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Sacramento Update: Abel Maldonado Confirmed, Race For Governor

Sacramento Update: Abel Maldonado Confirmed, Race For Governor
Second time is the charm for Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado. After months of delays, the state Senate finally confirmed Maldonado to fill the vacant post of lieutenant governor for the remainder of the year. We speak to John Myers about the politics behind Maldonado's nomination, and about the latest news on the governor's race.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Critics say it’s politics, not policy, that dictates what lawmakers do in Sacramento. And that seems to be most especially true in this big election year. The political maneuvers going on to boost partisan majorities, and to win elections is hard to keep up with. Fortunately, my guest is tracking it every step of the way. I’d like to welcome John Myers, Sacramento bureau chief for "The California Report." John, good morning.

JOHN MYERS (Sacramento Bureau Chief, The California Report): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now let’s start by talking about the saga of Abel Maldonado. Republican Senator Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria will be sworn in today to fill California’s vacant lieutenant governor’s position. This nomination took a long time to be confirmed. John, give us the background on the Maldonado confirmation.

MYERS: Yeah, you’re right. The governor originally appointed Senator Maldonado to fill the expired – the remaining term of John Garamendi who was elected to Congress last year. So he appointed Maldonado several months ago and the nomination languished for a while up here in the capital. The first go around in February, folks will remember that the State Assembly (sic) said yes to him becoming lieutenant governor, the Assembly said, ehh, not so much. Actually, as a matter of fact, we were in kind of limbo in the Assembly because we had to figure out what constituted a rejection of the nomination or not. But the governor renominated Maldonado and finally yesterday all the hurdles were cleared, the State Senate reconfirmed him, the Assembly had done it last week, so Maldonado becomes lieutenant governor today. The governor will swear him in later today. And, really, you know, Maureen, you alluded to this in your introduction, it’s politics that really played a role that was happening here. And here’s really the key issue. The Assembly had to make a determination about Maldonado, you know, whether they wanted him based on a calendar that is all about Maldonado’s State Senate seat.


MYERS: Now his State Senate seat goes all the way to San Jose. It’s from the Central Coast up to San Jose. Democrats badly want that seat to be for a D and not an R, which Maldonado’s a Republican. So the delay was all about giving the best chance to pick up the seat. When they confirm him at the end of April, the election calendar works in a way that a special election runoff in that district would now happen on November second, which it just happens to be the general election statewide. They think more Democrats will turn out, they think they’ve got a better shot. So, really, this was all about delaying the Maldonado confirmation until they got the election calendar to work so that a Democrat—they hope—will become a State Senator there, which gets them closer to that magic two-thirds majority in the State Senate.

CAVANAUGH: And just to be clear, if they had confirmed Maldonado, let’s say, last week, then the special election to fill his seat would’ve taken place before the general election, making it, the Democrats think, less likely that a Democrat might be elected to that seat.

MYERS: Yeah, this is all about turnout because, you know, in special elections – There are two kinds of elections in California where turnout is not so hot. One’s a special election in a particular legislative race, and the other one is a primary election. And so the calendar would’ve worked in such a way that when you get a low turnout like that, Democrats believe Democrats stay home, Republicans are more faithful voters and they may not have won the seat. So, yes, now they get to have a runoff election and it’s probably going to be a runoff because it’s hard for anybody to get a majority in these special elections anyway. But a runoff election would be in November. The Democrats think they can pick up that seat. And, really, and Maldonado, I think, knew this. This was all what this was about at a certain point here, making that calendar work, all internal politics. But Maldonado gets the job and now he becomes the incumbent lieutenant governor.

CAVANAUGH: What exactly, John, does the lieutenant governor do?

MYERS: Well, you know, the joke is that the lieutenant governor gets up every morning, makes sure the governor’s still alive and then goes back to bed. But the lieutenant governor does have a few other roles. I mean, it is – and it is one of those debated issues as to whether we need a lieutenant governor in California. But the lieutenant governor serves as the Chairman of the Commission on Economic Development, and that’s what Maldonado says he’s going to focus on in trying to find ways to bring jobs back to the state, some kind of stimulus to the economy but the lieutenant governor also sits on the UC Board of Regents, on the CSU Board of Trustees and in also somewhat an obscure seat that the lieutenant governor has, which won’t be obscure this time perhaps, is the lieutenant governor is a member of the State Lands Commission. And the State Lands Commission currently is going to have to keep dealing with a controversial project for new offshore oil drilling off the coast of northern Santa Barbara County. It’s a limited project in state waters, the Lands Commission has to approve that. In 2009, the Lands Commission rejected it and Garamendi was the deciding no vote, so Maldonado now becomes the deciding yes vote. He says he’s not for the project but a lot of folks wonder, you know, as a Republican who might be a moderate who might be looking for somewhere in the middle, would he consider voting yes for it. So those are really what Maldonado’s going to be spending his time on. The question is really we don’t know how long Maldonado’s going to be lieutenant governor.


