Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado may be hanging on to his day job for a while longer.

While Assembly Democrats are playing coy about whether they’ll vote to approve the Santa Maria lawmaker as California’s next lieutenant governor, a news conference Monday was a pretty good indication that the fix is in.

Democratic Assembly members Pedro Nava, Jose Solorio and Tony Mendoza all showed up to announce that they wouldn’t be voting for Maldonado when his nomination comes before the full Assembly later this week.

Normally, it’s no big deal when a trio of Democratic backbenchers complains about an appointment made by a Republican governor. But it’s no coincidence that it was three Latino Democrats making the argument that a Latino Republican shouldn’t be appointed to what – in theory anyway – is the number two office in state government.

Nava told reporters he was leading the charge against Maldonado because “somebody had to.” But while he said that there are plenty of other Assembly Democrats — including, it may be assumed many non-Latinos — prepared to vote against Maldonado, they weren’t any too visible at the Monday news conference.

Nava argued that Maldonado’s votes have hurt farm workers, working people and the poor. Emphasis on the farm workers.

“I, too, am the child of immigrants,” Nava said in an op-ed piece in Monday’s Sacramento Bee. “But I have never wandered from my obligation to embrace and encourage the aspirations of those who continue to struggle, those who harvest the food we eat, those who fight against all odds to realize their dreams, too.”

It would be tough to find a GOP vote for any of the few dozen bills cited by Nava as evidence that Maldonado is out of step with California. And if Maldonado’s voting record is a problem, the easiest way to fix that is to move him out of the Legislature and into an important-sounding non-job like lieutenant governor.

But that would suggest that Nava is making a reasoned argument against Maldonado. He isn’t.

What Nava, Solorio and Mendoza were doing Monday was providing cover for Assembly Democrats worried about getting slammed for blocking a Latino from moving up the political ladder. But now they can cast the vote they always intended to make, secure in the knowledge that they have the imprimatur of Nava and other Latino Democrats.

Maldonado’s nomination has always presented a particular problem for Democrats, which is one of the reasons Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made it.

As far as partisan leaders like state party chief John Burton are concerned, no way, no how should any Republican get the job Democrat John Garamendi gave up when he won a seat in Congress last year.

Maldonado “will not be confirmed” by the Democratic majority in the Legislature, Burton said in December. “Why would they give the job to a Republican?”

It’s not that simple. Along with other political concerns, there’s the dilemma posed by Maldonado’s biography.

Maldonado’s family members were farm workers when they emigrated from Mexico and he worked alongside them in the fields as a child. Latino voters, who are an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party, might not be too happy with a partisan political play that blocks a Latino from a top state post, even if he is a Republican.

So you end up with Assembly Speaker Karen Bass — the good cop — announcing Monday that the Democrat-controlled Assembly Rules Committee won’t block Maldonado’s nomination when it meets today, even as Nava — the bad cop — says he won’t back Maldonado because the senator doesn’t vote as a real Latino should.

Democrats, not surprisingly, would like to have it both ways on the Maldonado vote, keeping him from becoming lieutenant governor but also avoiding complaints that they’re bashing Latinos.

That doesn’t mean Maldonado won’t win the Assembly’s nod later this week. But the scene that’s being set is for a hanging, not a coronation.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.