Newsom selects Asian American progressive Bonta for California AG

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OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom has chosen Assemblymember Rob Bonta to be attorney general of California, elevating the first Asian-American man to the position in state history.

Bonta, a progressive Democrat from the Bay Area city of Alameda, has been seen as a central contender for the top prosecutor job from the moment President Joe Biden nominated former Attorney General Xavier Becerra to serve as health and human services secretary. Bonta came close to being appointed attorney general in 2016 but lost out to Becerra.

The position is arguably the state’s second most powerful position and has been a reliable launching pad for politicians seeking higher office. The last three California attorneys general are Becerra, Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Jerry Brown. Other previous AGs include Gov. George Deukmejian, Gov. Pat Brown and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who also served as governor.

As attorney general candidates have jockeyed for Newsom’s attention, Bonta marshaled the support of two influential constituencies: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as California’s ascendant criminal justice reform movement.

Asian-American officials have urged Newsom to elevate one of their own to statewide office. That call has gained deeper urgency after a spate of violent attacks targeting Asian-Americans in California and across the nation, most notably last week’s spa shootings in Atlanta in which a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian-American women. Bonta is the first Filipino American to serve in the California Legislature.

“Throughout history, so many of us have felt the sting of hate and discrimination. I have," Bonta said at a press conference in San Francisco, citing the "need to protect those who are facing the forces of hate and hold those accountable who would perpetrate hate."

Bonta was not the only Asian American considered for the job. Newsom’s office also vetted California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, who has aligned with the governor and legislators on criminal justice matters. Liu was formerly married to Newsom’s prior chief of staff Ann O’Leary and has been talked about as a possible U.S. Supreme Court nominee in the future.

Harris became the first Asian American and the first African American to serve as California attorney general in 2011.

Other contenders whom Newsom passed over included Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Rick Zbur, head of the powerhouse LGBTQ rights organization Equality California. Schiff drew the support of powerful Capitol Hill allies like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while Steinberg and Zbur have closer personal relationships with Newsom.

Criminal justice reformers like Van Jones and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza have rallied behind Bonta, saying he would be best positioned to build on California’s yearslong shift away from tougher sentencing laws and incarceration. Bonta’s legislative accomplishments include a bill outlawing private prison contracts and legislation ending cash bail, although voters dissolved the latter by passing a referendum funded by the bail industry.

Bonta assailed a “fundamentally broken criminal justice system” on Wednesday and said the attorney general’s office could lead reforms, noting "criminal justice reform has been a priority for me, and you shouldn’t expect that to change."

“I believe deeply that we need to build more trust between law enforcement and our communities," he said. "I have seen communities that have been hurt and harmed and don’t have that trust.”

Organized labor organizations and environmental advocates have also endorsed Bonta, burnishing his liberal credentials.

In selecting Bonta, Newsom completed a sweeping makeover of California’s highest levels of government. This is the third statewide position the governor has filled by appointment in the last few months, after selecting Alex Padilla for the U.S. Senate and Shirley Weber to be secretary of state. The trio of choices collectively allowed Newsom to make a lasting mark on the state’s political order, all touched off when President Joe Biden and Harris won the White House.

Assuming he is confirmed by his legislative colleagues, Bonta would be up for election next year. He represents a safely Democratic district, which has allowed him to pile up a substantial campaign warchest as he has avoided competitive re-election campaigns. He reported having almost $2.4 million on hand at the end of 2022.

The strong likelihood that Newsom will face a recall election this year also hung over the attorney general selection process. Some political observers believe Newsom’s choice of a strong progressive in Bonta could encourage the left to coalesce behind the governor rather than seek a more liberal alternative.

Bonta has joined other Democratic elected officials in assailing the recall and pledging their support for Newsom.

“It’s a partisan, Republican attack on our governor, on our state and on our values,” Bonta said at a recent event, taking aim at former President Donald Trump in warning that a wave of anti-Asian violence had been "fueled by the former occupant of the White House.”

But Bonta could face scrutiny in the 2022 campaign over reporting that a charity he oversees has steered money to an organization run by his wife, Alameda Unified School Board President Mia Bonta.

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