Are Maldonado, Boxer just doing their jobs, or exploiting? 

A key moment in “The Candidate,” a 1972 film about California politics, involves a wildfire near Malibu.

Democrat Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is desperately battling with Republican Sen. Crocker Jarmon, and when the fire breaks out, a McKay aide declares that “it’s perfect.”

The candidate rushes to the fire and begins talking to reporters. Suddenly, however, a helicopter swoops in and disgorges Jarmon, who promises to use his position and ties to the White House to secure aid for fire victims.

It’s eerily prescient about what happened a few days ago after a natural-gas explosion and fire devastated a San Bruno neighborhood and killed at least four people.

The disaster occurred while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was headed to China, leaving his appointed lieutenant governor, Abel Maldonado, as acting governor.

Maldonado quickly canceled a bill-signing event, headed to San Bruno and held news conferences and interviews — including a stint on CNN.

“This explosion has resulted in a horrific tragedy,” Maldonado said in a statement. “We are prepared to respond and assist those affected in any way possible.”

Later, his office said in an e-mail, “He nor his staff have slept a wink. This situation is his top priority.”

“Glad I left the state in good hands,” Schwarzenegger tweeted from Asia.

Republican Maldonado, little known to voters and battling with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to retain his office, was vying with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer for media attention.

Democrat Boxer, who’s in her toughest-ever re-election fight with Republican Carly Fiorina, emulated the celluloid Sen. Jarmon by flying to the disaster.

Campaigning in Southern California, Boxer said, “If there is a disaster declaration, absolutely [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] will come in and FEMA will help — as we always do — making the homeowners whole, helping them rebuild, helping them go to their insurance companies, doing everything we can.”

That wasn’t her last word.

“This explosion was a tragedy and I extend my deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones,” Boxer said before jetting to San Bruno.

“We need to work together to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the investigation of what caused this tragedy, and we must do everything we can to help the community recover and rebuild,” she added.

Once on the scene, Boxer said, “We cannot wait for answers to this.”

When disaster strikes, we expect officeholders to respond. But, we must also ask ourselves whether they are cynically exploiting disaster with expressions of sympathy and promises of aid.

We’ll see if San Bruno shows up in campaign ads.

After all, as President Barack Obama’s top aide, Rahm Emanuel, once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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