to higher office.

If he was able to survive the condemnation of his Republican colleagues, chances are he’ll be able to survive the obscurity of a lieutenant governorship.

And for that, congratulations are in order.