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Maldonado: from strawberry picker to lieutenant governor

April 27, 2010 |  4:38 pm

The lieutenant governor of California's job has been disparaged by some as insignificant, but not for Abel Maldonado, who almost seemed as if it were his wedding day after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger swore him in to the post Tuesday. His parents were there, his kids and siblings, and an assortment of other relatives, standing in the back of the governor's press room with cameras and camcorders. He shook hands with the reporters who covered the event and thanked them for coming.

It was portrayed by Maldonado and Schwarzenegger as a kind of inspirational story of making it in America: the son of a bracero who arrived penniless from Mexico in 1963 became the first Latino Republican to hold statewide office in California in 130 years (Maldonado took the oath on the same bible as did the last one, Romualdo Pacheco, in 1871).

"Today is proof that in the great state of California, with hard work and with determination and perseverance, and the fire in the belly, anything is possible," Schwarzenegger said.

"I was picking strawberries 30 years ago by my mother's side, trying to make a living," Maldonado exclaimed.

"I've got to pinch myself," he said a few minutes later.

In reality, the uplifting narrative has been in place already for many years in the Maldonado family and is often re-told during election season. His father long ago built a successful farming business. The son, now 42, entered politics 16 years ago when he won a seat to the Santa Maria City Council, later becoming mayor, assemblyman, senator and now lieutenant governor.

His appointment by Schwarzenegger had less to do with inspiration than with a willingness to break with his Republican colleagues to give the governor votes on little things like the budget. Schwarzenegger on Tuesday called him "a pragmatist, a reformer and a relentless advocate for his constituents" who doesn't listen to "party bosses."

The seat, vacated by Democrat John Garamendi, who won election to Congress, had been open for about five months. The governor stuck with Maldonado when Assembly Democrats refused to confirm him earlier in the year. Clearly, Maldonado, now running to win the job outright in the fall, was enormously grateful.

"I'm going to dedicate every minute of my life to working with Gov. Schwarzenegger," he said. "I will never, ever go out there and say the governor is doing something wrong, because that is not productive for California. We are going to be a team. We are going to be on the same team."

For the movie star governor, there could have been no better way for Maldonado to start. He had set up Schwarzenegger's next punch line.

"Isn't it great? He's never going to go out and say I did something wrong," the governor said. "Can you talk to my wife?"

-- Michael Rothfeld in Sacramento

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