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California Politics: It’s a family affair

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, right, is sworn in as attorney general by Gov. Gavin Newsom as his wife, Mia Bonta, holds a book.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, right, is sworn in as California’s 34th attorney general by Gov. Gavin Newsom during a ceremony in Sacramento in 2021. His wife, Mia Bonta, holds the book “The Constitutions of California and the United States” for the oath.
(Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Associated Press)
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One thing I’ve noticed in my years reporting on how power works inside the California Capitol is how much of it rests within families.

Seats in the Legislature often pass from parent to child or from husband to wife. Five members of the fabled Calderon family of Los Angeles County — including three brothers, a son and current Assemblymember Lisa Calderon, the wife of a former assemblyman — have served in the Legislature. And a few years ago Assemblymember Blanca Rubio and state Sen. Susan Rubio made history as California’s first set of sister-lawmakers.

So the story of Assemblymember Mia Bonta and her husband, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, is at once familiar and also jarring.

Both Democrats from the Bay Area city of Alameda, Mia Bonta was elected in 2021 to fill the Assembly seat her husband had held after Rob Bonta was appointed attorney general. The pair have been in the news in recent weeks as reporters questioned whether it was ethical for Assemblymember Bonta to oversee taxpayer funding for the office of Atty. Gen. Bonta. Mia Bonta heads the Assembly budget panel focused on public safety, which had purview over the Department of Justice that is led by her husband.

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Political ethics experts raised concerns about the arrangement and editorial boards criticized legislative leaders for the apparent conflict of interest. Even Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” weighed in.

“It’s a bad look and it’s only going to reinforce what happens when you have one-party rule,” he said after reporter Ashley Zavala of NBC’s Sacramento affiliate broke the story.

Assemblymember Bonta eventually said she would recuse herself from decisions affecting the Department of Justice. Days later, the separation was made formal when the budget chairman moved oversight of the Department of Justice to a different subcommittee. The immediate conflict appears to have been resolved.

Mia Bonta maintains that her position had been cleared by Assembly ethics officials and that she recused herself to support transparency and stop distractions.

“I definitely note that it’s a thing that needs to be navigated carefully,” she told me.

Still, a larger question lingers: Where should public officials who are family members draw the line between their shared interests and their separate responsibilities?

In addition to the many family members who serve together in the Legislature, several state lawmakers have had spouses who work on policy issues that come before the Legislature or serve in local governments that receive state funding.

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“I don’t see those situations different from this particular situation,” Mia Bonta said.

The Bontas call themselves partners in life and partners in service. They’ve shared a passion for social justice since they got together as freshmen at Yale. And they’ve used their respective offices to advance some of the same causes.

Last year, Assemblymember Bonta wrote a bill to create a new office in the Department of Justice to research policies to curb gun violence. A few months after it stalled in the Legislature, she joined her husband as he announced his department would form the new office anyway, but that didn’t spark controversy.

But before Mia Bonta was elected to the Assembly, I reported on a financial transaction involving the couple that several experts said was legal but unethical. As an Assembly member, Rob Bonta created a nonprofit foundation and solicited donations to it from companies that lobbied the Legislature. He then used the foundation’s money to make a payment to the nonprofit organization that employed his wife. (He described the $25,000 as a loan when I asked about it in 2020, though tax returns at the time didn’t reflect that.)

It wasn’t the first time Rob Bonta had directed money to Mia Bonta’s employer. Over several years he donated money from his campaign funds to organizations where she worked, obtaining letters saying the groups would not use the funds for her salary because state law prohibits politicians from using campaign funds for personal benefit. He also asked interest groups to donate to nonprofits where she was employed. “We’re working on areas of shared passion,” he told me at the time.

After my reporting, Rob Bonta stepped down from the board of his foundation and it established new rules prohibiting both members of the couple from making spending decisions and banning donations to organizations that employ either one of them. And California’s political watchdog agency approved a new rule requiring officials to report their ties to an organization when they ask donors to give money to a group that employs, or is controlled by, the official, their staff or their family members.

