Politician Embraces His American And Mexican Roots Abel Maldonado is a Republican state senator who cast the pivotal vote in California's prolonged budget debate. Maldonado is a successful businessman and rising political star, but he won't forget his immigrant parents' humble beginnings in the U.S.
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Politician Embraces His American And Mexican Roots

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Politician Embraces His American And Mexican Roots

Politician Embraces His American And Mexican Roots

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In California, it can be tough to be a Republican, especially if you voted for the huge tax hike your party opposed. That's how state Senator Abel Maldonado went from rising star to marked man in the GOP. He was born in California and has stayed close to his Mexican heritage - and that has shaped his career - as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports in our series about the children of immigrants.

CARRIE KAHN: There's a saying in the Maldonado family: We came from beans…

State Senator ABEL MALDONADO (Republican, California): We can go back to beans. No problem. That's where we came from.

KAHN: Abel Maldonado says his dad never lets him forget the family's humble Mexican roots. Abel Sr. was a poor farmhand who came to central California on a World War II-era temporary worker program. The family spent years struggling.

(Soundbite of machinery)

State Sen. MALDONADO: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

State Sen. MALDONADO: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: Mm-hmm.

State Sen. MALDONADO: We've got 29 people on this crew.

KAHN: Maldonado checks up on a crew working some of the several hundred acres the family now farms in the sun-drenched valley about 75 miles north of Santa Barbara.

State Sen. MALDONADO: The strawberry fields were my babysitting grounds.

KAHN: As a kid, though, Maldonado helped his dad sharecrop two acres of strawberries. They picked berries in the early morning.

State Sen. MALDONADO: If I didn't have time to shower, that's when I would go to school and have strawberry stains on my hands and my pants.

KAHN: Kids would tease him. And at the end of the day when the school bus dropped him at home, the teasing would start again.

State Sen. MALDONADO: We used to have chickens and some hogs and just a couple of times they'd get lose and they'd come to greet me at the bus stop. And that was kind of embarrassing to have a couple of pigs and chickens waiting for you there.

KAHN: Maldonado chuckles that some of those same classmates have come asking for jobs. He employs hundreds year-round, like this crew using a planting machine to put in the season's latest broccoli crop. Last year, sales at Agro-Jal Farms, Incorporated approached $10 million. Maldonado's compelling biography is classic rags to riches or, in his case, more like frijoles to fortunes. It launched his political career and made him the darling of the state Republican Party and a rising star in national circles.

That was until earlier this year. California lawmakers were in a hopeless months-long budget impasse. The state was about to run out of money and thousands of jobs and programs were on the line. Republicans refused to raise taxes. Democrats needed just one more vote. Maldonado signaled he was willing to deal. On the state Senate floor, he finally provided that swing vote and passed the budget that hiked taxes by more than $12 billion.

State Sen. MALDONADO: This might be the end for me, but this vote ensures that it's not the end for the state of California. I'm asking for an aye vote.

KAHN: Holding a photo of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, Maldonado said he couldn't let hard-lined partisans bankrupt the state.

State Sen. MALDONADO: All I can say is that this state of mine, California, is my home. It has given me everything. It has given me an opportunity. It has given my family American dream.

KAHN: It's too soon to say whether Maldonado's vote will bring him fame or infamy. He does have hopes for higher office. And the deal he cut for his budget vote, getting lawmakers to back an open primary ballot measure, may help. He wouldn't need Republican support to get elected. Reflecting on his political future in his Sacramento office, Maldonado says it's lonely being one of a handful of Latino Republicans.

State Sen. MALDONADO: The United States of America is changing, but more importantly, California has changed and will continue to change. If they don't get that, then we're going to continue to be a minority party.

KAHN: He says if politics doesn't work out, he always has a place to go and a quick way to get there.

(Soundbite of engine)

Unidentified Man #2: Temperature 15, dew point two.

KAHN: Maldonado flies his own single-engine plane.

State Sen. MALDONADO: Ground, good afternoon. Conquest 168.

KAHN: And it's only an hour flight from Sacramento to the farm office in Santa Maria.

State Sen. MALDONADO: This is our office, our corporate office. And hey, dad.


State Sen. MALDONADO: How are you? This is my dad, Abel.

KAHN: Hi, it's so nice to meet you.

Mr. MALDONADO, SR.: Nice to see you.

KAHN: The Maldonado business has stayed all in the family. Mom is the receptionist. His sister runs the sales department. His brother runs the day-to-day operations. And Abel Sr. oversees it all. On most workdays, the family lunches together in the office kitchen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: It's a raucous meal with Maldonado Sr. at the head of the table. His sombrero stays on, and a bottle of tequila and a can of Coke are at the ready. After 40 years living in the U.S., Abel Sr. just recently became a U.S. citizen.

Mr. MALDONADO, SR.: Abel pushed me. Dad, I'm going to get one vote from you, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: He teases that he did it because Abel needed the extra vote. The kids don't miss a beat. They tease their parents for being so old-fashioned. Mom won't use the big stainless steel range. Instead she cooks the traditional carne asada on a small hot plate. And dad won't drive the new BMW the kids just bought him for his 60th birthday, except on special occasions. Maldonado may joke about his parents' frugality, but he also admires it.

State Sen. MALDONADO: Hey, there's generations. First generation are makers, second generations spend, third generation lose it.

KAHN: Maldonado says he's determined not to lose anything, but adds, there's no shame in being poor. After all, the family saying goes: We started on beans, we can go back to beans.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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