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Maldonado's Latino Balancing Act

Abel Madonado addresses the 2008 Republican National Convention
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Abel Madonado addresses the 2008 Republican National Convention
He's the farmworker's son whom farmworkers now distrust, but his political ambitions are all American

SANTA MARIA, Calif. – For all his political life, Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado has campaigned on a Spanish Horatio Alger tale that began in a valley here several miles off California’s Central Coast.

His father, Abel Sr., came to Santa Maria as a penniless guest worker from Mexico in 1965, Maldonado frequently says, and by age 6 he would join his father in the fields after school, picking strawberries with a half-empty stomach and holes in his clothes.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Maldonado, a Republican state senator, to succeed Lt. Governor John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress, making Maldonado, now 43, one of the highest-ranking Latino officials in California history.

Maldonado’s meteoric rise from the balmy fields of Santa Maria to the halls of power in Sacramento, his supporters say, has been greased by his ferocious work ethic, unique life story and a desire within the Republican Party to promote its affable Latino star — despite his tendency to occasionally break party lines — in a state where the booming Latino population is threatening to widen the Democrats’ advantage in voter registration over the coming decades.

But in the final stretch of a tight re-election race against Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, his Democratic challenger, Maldonado has watched a host of Latino organizations and politicians endorse his opponent while bitterly criticizing him for what they say has been his hard-line record on, of all things, farmworker rights and immigration.

If Maldonado's approach to politics has been defined by seeming contradictions, then it was shaped by his early years in his hometown of Santa Maria, which, in contrast to Newsom’s politically connected, patrician pedigree, foretold a self-made politician of immense promise. Maldonado, friends and family say in interviews, was intensely ambitious and pragmatic, at once possessing a sense of timing, an independent streak and an ability to navigate adverse political waters by showing deference to the existing political order.

Yet as he runs under the glare of a statewide race for the first time, the criticisms voiced by Latino leaders are undermining a central element of Maldonado’s political persona.

Even Maldonado, who is now trailing Newsom among Latino voters, cannot seem to escape the nagging challenges facing California Republicans who attempt to reconcile their party’s conservative posture with the position held by many among the critical Latino constituency they have tried to woo. At the top of the Republican ticket this year, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman rolled out one of the most ambitious Latino outreach efforts in state history, yet recent polls have shown Democrat Jerry Brown retaining large swaths of that electorate with little apparent effort.

Earlier this month, Newsom scored a coup when he secured an endorsement from La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the country, which scolded Maldonado for using San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy to “score political points.” On the following day—in one of the more awkward moments of the race—Maldonado showed up unannounced to a Newsom rally in Los Angeles, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, pilloried Maldonado while he watched largely in silence from a table in the back.

“Time and time again I’ve seen this guy get up and vote against working people and Latino people,” Huerta said by telephone last week. “I’d been waiting for this day for years, Abel. The chicken has come home to roost.”

La Opiníon’s endorsement referred to the candidates’ raucous recent debates, during which Maldonado lashed out at San Francisco’s sanctuary policy prohibiting the city from reporting to federal authorities illegal immigrants who are convicted of felonies. Many Latino civil rights groups support such policies.

Maldonado’s detractors also say that during his time in office he has voted against driver licenses for undocumented immigrants, the federal DREAM Act to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for college financial aid and farming bills that would have, among other things, prohibited employers from giving farm workers weeding tools with short handles.

A recent Los Angeles Times report revealed that his family farm in Santa Maria, which covers more than 6,000 acres and employs 250 people, have incurred “dozens” of workplace violations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens. In 2007, a Mexican farmhand died when a tractor that was operating without a spotter ran him over.

Above all, Maldonado’s critics say, he refused to oppose Proposition 187, the controversial 1994 bill that withheld social services for illegal immigrants, which was authored by then-governor Pete Wilson. Maldonado, in an interview in Los Angeles, brushed off most of Newsom’s recent endorsements as “party politics.”

“They don’t speak for Latinos,” he said, but added that he was “disappointed” to see La Opiníon give its support to Newsom.