MYERS: He’s only guaranteed right now to be lieutenant governor until January because that’s the end of the term that he’s filling.

CAVANAUGH: Now, but he is up – the lieutenant governor, of course, that position is up for reelection so who is running in opposition?

MYERS: Well, he’s actually on the ballot to get a full four-year term…


MYERS: …so he’ll be on the ballot on June 8th in the primary. He’s running against a State Senator from Northern California named Sam Aanestad, who’s a Republican, for that primary race. Now most people think that Maldonado is not only the frontrunner but is likely to get it. Not only is he incumbent, he’s got tremendous name ID at this point now by being lieutenant governor, and he’s raising a lot of money. Whether he wins in a general election remains to be seen. The two Democrats vying for lieutenant governor are Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, who has huge national name ID…


MYERS: …after all the things that have been going on there. And Janice Hahn, who’s a city councilwoman in Los Angeles. It’s hard to see who’s going to win that race right now. I think most people think Newsom has the edge. But, again, Maldonado being the incumbent still is going to have trouble, because he’s a Republican, come November and, you know, this is a plurality Democratic state. So it’ll be fascinating to watch how that all plays out.

CAVANAUGH: Now I just want to get in before we have to take a break, John, you wrote a blog post late last week about the state’s projected tax revenue for this month, for the month of April. So how’s the state looking? Will we meet our revenue projections for this month?

MYERS: I think it’s really, really hard for us to meet those, Maureen. I mean, we needed – in the five business days of this week, we needed 5 billion bucks to come in, almost half of what we thought was going to come in in April. That’s how bad revenue projections have been compared to what we’re really getting. I think that’s going to be very difficult to do, in which case the state is going to be looking at even a larger problem than the $20 billion problem we were talking about back in January.

CAVANAUGH: So it actually might add a few billion to this deficit that we’re looking at?

MYERS: It’s possible. I mean, once the final numbers are in, we really will kind of, you know, get a better picture of this. And we were a little ahead of projections going into April but April is a crucial month. Something like 17% of the entire year’s tax revenues come in in April when everybody files their taxes.


MYERS: And we were really low by yesterday.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, we have to take a short break. When we return, I’ll continue to talk with John Myers, and we’ll be talking about the fact that John is going to be moderating a big debate this Sunday. You are listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re talking about state politics. My guest is John Myers, Sacramento bureau chief for “The California Report.” And, John, this Sunday night you’re going to be moderating a debate of the Republican candidates for California governor. So how many candidates will participate and what are the key issues you plan to discuss?

MYERS: It should be interesting. There’ll be two candidates and those are the two that people are hearing a lot about right now, Republican Steve Poizner, who’s the state’s insurance commissioner and was a former entrepreneur in Silicon Valley before that, and Meg Whitman who was the former eBay CEO and making her first race for elected office. And so the debate is being held in San Jose at the Tech Museum there, which is actually kind of the stomping grounds of both of these candidates. And it’s these two candidates. I’m the moderator, and that should be fun. But really the real role is going to be a panel of five political reporters who are going to ask most of the questions. I get to ask the first question…


MYERS: …so I’m still freaking out what that’s going to be. But, you know, I think that the issues that we’ll probably be talking about are really the issues I think both that have been talked about a lot in this race but also the issues that are key to voters. We have to remember that that’s really important, you know, that the race has been a lot about who is conservative enough or who’s the most conservative to fit the core values of the Republican Party. So we’ve talked a lot in these television commercials about illegal immigration, about flip-flopping on taxes and things like that. And those are going to come up. I mean, I don’t think that’s surprising. But I think that the voters also want to know, what’s this candidate’s plan to solve this massive budget problem? How do you resolve the political fighting at the state capitol in Sacramento? And so, you know, those kinds of things, I think voters – this’ll be their last chance to hear these two before the June 8th primary. And it is only these two. There are actually 8 Republicans on the ballot. I didn’t pick this, by the way. That’s my full disclaimer. The debate is being sponsored by Comcast and some other cable folks.


MYERS: But these are the top two candidates and we’ll get to see what they say.

CAVANAUGH: I want our listeners to know that we will be airing the Republican gubernatorial debate live right here on KPBS Radio at 5:00 on Sunday, that’s May 2nd. And we’ll be re-airing the debate the Monday following on These Days in the ten o’clock hour. I’m wondering, John, how is this race shaping up in the polls so far? What are the numbers telling us?