“These are relationships with a potential for influence or self-dealing that the public would want to have disclosed,” says a staff report to the commission.

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Officials should not direct money to organizations that employ their family members because of the potential for their personal benefit, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

In other cases, she said, defining where to draw the line is not always obvious.

“Whenever it comes to these potential conflict of interest cases or ethical issues, we’re all just worried that somebody in public office is making decisions to benefit their spouse or their kid or their friend, but not the rest of us,” she said. “At the very basic level, that’s the concern.”

Capping oil profits: Easier said than done

I couldn’t help but think of former Gov. Jerry Brown as I watched Gov. Gavin Newsom ham it up with Elon Musk on a video livestreamed by Tesla Motors on Wednesday. Newsom was at the company’s new engineering facility in Palo Alto — for a visit that was closed to the news media — the same day lawmakers in Sacramento puzzled through his proposal to place a penalty on excessive oil company profits.

So why was I thinking of Brown?

Brown didn’t publicly engage with the Legislature very often, but when he did it was a sign of his commitment to working with lawmakers to solve a vexing problem. On rare occasions, Brown put his political might behind a controversial idea by showing up at a hearing in the Capitol and testifying before the Legislature. He did that in 2011, when he pushed to reform the state pension system, and twice in 2017, when he championed a gas tax to fund road repairs and the extension of the cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Newsom has not participated in a legislative hearing since taking office in 2019.

At Wednesday’s hearing — the first in the special session that Newsom announced in October — it appeared the governor and lawmakers are no closer to deciding how to prevent the kind of gasoline price spikes that Californians experienced last year, writes Times reporter Taryn Luna. Lawmakers shared concerns about potential unintended consequences of his desire to cap the industry’s earnings, while some oil market experts said Newsom’s idea to limit oil refinery profits wouldn’t solve the problem. Other economists agreed with the Newsom administration about demanding more transparency from oil refiners on pricing, maintenance, supply contracts and inventory.

The hearing, reports Luna, underscored the challenge Newsom has faced since he began publicly talking about penalizing the oil industry before he had a detailed plan to execute it: Solving the problem is even more complicated than it seems.

Cue the photo opp with Elon Musk.

The race to replace Feinstein

There were two new developments this week in the race to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has said she will retire at the end of her term next year following a historic 32-year run representing California in the U.S. Senate:

  1. Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive Democrat from Oakland, formally announced her candidacy, saying in an interview with Times reporter Seema Mehta that she “has been a fighter and a champion for people who have no voice who really need a voice.” While the announcement was not surprising — Lee had told congressional colleagues last month that she planned to run — her involvement could make the race even livelier. Lee’s background as a longtime social justice activist adds another perspective to the field that includes Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, an economic populist, and Adam B. Schiff, a former prosecutor best known for leading the first impeachment of President Trump. While Porter and Schiff have a history of much stronger fundraising than Lee, she will have the support of a new super PAC run by consultants with ties to wealthy Bay Area donors who have spent millions to advance racial and criminal justice initiatives in California. Keep track of who’s running in California’s marquee Senate race with this handy list of who’s in and who’s out, along with some long shots and wild cards.
  2. A new poll showed the race as a close contest between Schiff and Porter, both of whom have built national profiles and potent fundraising operations but appeal to different generations of Democratic voters. About 4 in 10 registered Democrats and nonpartisan voters said they hadn’t made up their minds on a candidate, so dynamics could shift between now and the March 2024 primary. Among those who have decided, however, Schiff and Porter of Irvine are nearly tied and hold a strong early lead ahead of two other hopefuls, according to the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Read more about the findings in this article by Times reporter Benjamin Oreskes.

And if you enjoy listening to podcasts, check out this episode of The Times in which columnist Mark Z. Barabak delves into Feinstein’s legacy and analyzes the race to replace her.

