Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Lieutenant Governator?

Just spent a long, late evening covering the special election in the 10th Congressional District, which sprawls across a gerrymandered swath of the East and North Bay Area. Our Lt. Governor, John Garamendi, won the Democratic nomination and Republican businessman-attorney David Harmer won the GOP nod. They'll face off in November, along with three minor-party candidates.

It's a safe seat for the Democrats, who enjoy a 47-29 registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which voted 2-1 for Barack Obama last November. And that sets up an interesting scenario for political junkies to ponder: Who will replace Garamendi as Arnold Schwarzenegger's second-in-command?

The LG is almost certain to win in November. Harmer is an attractive, sincere, thoughtful, articulate man - but he has almost no chance to snatch the seat from any Democrat, let alone someone as well-known and well-versed as Garamendi. Yes, Garamendi can be wooden on the stump - in fact, sometimes he's downright stump-like - wears his political ambitions on his sleeve (he's run for Governor HOW many times?), and flits to the nearest TV camera like a moth strapped to a light-seeking missile. But he really does know the issues better than anyone else, has tremendous experience on a wide range of public policy questions, and is a comfortable fit for the increasingly progressive district.

So it's safe to assume Mr. Garamendi goes to Washington this fall - giving Governor Schwarzenegger the opportunity to appoint his replacement. Under California law, there will be no special election to choose Garamendi's successor. Governors and Lt. Governors are elected separately in California, which is why we have a Republican in the big fancy office and a Democrat in the smaller one down the hall. But if the #2 job becomes vacant, #1 gets to fill it. Both the State Assembly and State Senate have to confirm the governor's choice, with only a simple majority required.

So whom does Arnold pick to serve the remainder of Garamendi's term, which runs through January 2011?

We have to assume he will nominate a Republican. Schwarzenegger remains one, although some in his party would say it's in name only. Under normal circumstances, legislative Democrats might be willing to confirm any reasonable choice (read: not a fire-breathing right-winger). But the circumstances aren't exactly normal, for a few reasons.

First off, we have a major statewide election next year. Might Schwarzenegger give one of the three Republicans running to succeed him a huge boost by elevating him (or her) to the Lieutenant Governorship? How about Tom Campbell, the governor's former finance director, not to mention ex-Congressman, State Senator, Stanford law professor and Cal business school dean? What about Meg Whitman, the ex-eBay CEO and frontrunning Republican gubernatorial candidate? Not likely for Whitman, although Campbell's an intriguing choice. Problem is, he may not be conservative enough to win the Republican primary, but he's moderate enough to win a general election, so Democrats probably won't want to give him any help.

What about one of the people who's already running for the number two job? Schwarzenegger could give a huge lift to Merced State Senator Jeff Denham, the leading Republican contender for lieutenant governor in 2010, who has a huge lead in money raised over the only other Republican candidate, his Senate colleague Sam Aanestad. State Senator Dean Florez heads the Democratic field, but there's no reason Schwarzenegger would pick him. But confirming Denham would damage their party's chances of beating him next year, so Democrats would probably nix that nominee.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger will find a caretaker, even a Democratic one, who would be palatable to the Democratic majority. Former Senate president pro tem Don Perata? He's running for Mayor of Oakland and recovering from prostate cancer, so he might be preoccupied. How about Willie Brown? He and the Governator had a cozy lunch last week in San Francisco, with Arnold tweeting out photos of the two and Willie gushing about their good time in his newspaper column. It would be a nice career-capper for the former San Francisco Mayor and longtime Assembly Speaker. But can you imagine the Republican outrage if Schwarzenegger actually put Willie Brown a heartbeat away from the governor's office?

The thing is though, while the vice presidency is famously not worth a bucket of warm spit, the Lieutenant Governor of California actually has some real power. He gets to chair all sorts of commissions and sit on various boards, including the Regents. One of those is the State Lands Commission, a three-member panel that consists of the LG, the State Controller and the Finance Director. Earlier this year, the commission voted 2-1 to block the Schwarzenegger-supported plan to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. Garamendi was the deciding vote. So if the governor replaces him with a Republican, one presumably beholden to some degree to Schwarzenegger, that vote could be reversed, and just like that, whether the legislature likes it or not, say hello to oil rigs along Tranquillon Ridge.

You can bet that will come up when the Democratic leadership goes into the governor's office tomorrow to discuss which nominees might be acceptable.

And then there's Abel Maldonado. You remember him - he's the middle-of-the-road Republican from Santa Maria, who represents another ridiculously-drawn district in the State Senate, reaching all the way up to the southern tip of the Bay Area, who broke party ranks last winter and voted with the Democrats to raise taxes to balance the budget. He desperately wants to run for statewide office. His Republican colleagues consider him a traitor, and he's not their ideological soulmate. Democrats can't wait for him to leave the Senate, because they've been salivating over his district, which they consider ripe for turning. Snatching Maldonado's seat would give them a 26-14 edge in the Senate, just one short of that elusive two-thirds majority they need to raise taxes and pass budgets.

So. Let the wheels turn. May the Machiavellian machinations begin. Increase your majority in the Senate - or risk offshore oil drilling? These are some of the weights the Democrats will have to balance as they consider whom, and whether, to confirm. Schwarzenegger may find himself handcuffed by the legislative leaders, who aren't going to want to give anyone with real ambitions a big leg up. They will almost certainly urge him to name a placeholder - maybe someone like former Controller Steve Westly, although Westly still may have future designs on running for governor again himself someday.

I'm not placing any bets, and I'm not taking any either. And I've gone on way too long, so let's call it a night! By the way, I do have lots I'd like to blog about on the health care debate, and I know I haven't been a very active blogger lately, but remember, I micro-blog on Twitter all day, so you can always follow my tweets at twitter.com/sovernnation.