As Gavin Newsom runs for Lieutenant Governor, he would be wise to make the passage of Proposition 25 a central part of his campaign – which ends the “two-thirds rule” for passing a budget. Because there is no better poster child for how Sacramento’s dysfunction has thrown the state off a cliff than Abel Maldonado – Newsom’s Republican opponent. In the last two statewide elections, Californians have had to vote on two propositions that had nothing to do with the budget – but were put on the ballot just to get Maldonado’s vote. One dealt with the salary of legislators, while the other imposed an open primary.
More than any other Sacramento Republican, Maldonado has exploited the state budget to play a game of extortion – pushing stalemates that cost the state millions of dollars every time the budget was late. As Maldonado tries to cast himself as a John McCain “maverick” who can cross party lines, Newsom will have to remind voters why it’s so dangerous to give Republicans like Abel Maldonado too much power.
In February 2009, Sacramento was mired in another budget emergency – the state had lost billions of dollars in revenue, and something had to be done right away. Democrats had expanded their majorities in the 2008 election to control 63% of the state legislature, but the “two-thirds rule” required some Republican votes. And every single Republican had cast a vote in blood – vowing never to support a single tax increase whatsoever.
Republicans have been playing this game in Sacramento for a decade, but now we were in crisis mode – and there was simply no excuse left to be quoting Ayn Rand. Arnold called for a May special election – and Democrats were left working with the Governor to craft a deeply compromised, ugly budget solution that made progressives unhappy.
In the State Senate, it came down to one vote – Abel Maldonado, a Latino Republican from the Central Coast, who had cultivated a “moderate” image throughout the years to get re-elected in a district that Obama won by 20 points. He would not co-operate, until the legislature agreed to put two propositions to his liking that were not about the budget.
The first one, Proposition 1F, was put on the May 19th ballot – and said state legislators cannot get pay raises when the budget has a deficit (i.e., always.) While it technically was a “budget” measure, the fiscal impact was miniscule – far outweighed by the cost of calling a special election. It was really about Abel Maldonado wanting to grandstand.
The second one, Proposition 14, was put on the June 2010 ballot – and really had nothing to do with the budget. The “open primary” would up-end California’s primary election system – and just have the top two finishers to advance to a November general election.
Why did Maldonado want this? Because in 2006, he had lost the Republican primary for State Controller to a more right-wing opponent – and surmised that open primaries would allow “centrists” to win primaries. The facts are a bit more complicated than that. As a Latino, Maldonado feared he would lose Republican primaries because he’s not white.
The state legislature went along with Maldonado’s requests, because they had no choice. California has a two-thirds requirement to pass the budget, and ignoring the tantrum of an attention-grabbing opportunist would mean no budget passed – and fiscal Armaggedon.
In a strongly worded editorial, the Los Angeles Times criticized Maldonado for holding the budget hostage – putting politics above what’s right for California. Even if one could support the policy merits behind his eleventh-hour demands, this was not the way to do it.
“Maldonado’s demands began to look suspiciously like his next campaign for [statewide office] rather than a moral stance for centrist pragmatism,” said the L.A. Times in its editorial. “Here’s one not-very-promising campaign slogan: ‘I demanded reform. They wouldn’t give it to me, so I sent your state over the cliff.’”
These crass opportune moments – and February 2009 was only the most recent example – have left a sour taste in the mouth of Maldonado’s colleagues. Nine months later, when Schwarzenegger nominated Maldonado for the vacant position of Lieutenant Governor, the State Senate balked. Legislators in both parties asked – why should we reward bad behavior?
Granted, the voters ended up passing both of Maldonado’s ballot measures. But it was reckless and irresponsible to inject them in budget negotiations, especially when the state was losing millions of dollars – each day that the budget did not pass on time.
None of Maldonado’s demands could have been possible with Prop 25 – which brings a little piece of sanity to state government, by allowing a majority-vote budget. California elects Democrats to run the state legislature, but none of that matters if the minority party refuses to budge – and individuals like Abel Maldonado insist on passing rotten deals.
If progressives play their cards right, they can pass Prop 25 and defeat Maldonado this November. Newsom will need the “Yes on 25” campaign, and they will need him.
Make no mistake about it – Maldonado will be hard to beat. Although Newsom has a nine-point lead in the latest Field poll, much of that lead can be attributed to higher name recognition.
In fact, the poll showed Newsom has higher unfavorable numbers (41%) than favorables (26%) – which is not a good place to be for a candidate. As more voters tune in between now and November, expect the race to get closer. Maldonado is not well known, but as a Latino from Southern California has more space to grow demographically than Newsom.
Newsom’s hope in this race is to define Maldonado to voters – before they start hearing about him as a “moderate” Republican. And the race is going to get brutal about how voters perceive Gavin Newsom. Maldonado has already slammed him for his wife’s holdings in BP, and rumor has it the Prop 8 consultants plan to recycle some material.
Democrats must act fast to expose Maldonado as a poster child for why we need Prop 25.
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