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Keeping up with the Capitol

Democratic governors form alliance on abortion rights

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Democratic governors in 20 states launched a network intended to strengthen abortion access in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision nixing a woman’s constitutional right to end a pregnancy and instead shifting regulatory powers over the procedure to state governments. Organizers, led by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, described the Reproductive Freedom Alliance as a way for governors to share best practices, affirm abortion rights in their states and ensure services for Americans in states with more restrictive laws.

Conflict brews over governor’s student transfer guarantee plan for ultracompetitive UCLA

Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with legislators and many equity advocates, have been pushing the University of California to simplify its transfer process and widen entry to more state students, especially at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. But a new analysis of Newsom’s plan calls it “particularly myopic” and says it “violates the basic tenet of fairness.”

These rural schools face a financial ‘cliff.’ Will partisan bickering cut off a lifeline?

People in California’s rural northern reaches, where a conservative spirit reigns in opposition to the state’s famously liberal ethos, often feel forgotten in the halls of power in Sacramento and Washington. Their towns are shrinking. Their forests are burning. And for their schools, a financial cliff could be coming.

DeSantis leads Trump by wide margin in California as primary race starts, poll finds

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has surged to a lead among California Republicans over former President Trump for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, a poll released Friday found. California matters to Republican presidential contenders despite its overall Democratic majority. Nearly 2.3 million voters cast ballots for Trump in the state’s March 2020 primary, the most in any state in the nation.

Column: Shrinking water supply will mean more fallow fields in the San Joaquin Valley

Downpours or drought, California’s farm belt will need to tighten up in the next two decades and grow fewer crops, writes Times columnist George Skelton. There simply won’t be enough water to sustain present irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley.

Mandatory evictions for arrested tenants would be banned under new state bill

California tenants and their families would no longer face mandatory eviction or exclusion based on their criminal histories or brushes with law enforcement under new legislation by Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood). The bill takes aim at local policies that make it harder for some renters to find and remain in affordable housing.

Column: How California could become the model for getting cops out of traffic stops

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Legislation by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) would prohibit law enforcement officers from pulling over drivers for minor infractions, such as a broken taillight or tinted windows, unless an “independent basis for a stop exists.” In other words, Times columnist Erika D. Smith writes, there would be new restrictions on pretextual stops, which disproportionately subject Black and Latino drivers to ineffective fishing expeditions for more serious crimes.

Editorial: Finally, a plan to save Joshua trees from climate change — and the bureaucrats

Climate change is the greatest threat to the long-term survival of the Joshua tree, a beloved symbol of California’s high desert. But the biggest short-term obstacle is an impasse over whether to list it as a threatened species. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is proposing “a well-thought-out compromise that acknowledges both scientific and political realities,” writes The Times editorial board.

Lawmakers demand EPA action on troubled cleanup of lead-contaminated L.A.-area homes

Amid California’s long struggle to hold an industrial polluter accountable and remove lead contamination from Los Angeles neighborhoods, members of Congress are calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assist in the troubled cleanup of areas surrounding the closed Exide battery recycling plant. Gov. Gavin Newsom welcomed the help.

California attorney general plans to investigate questionable criminal convictions

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s new Post-Conviction Justice Unit, the first of its kind at the state level, is part of a broader trend of prosecutors nationwide acknowledging faults in the criminal system and their role in and responsibility for redressing miscarriages of justice.

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Amid an overdose crisis, a California grant that helped syringe programs is drying up

State funding that’s been supporting dozens of syringe services and other harm-reduction programs for drug addicts is drying up later this year, causing public health advocates to fear the services could peter out amid the state’s projected $22.5-billion deficit.

Editorial: Newsom’s drought order amid wet winter threatens iconic California species

It’s troubling that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an order that could suspend environmental protections as though this were another critically dry year, with every drop of water needed for basic human health and safety, writes The Times editorial board. That means curtailing water releases from reservoirs that otherwise would be required by law to keep water in the rivers to sustain the salmon and other threatened species.

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