Column: In Rob Bonta, Newsom picks an attorney general who embodies American dream, new California

Assemblyman Rob Bonta speaks during a news conference in Sacramento in 2018.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) speaks during a news conference in Sacramento in January 2018. On Wednesday, Bonta was named California’s next attorney general by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Rob Bonta is another American dream story: Born in the Philippines and brought up by parents who helped César Chávez and Dolores Huerta unionize farmworkers.

Bonta’s mother, Cynthia, immigrated to California by slow boat in the 1960s. His father, Warren, grew up in Ventura County and became a voting-rights organizer for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama. Mom and dad were missionaries in the Philippines when Rob was born.

They brought Bonta to California when he was 2 months old and moved to a little trailer near Keene, a town in the Tehachapi Mountains, adjacent to the United Farm Workers headquarters. His parents’ job was to organize Latino and Filipino farmworkers.

When he was a teen, the family moved to a Sacramento suburb where Rob played high school soccer and became class valedictorian. Inspired by the Atticus Finch character in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Bonta says, he wound up getting a law degree at Yale University.

He became a deputy city attorney in San Francisco, was elected to the Alameda City Council and in 2012 won a seat in the state Assembly, where he’s assistant majority leader.

So, skeptics who say the American dream is no longer real for people without riches need only look at Bonta, 49, who was chosen Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be the next attorney general of the nation’s most populous state.

“It’s one of the most important positions, not just in the state, but arguably in the United States of America,” Newsom said at a San Francisco news conference announcing his selection.


It’s considered California’s second-most-important elective state office.

Newsom lauded the previous attorney general, Xavier Becerra, for filing more than 100 suits and “pushing back against Trumpism.”

The coveted job has long been a springboard to higher office in California.

Becerra was plucked by President Biden for his Cabinet as secretary of Health and Human Services. Becerra’s predecessor was Vice President Kamala Harris, who used the state attorney general post as a steppingstone to the U.S. Senate. Four attorneys general since World War II have moved up to governor, including Harris’ predecessor, Jerry Brown.

Depending on how Bonta performs, he could be in a good position to run for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat in 2024, assuming she doesn’t seek reelection at age 91, or for governor when Newsom’s term expires in 2026 if he survives the current recall effort and is reelected next year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom appoints Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta as California attorney general, replacing Xavier Becerra, now in the Biden Cabinet.

March 24, 2021

It’s a good bet that Feinstein won’t run and Newsom will survive.

Bonta’s nomination still must be ratified by the Democrat-dominated Legislature, but that’s a cinch.

The next major hurdle for Bonta will be getting elected next year. And he needs to start running immediately. He has never run statewide before and isn’t really known outside his Alameda County Assembly district.


Moreover, Bonta has a very liberal legislative record, and there’s plenty to shoot at by a centrist Democrat, if one decided to challenge him in a primary — or a moderate Republican, if there still is any in California.

Bonta is in good hands politically, however: He’s among the stable of successful politicians handled by veteran strategist Ace Smith and his firm. Others include Newsom and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, the governor’s recent selection to replace Harris in the Senate. Harris was also one of Smith’s clients before she was elected vice president.

Newsom praised Bonta as “a leader in the fight to reform our justice system and stand up to the forces of hate.”

“Rob represents what makes California great — our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices,” Newsom said.

“Most importantly at this moment when so many communities are under attack for who they are and who they love, Rob has fought to strengthen hate crime laws and protect communities from the forces of hate.”

Newsom was obviously influenced in part to appoint Bonta — who will be California’s first Filipino American attorney general — by the recent rise in anti-Asian violence throughout the country.

The governor had been under heavy pressure from organizations representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to select Bonta, who also had strong labor support.

His selection leaves California’s eight-member group of statewide elected officials as one of the most diverse in the nation.

With Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra up for a Cabinet post, activists have recommended a district attorney who has stopped seeking the death penalty in murder cases.

Feb. 28, 2021

Bonta will be the third Asian American or Pacific Islander among the eight. Two are Black — one of them, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, was also appointed by Newsom. Two are white and one is Latino. Newsom is the only white male.

But geographically, there is little diversity among the state’s top elected officials. Six are from the San Francisco Bay Area: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller and superintendent of public instruction. Only the insurance commissioner is from Los Angeles County. The secretary of state’s home is San Diego.

Newsom passed on appointing a high-profile candidate from L.A. County, U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank.

Another rejected contender was Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state Senate leader who had a close working relationship with the governor.

Also turned down was the most seasoned prosecutor of the group, Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen.

All three men are white.

Instead, Newsom found someone embodying the American dream from an immigrant family of color — and symbolizing the new California.