Garcia: Irrelevant state office just became an interesting race 

In case you were doing something more important last weekend, like breathing or sailing, you may not have noticed that the California Lieutenant Governor’s Office has been vacant for nearly six months.

That should tell you what a vital seat it is in the power-hungry corridors of Sacramento. But it will reveal much about the party politics of California and, by the general election in November, whether being a liberal in a largely Democratic state is actually now a bad thing.

After months of stalling, the state Senate confirmed Abel Maldonado on Monday as the successor to the former lieutenant governor (not that you care, but it was John Garamendi), and the reason for the delay actually gives some hope to Democrats and Republicans to fill a largely forgettable office.

For Democrats, the delay gives them a chance to possibly pick up seats in the Senate while Republicans now believe Maldonado has a better chance of winning the lieutenant governor’s job outright, instead of having it handed to him by a governor who owed Maldonado a political favor.

In what could be a somewhat-crushing blow to their high-brow tendencies, San Franciscans may be forced to pay attention to this ongoing chess match since our mayor, Gavin Newsom, is running for the lieutenant governor’s seat against Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the June primary because the state’s top job proved too elusive and this is what politicians do for a living.

So far, the Democratic race between Newsom and Hahn has spurred all the excitement of a swinging bunt, with both candidates pulling out daily announcements of their latest endorsements, as if voters actually care which Assembly member or numbered labor union is backing them in the campaign.

This battle reached its zenith recently at the Democratic Party Convention in Los Angeles when Hahn went all-out to grab the party’s endorsement, Newsom’s camp worked overtime to block that from happening, and then officials from both parties spent hours spinning reporters on why they achieved victory by not getting anything.

(And it reminds us of the most important aspect of political reporting: We cover this stuff so you don’t have to.)

All that brings us back to Maldonado, before today best known as the Senate Republican who crossed party lines last year to vote for a tax hike supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the evil Democrats, causing conservatives in his party to launch an immediate recall campaign that lasted about a day.

The reason Democrats apparently decided to confirm Maldonado — just months after initially blocking him from the lieutenant governor’s post — is that they stand to pick up two seats in the Senate, one in the 12th District and the other in Maldonado’s 15th District, which runs from San Jose to the coast of Santa Maria.

Helping Maldonado ascend to the open office — but waiting until the last few days to do so — allows Democrats to hold a special election in November, when they believe voters will actually be paying attention.

Oh, and they think one of their own can still beat an incumbent Republican, whether it’s Hahn or Newsom.

Of course, it still begs the question of why California even has a lieutenant governor, since it exists only to fill the governor’s job should that person tire of running an increasingly dysfunctional state. But that hasn’t happened in nearly 60 years, which should tell you that even if both jobs are really awful, politicians will still cling to them for dear life.

Most strategists say Democrats would have an upper hand in a general election, but if Maldonado gets to run as an incumbent, he’ll probably get the backing of even those cranky GOP stalwarts in his own party. And that means money. And that means all bets are off.

So for the sake of both parties, there will be a tough race this year for an office that most people agree should be abolished. It should be noted, however, that Hahn’s slam of Newsom for saying he didn’t know what the lieutenant governor does had zero impact — because no one does.

They don’t do anything. That’s a job worth fighting for.


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Ken Garcia

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