Los Gatos Rep. Enjoying Spotlight

"He caved. He didn't win a compromise. He raised taxes instead of reining in taxes."

Just last summer, state Sen. Abel Maldonado took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota and used his time in the spotlight to denounce tax increases.

Maldonado is based in Santa Maria, but in one of the most bizarre districts in the state, he also represents the town of Los Gatos.

On Thursday, he cast the decisive vote as the California Legislature approved a package of bills designed to close the state's $42 billion budget deficit. That included nearly $13 billion in tax increases -- to the state sales tax, personal income tax and vehicle license fee.

"He caved. He didn't win a compromise. He raised taxes instead of reining in taxes," said Norquist, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform.

Maldonado, the son of immigrant farm laborers, has made no secret of his aspirations for statewide office. His family grows strawberries, broccoli and lettuce on their 6,000-acre farm in Santa Barbara County, but Maldonado has been drawn more to elective office than the fields.

Defending his vote on the Senate floor, Maldonado tried to deflect conservative venom by displaying a photograph from 1972 -- of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan during the signing of a bill to increase taxes.

He also was able to force Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to remove a 12-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax and authorize a ballot measure asking voters to freeze lawmakers' salaries when the state runs a deficit.

"If we're going to take from the people of California, then we got to give something back," he said Thursday morning after the Senate approved the package of bills. "I think the people of California are better off with this budget. It's a hard budget."

He will get to find out relatively soon whether his vote -- and the concessions he received in exchange -- will help his political career or end it.

Among Maldonado's demands was getting a measure on the June 2010 ballot that would create fully open primary elections, a system that could help middle-of-the-road candidates. Moderates such as Maldonado often have trouble winning primary elections because the process is dominated by hard-core liberals and conservatives.

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, who has been lobbying lawmakers around the country to sign a no-taxes pledge, said the potential reforms Maldonado received in exchange for his vote won't help him with voters -- especially after he signed the pledge and then backed away.

He won his first election, to the Santa Maria City Council, at age 26 and was elected mayor two years later. He came to the state Assembly in 1998 and won elections to his Senate seat in 2004 and 2008.

While he desires higher office, his moderate positions put him at odds with most GOP primary voters. Maldonado, 41, lost the 2006 primary for state controller to a more conservative Republican, who in turn lost to Democrat John Chiang.

He said he hopes voters support an open-primary, which would allow the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, to face off in the general election.

But the open primary question won't be decided for another year and would not affect congressional and state races until 2012. Maldonado is termed out of the Senate in 2012, leading into what could be the first open primary in 2014, when statewide positions such as governor, treasurer or controller will be on the ballot.

Maldonado gained name recognition and substantive concessions during the budget impasse, but it may have come at too high a price, said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, an independent nonpartisan think tank.

"Any Republican who voted for a tax increase is an endangered species," Stern said. "I would not bet on him."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us