Tuesday, September 22, 2009





Gerrymandering makes the election of Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to a seat in Congress from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco and Oakland almost a certainty when runoff day arrives Nov. 3.

Then comes a real test for the Democrats in the state Legislature. For the moment Garamendi is sworn in as a U.S. representative, he must give up his current slot as lieutenant governor.

Will the Democrats who control both the Assembly and the state Senate allow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to appoint whoever he likes to the state’s nominal No. 2 job? Or will they take a stand and risk leaving the office open until next fall’s general election?

To some, all this appears to approach the meaningless. The lieutenant governor’s post, many “experts” say, is powerless and worthless and ought to be eliminated. Schwarzenegger has cut almost all staff from the office via line item vetoes in the last two state budgets, so it’s been hard for Garamendi to develop serious issues documents. The lieutenant governor’s only function, they say, is waiting around to assume the governor’s office in case the elected governor dies – much like the vice president of the United States.

And that’s true – until the state Lands Commission, the University of California Board of Regents or the California State University Board of Trustees meet. Which they usually do on a monthly basis. Then, suddenly, the lieutenant governor can become a pivotal figure.

So it was when the possibility of building an liquefied natural gas receiving facility off the southern shore of Ventura County nearly became reality in 2007. Schwarzenegger strongly backed the proposal, which would likely have cost consumers billions of dollars in needless natural gas price hikes over the next 30 years. The state Coastal Commission was opposed, but that didn’t matter because the former Bush administration had the power to override Coastal Commission decisions and was poised to do so.

But the seemingly “powerless” Lt. Gov. Garamendi suddenly became the hero of the 2,000-odd citizens of Oxnard and its environs who turned out for the decisive public hearing on the matter. Because the lieutenant governor is automatically chairman of the state Lands Commission, Garamendi became the key figure as that commission denied developers permission to run pipelines necessary to the project across state tidelands. Schwarzenegger’s surrogate on the commission voted for the project.

Two years later, it was again Garamendi standing up for coastal protection as the Lands Commission again overrode a Schwarzenegger plan to allow new offshore oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. That plan is not yet dead, as Schwarzenegger keeps trying to wrest control over the issue away from the Lands Commission, one of the few state agencies not filled with appointees who almost robotically do his bidden even when they’re supposed to be independent.

But Garamendi will almost surely soon be gone from both the lieutenant governor’s office and the Lands Commission. Schwarzenegger can name his replacement, but needs confirmation by both the state Senate and Assembly.

If confirmed, whoever he appoints could serve almost nine years in the office, the rest of Garamendi’s term, plus two more full ones. This “powerless” individual could do a lot of good or ill during that time via votes of the Lands Commission and the two university boards.

Garamendi is convinced legislative Democrats will confront Schwarzenegger and refuse to confirm anyone who would be his rubber-stamp toady on the Lands Commission.

After the potential environmental consequences of his moving to Congress were noted during the summer special election primary campaign, he wrote in an email, “There’s a strong possibility a denial (of confirmation) will occur if the governor appoints anyone except a place holder who the Democrats find OK.”

Most Republicans would like Schwarzenegger to name either of two current GOP state senators to the office: Jeff Denham of Merced or Sam Aanestad of Penn Valley. The two figure to be rivals for nomination for the office in next spring’s Republican primary, and incumbency would likely be a big advantage of either. But Democrats likely wouldn’t go for either, not when a Democratic state senator – Dean Florez of Shafter – is also running and is the top money-raiser in the race so far.

So Schwarzenegger might have to name a temporary space-filler caretaker. State Democratic chairman John Burton suggests former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, for one. Legislative Democrats would then have to try to figure out how likely Riordan or any other such person would be to kowtow to the governor.

With legislative leaders feeling Schwarzenegger double-crossed them on many line-item vetoes he applied after making a budget deal in July, there is a possibility they’d be willing to hold up whoever he nominates. But there’s also the possibility they’ll get tired of battling him or succumb to one of his intermittent charm offensives.

Either way, their choice will likely have a major impact on the future of the California coast – quite a consequence for a vacancy in an office many consider useless and powerless.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

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