“I would’ve loved to have their endorsement, but I don’t believe in protecting convicted criminal illegal immigrants,” he said.

Maldonado noted that he had the support of The Latino Times, another influential bilingual newspaper based in the Central Valley.

Maldonado’s political career began in 1994, at age 26, when he became the first person with a Hispanic name to be elected to the city council in Santa Maria — self-styled Barbeque Capital of the World — a low-lying agrarian town surrounded by rich fields of strawberry, broccoli and lettuce. In townships like nearby Guadalupe, population 7,000, tombstones bear names of the Hispanic, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese workers who have migrated here decades before the Maldonados arrived to work the fields.

Thirty years ago Maldonado’s family was denied membership to a local coalition of vegetable growers, said Toru Miyoshi, a former Republican city councilman and county supervisor who took Maldonado under his wing because of what Miyoshi described as the region’s long but subtle legacy of discrimination.

“The early years were difficult,” Patty Maldonado, Maldonado’s sister, said in a recent interview as she drove along the half-acre patch of soil where her father first began as a sharecropper 40 years ago. “If you were Latino you were supposed to be a worker, not an owner.”

In later speeches he would give before thousands of supporters during Republican conventions, Maldonado would say: “We must never become a nation of sharecroppers to the government.”

In the early 1990s, the city was facing a lawsuit from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which argued that the city's political establishment and citywide voting record demonstrated limited political access for Latinos, said MALDEF's president, Thomas A. Saenz, who litigated the case.

In 1994, Maldonado and another Latino Republican candidate, Joseph Centeno, received endorsements from local business groups and simultaneously became the first Latinos elected to local office.

"It was argued that all of this activity, endorsing Latino candiates and supporting them financially was a reaction and an attempt to avoid the lawsuit," said Saenz. "I don’t blame Maldonado or Centeno. They had political ambition, the opportunity was there, created by the lawsuit, and they took advantage of it. If there's any cynicism, it's on part of the establishment that went out looking for candidates."

The suit ultimately lost, and since Maldonado was elected, a long list of officials with Hispanic names have followed him. In 2006, Hilda Zacarias, now a candidate for state Assembly, became the first Democrat, and the third woman, to be elected to the city council in 105 years.

Harrell Fletcher, a former county supervisor who retired from public office to become the city’s most influential planning consultant, recalled Maldonado at the time approaching him about entering politics. (Fletcher called himself a “conservative Southern Democrat.”)

Fletcher had recently helped the Maldonados obtain a building permit for a 30,000-square-foot cooling facility that heralded the explosive growth of their family business.

“He told me, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me,’” Fletcher said in extended interview. “And as soon as he won, I asked him ‘what next?’ He said, ‘I want to be the first Hispanic governor of California.’”

Within two years, against the advice of elder politicians, Maldonado ran for mayor and was narrowly elected mayor after a self-financed campaign that cost more than the combined total of every local race in Santa Maria history.

Besides his close circle of advisors at the time, which included Fletcher, who lived across the street, and the current mayor, Larry Lavignino, who lived next door, Maldonado preferred to stake out an independent profile and was rarely influenced—or received major support—from large interest groups, said J. Andrew Caldwell, the director of the Coalition of Agriculture, Labor and Business, who described his entity as the closest thing to a political organization in area.

In short order, Maldonado moved to Assembly and then the state Senate. An enthusiastic private aviator, he frequently flew home from Sacramento—often with the Superintendent of Public Instruction and former Democratic state legislator from Santa Barbara, Jack O’Connell hitching a ride, said Fletcher, who Maldonado would visit a few times a month.

Fletcher said Maldonado’s background informed his visceral reaction to liberal welfare policies.

Once, during a visit to a predominantly Latino high school in nearby Guadalupe, according to Fletcher, Maldonado told the star-struck class, “I now drive a Mercedes, my brother drives the biggest pickup in the county, and my sister drives a Corvette, and it’s because of hard work.”

