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Rob Bonta named California attorney general, would be first Filipino American in role

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda).
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda).
(Alexis Cuarezma / For The Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday appointed Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta as California attorney general, picking a leading advocate for criminal justice reform who has campaigned to abolish the death penalty and eliminate cash bail for many offenses.

If confirmed by the state Legislature, Bonta, a resident of Alameda, will be the first Filipino American to serve as California attorney general, having also set the milestone for the state Assembly when he was elected in 2012, representing a Bay Area district that includes Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro.

Newsom’s appointment fills a vacancy left by Xavier Becerra’s departure to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary in the Biden administration after he was confirmed Thursday by the Senate.

“Rob represents what makes California great — our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices,” Newsom said Wednesday. “Growing up with parents steeped in social justice movements, Rob has become a national leader in the fight to repair our justice system and defend the rights of every Californian.”

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Bonta said he was humbled by Newsom’s confidence in him.

“I became a lawyer because I saw the law as the best way to make a positive difference for the most people, and it would be an honor of a lifetime to serve as the attorney for the people of this great state,” Bonta said. “As California’s attorney general, I will work tirelessly every day to ensure that every Californian who has been wronged can find justice and that every person is treated fairly under the law.”

Bonta’s appointment comes just days after several Asian and Pacific Islander leaders called on the governor to appoint an attorney general who would address incidents in which Asian Americans have been targeted for racist attacks.

The leaders raised the issue as they condemned an Atlanta-area shooting March 16 in which a white gunman is accused of killing eight people including six women of Asian descent.

“Assemblymember Bonta’s legal, legislative and lived experiences make him the best choice to represent the diversity of this state,” state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, said in a letter to Newsom. He called the appointment “a major step towards the equitable representation of California’s fastest growing racial and ethnic groups, Asian Pacific Islanders.”

The governor announced the appointment at the International Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco, where Bonta showed emotion when he talked about the Asian Americans who were pioneers in the civil rights movement before him. He also acknowledged the racism that Asian Americans have faced.

“Throughout California history, so many of us have felt the sting of hate and discrimination. I have,” Bonta said. “So many of us have been targeted and attacked because of who we are, where we’re from and who we love.”

He said too often hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community have been “swept under the rug,” but added: “We’ll take action.”

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“Rob has fought to strengthen hate crime laws and protect our communities from the forces of hate,” Newsom said.

The appointment ends weeks of political wrangling by supporters of a dozen Democrats with interest in becoming the state’s top cop, including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank.

Bonta, 49, was one of four names recommended for the job by the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.

The attorney general job comes with an annual salary of $182,189, and the position is next up for election in 2022.

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With that race looming, Bonta will soon call on his skills as a prodigious political fundraiser. His reelection committee had $2.3 million in its most recent filing.

He has also shown loyalty to the governor, emerging in recent weeks as a leading voice against the threatened recall of Newsom.

Bonta, who is married and has three children, is the Assembly assistant majority leader and serves on committees overseeing spending, communications and health issues.

On Wednesday, he said that the criminal justice system is “fundamentally broken.”

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In the Legislature he has led efforts to change the state’s criminal justice system, including a bill now pending that would mostly eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and many nonviolent, low-level felonies.

It is his second attempt on the issue. In 2018, Bonta won passage of a reform bill but the bail industry qualified a referendum on the measure and voters rejected the changes last year.

“The jailhouse door should not swing open and closed based on how much money someone has,” Bonta said when he introduced this year’s bill. “There is no disputing the present system wrongly treats people who are rich and guilty better than those who are poor and innocent.”

Last year, Bonta called for prosecutors to be required to recuse themselves from the investigation and prosecution of law enforcement misconduct if their election campaigns accept financial contributions from law enforcement unions.

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“This is about trust in law enforcement and trust in the independence of our elected prosecutors,” he said.

Bonta also supported Newsom’s 2019 order for a moratorium on executions in California. That same year, Bonta coauthored Assembly Constitutional Amendment 12, which would have placed a measure on the state ballot to repeal the death penalty, although the bill did not advance.

“I believe the death penalty is wrong for California and I oppose it,” Bonta said at the time. “Not only is it inhumane and uncivilized, it is broken.”