MYERS: Well, the numbers, if you believe those, say that this really isn’t a race much anymore. I mean, the numbers of the last few weeks have shown that Meg Whitman has had a substantial lead over Steve Poizner. In one poll it got even to 50 points. And, I mean, that’s effectively a blow out.


MYERS: The latest polling, both a little bit of public polling and all the internal polling, private polling that I’ve heard from different sources shows that the race has tightened somewhat and that Whitman’s lead may only be 25 points now. And so the Poizner people say, well, that’s the right direction. You know, we’re starting to resonate with our TV ads and our message. But I think the real challenge for the Poizner camp at this point is the calendar. They only have so much time left. Don’t even think about June eighth being the date that they have to convince voters by. Remember that we’re about to start absentee voting in California very soon. Absentee voting has become bigger and bigger and bigger. People like to vote by mail. And Republican voters like to vote by mail more than any subset. In which case, if you’re a Republican running in a Republican primary, you need to make your case very soon to turn those voters before they start putting those ballots back in the mailbox.

CAVANAUGH: You know, speaking of numbers, John, both candidates seem to be sinking a lot of money into this campaign, from the TV ads that you mentioned alone. We’ve seen so much of that. Any numbers on how much is being spent?

MYERS: Well, Whitman is breaking all records. She has already spent $60 million of her own money on this campaign. She has said that the campaign may cost $150 million by the time that the general election comes in November. That easily would be the record for California. It’ll actually probably be a national record for anything short of presidency, which, of course, is even larger than that. Poizner has spent a lot of his own money, too. Somewhere around in the $20 million range. They’re both independently wealthy. Whitman, though, is a billionaire, according to Forbes magazine, so she really has unlimited resources. And I think, you know, one of the things – it’s not happening in the Republican primary but a lot of political reporters are watching to see as this shifts to a general election, if Whitman does win the primary—and most people think she’s going to at this point—as it shifts to a general election, does that money and all that money being spent and all that personal wealth become part of the narrative. Especially if you’re Jerry Brown, you’re the presumptive Democratic nominee…


MYERS: …about someone trying to buy the election.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Now the primary race, as you mentioned, between Poizner-Whitman is really rather contentious and a lot of it seems to hang on who’s telling the truth, who’s the most conservative, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wondering, what are the chances the GOP is going to be able to reunite around one of these candidates toward the November election after this really rather rough and tumble primary?

MYERS: Well, I think it’s a great question. And, you know, the last days of this primary will really, I think, drive a lot of the answer to that question about, you know, how contentious does it get? How many feelings are hurt after a primary that have to be kind of patched over? I will tell you that I think a lot of observers of California politics think that the campaign that Steve Poizner is running, where he’s really pushing very hard on issues of illegal immigration, he’s even pushing further on some of the – being against some of the immigration reform ideas out there. He’s pushing further than even Republicans or conservatives who have been polled say they’re willing to go. And I think there is a fair amount of speculation that should Poizner pull off the upset and win the Republican primary, could he tack back to the political center enough to win a general election? Because this is still a plurality Democratic state, Latinos are a huge voting force. If it seems as though he’s going too far on these immigration issues and being too putative in one of the things that he wants to do, would that hurt him in a general election? And, frankly, does any of this hurt Whitman because she has to answer a lot of this during the campaign with Poizner. So I think illegal immigration is really that issue that could be the real question mark here about how far we go in the Republican primary and what it means comes November.

CAVANAUGH: Now we haven’t heard too much from Democrat Jerry Brown. Do you think his strategy right now is just to wait and watch?

MYERS: Lay low, that is the Jerry Brown strategy right now. He doesn’t have the money. He can’t compete on the financial resources of Whitman or Poizner. He’s having to raise his money from donors and so – and I think he would like the two of these candidates to beat each other up a little bit. He’s in no hurry. I mean, you know, what’s interesting is that there are other Democrats running for governor but none of them have organized – major organized campaigns, have raised much money and so Brown is the presumptive Democratic nominee. And it probably behooves him to wait, to start this general election campaign as long as possible. But you are starting to get a taste of what Jerry Brown thinks he’s going to talk about, especially if Meg Whitman is his challenger, and that’s corporate excess, corporate greed, Wall Street. Meg Whitman actually was on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs at one point. He would like to talk about that given how Goldman Sachs has been in the national headlines. You know, I think Jerry Brown is really, you know, poised to run a real populist campaign about people being angry about the excesses of corporate America. Whether that sticks to someone who was the CEO of eBay remains to be seen.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the Republican debate is up first and we’re anxious to hear it. Good luck to you, John. I hope it goes well for you on Sunday.

MYERS: Thanks. It should be fun.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I think so. And, again, we’ll be airing that Republican gubernatorial debate at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday and re-airing the debate on next Monday on These Days in the ten o’clock hour. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.