During his first run for the Assembly, some Latino residents were distraught to learn that Maldonado had distributed mailers in English and Spanish with distinctly different messages, local residents said.

“How can you tell people in the community, ‘my father came from Mexico,’ and turn around to everyone else and say, ‘I’m just like you, I’m tough on immigration,’” said Ike Ochoa, a veteran member of the Santa-Maria Bonita school board. “He has never done anything for this community,” Ochoa said.

At the same time, local Republican officials have said that Maldonado’s strength — especially compared to politicians like Pedro Nava, the state assemblyman from the more liberal southern half of Santa Barbara County — was his broad appeal in a conservative area.

“When you saw Pedro Nava on stage, he spoke in Spanish before any English came out of his mouth,” said Gregory Gandrud, the chairman of the Santa Barbara Republican Party. “You don’t see Abel doing that.”

Yet Maldonado’s background has come to the fore at critical moments. As a 31-year old freshman state assemblyman in 2000, he was picked to co-nominate George W. Bush for the presidency and give a soaring primetime speech in Spanish at the Republican National Convention, in which he spoke of “the values at the heart of our Hispanic heritage: honor, integrity, responsibility, and respect for hard work.”

But not all the attention he and his family garnered was good. As their business, Agro-Jal Farms Inc., grew rapidly, it too began to attract citations from local environmental and labor regulatory officials.

Roughly 250 employees, many of them Latino farmhands, now pick produce that is shipped to Chicago, New York and Hong Kong. The county roads just west of town teem with trucks owned by Agro-Jal, and semi-trailers are lined up outside

Jeannie A. Barrett, the directing attorney of the Santa Maria California Rural Legal Assistance office, said she spotted violations such as inadequate toilets on her visits of Agro-Jal to farms and her office frequently received visits from migrant workers from Agro-Jal seeking legal aid.

In the instance of the man who was crushed to death, court records filed upon the death of the farmhand, Raul Garcia Osnorno, left his Social Security number blank.

“It’s hard to provide documents that are private to the person, but we have all the documentation,” Maldonado said, adding that he would consult Agro-Jal lawyers and release Osorno’s I-9 form as soon as possible.

His campaign has yet to release the papers.

“A farm worker who votes for him on the expectation that he was a farm worker and would be on his side should look at Maldonado’s voting record and his company’s long record of labor violations,” Barrett said.

In the face of the criticism he has weathered lately, Maldonado said that Latinos are not a monolithic constituency, and many agree with his positions on nuanced immigration issues.

He said that his longstanding calls for comprehensive immigration reform and, in particular, a revived guest worker program will prove enlightened in hindsight. “It worked in 1964, 1965, when my father came, and it’ll work again,” he said.

He said that his positions reflect his broader philosophy of taking a nuanced approach to the issues. "It's not black and white," Maldonado said. "There's so much extremism in politics, but I bring people together, and I work with both sides."

Indeed, he entered the campaign with a reputation as a moderate. In 2009, Maldonado was battered by the Republican right wing after he cast the decisive vote in favor of an overdue budget plan that included a tax increase. He has opposed offshore drilling, he said, and also pushed for an increase to the minimum wage, which many right-leaning business groups opposed.

At a recent campaign stop in Central Los Angeles, over the din of a free pizza giveaway where people were urged to vote for the “100 percent Hispanic,” Maria Perez of La Puente cheered wildly as Maldonado’s campaign bus rolled into a strip mall parking lot.

Her father also came to the United States in the 1940s by simply crossing the porous border, Perez said, but they have since built a good life with a stable wheel and tire store.

“America has been good to us, it let us come when it was easier,” said Perez.

“But there’s got to be a line,” she added, nodding at the candidate, who was handing out pizza and shaking hands a few feet away. “You need the right people. You need quality people who come legally, who will establish themselves and pay taxes, like him.”

Correction: A prior version of this story incorrect described Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado as the highest ranking Latino official in California history. There have been other Latino lieutenant governors in state history before Maldonado. The story has been corrected.

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