He also said capital punishment has a disparate impact on people of color, who he said “are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.”

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Bonta also voted last year to pass Assembly Bill 1506, a law that requires the state attorney general’s office to investigate police shootings that result in the death of an unarmed civilian.

His appointment was hailed by advocates for criminal justice reform, including Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group of district attorneys that supports addressing inequities in the criminal justice system.

“Assemblymember Rob Bonta has been a leader on criminal justice reform in the Legislature and we are thrilled that he will take that courage, humanity and commitment to justice with him to the attorney general’s office,” she said.

Anti-death penalty advocate and actor Mike Ferrell said he hopes Bonta “will be more active than our last two attorneys general.”

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But Kent Scheidegger of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation expressed concern about Bonta’s nomination.

“It goes beyond the death penalty. It’s become much larger than that,” Scheidegger said. “There is a whole movement to water down criminal law and remove accountability for people who commit the most horrible crimes.”

Democratic political consultant Bill Wong said Newsom’s pick will help solidify his support among California’s influential Asian American and Pacific Islander voters and help the governor beat back the Republican-led effort to recall him from office.

“Keep in mind that 40% of the spike in hate crimes that have occurred since December occurred in California. So this is like the epicenter of anti-Asian hate,” Wong said, citing a report by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

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Bonta was born in Quezon City in the Philippines, he said. His parents decided to move with him to California when he was 2 months old, acting ahead of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law, he said in a biographical account.

Bonta’s parents worked as organizers for the United Farm Workers of America, and he recalls a childhood living in a trailer in the Tehachapi Mountains outside Bakersfield, close to the home of César Chávez, the founder of the group, an experience that he said gave him a close-up view of the struggles of agricultural workers.

He said he was influenced by his father, who was also involved in the civil rights movement in the South.

Bonta received a degree from Yale Law School after working his way through Yale College, where he captained the soccer team.

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Before his election to the Assembly, Bonta was deputy city attorney for San Francisco, and also worked as a private attorney handling cases involving racial profiling and other mistreatment.

He also served as a director of the Alameda Health Care District and as vice mayor for the city of Alameda.

Other legislation introduced by Bonta has protected tenants from improper evictions, ended the use of for-profit, private prisons and set up the system of regulating cannabis after voters legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2016.

Bonta also has faced controversy while in the Legislature. In 2017 the assemblyman formed a foundation and solicited donations from interests with business at the Capitol. One of his foundation’s first contributions in 2018 was $25,000 provided to a nonprofit called Literacy Lab, where his wife was chief executive and earning a six-figure salary, CalMatters reported in February 2020. Ethics experts said that while such activities are not illegal, they should not be allowed.

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The attorney general oversees the California Department of Justice, which has 4,500 attorneys, investigators, peace officers and other workers. As the state’s top lawyer, the attorney general advises state government on legal issues and defends the state in court when it faces litigation.

The role also requires the attorney general to assist local prosecutors and police agencies with criminal investigations, and prosecute violations of state laws, including those protecting the environment, charities and gun safety.

The attorney general’s office also serves as a watchdog on police misconduct. Some critics of the criminal justice system have criticized Becerra for not being aggressive enough in investigating police agencies and officers accused of excessive force and other misconduct.

Those same criminal justice reform advocates had pressured Newsom to appoint someone who would act to reduce incarceration, reform or eliminate the bail system and hold law enforcement accountable on other issues.

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Becerra, 63, was the first Latino attorney general in California. He was appointed as the state’s top cop in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to fill a vacancy when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.

As attorney general, Becerra was a leading litigator, challenging many of the former president‘s policies, having sued the Trump administration 123 times.The next state attorney general is not expected to spend as much time in court challenging federal policy during the Biden administration.

Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that they hoped Bonta would approach the job differently.

“The Golden State has many challenges and I hope our new attorney general focuses on what matters to everyday Californians — safe streets, protection from fraud, identity theft, and ensuring our civil rights are protected,” said Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita.

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The new selection represents the third high-profile political appointment by Newsom in recent months.

In December, the governor appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla as the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate, filling the vacancy created when Sen. Kamala Harris was elected vice president. That same month, Newsom appointed Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego as secretary of state, filling the vacancy caused by Padilla’s departure for Washington.


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