California attorney general-designee Rob Bonta is already gearing up for the 2022 election
On the same day Assemblyman Rob Bonta was nominated by the governor to become California’s next attorney general, one of his first acts Wednesday was to file papers to raise political contributions for a campaign to keep the job in the 2022 election as potential challengers are beginning to emerge.
Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert is among the people so far considering a challenge to Bonta in next year’s election, a representative confirmed.
Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda who would be California’s first Filipino American attorney general, said that he is focused on campaigning for election to the post if the Legislature confirms his appointment to fill out the remaining term after Xavier Becerra left to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary in the Biden administration.
“I have looked at a calendar, too, and I see there is a reelection in just over a year and seven months,” Bonta told reporters Wednesday. “If I have the honor and privilege of being confirmed by my colleagues in the legislature I will be immediately in [thecampaign] cycle.”
He is already ringing up endorsements for the election and hiring campaign staff, and he has $2.3 million tucked away in a committee for reelection to the Assembly.
“I know what it takes to win a campaign. I have won a few up to now,” Bonta said. “I feel I have the infrastructure in place and I will be moving from day one with the reelection in mind because it is so proximate in time.”
Political observers expect Bonta to face some challengers, noting that Becerra was in the same position in the 2018 election, running against opponents including former state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a fellow Democrat.
“The attorney general spot is such a prominent political stepping stone that it’s hard to believe that Bonta won’t be challenged,” said political scientist Larry Gerston, professor emeritus at San Jose State.
Previous attorneys general who have gone on to higher office include Becerra, Kamala Harris, who is vice president, and Jerry Brown, who went from being top cop to a second tenure as governor.
As one of the most liberal members of the Legislature who has advocated dramatic changes to the criminal justice system, including an end to cash bail, Bonta is likely to draw challengers who are more moderate or supported by law enforcement.
Two of Bonta’s allies on criminal justice reform, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, are facing petition drives seeking to recall them from office after they proposed some of the same changes supported by Bonta.
Those weighing a run include Schubert, who switched her voter registration from Republican to “no party preference” after her 2018 reelection, which some saw as a sign she was aiming for higher office.
Schubert has been in the news in the past year for leading an investigation into widespread unemployment benefit fraud and for prosecuting the so-called Golden State Killer, who pleaded guilty in June to multiple murders.
“She is actively exploring a campaign for attorney general and is being encouraged by many in the public safety community to run,” said political consultant Dave Gilliard, a spokesman.
Schubert has been critical of Gascón, telling him in January that her office would no longer grant him jurisdiction over some crimes that involve Sacramento County.
“Bonta, like his close ally L.A. Dist. Atty. George Gascón, is hostile to law enforcement and no friend to crime victims.” Gilliard said. “His appointment makes it more likely that Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert will run to give voters a real choice.”
A spokesman for Bonta disputed Gilliard’s criticism.
“Simply put, those are Trumpian lies,” said Nathan Click, who formerly was a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom also addressed the issue of Bonta’s relationship with law enforcement, saying Wednesday that Bonta will work with the police on policy issues and is “someone who will keep an open mind.”
Republican Steven C. Bailey, a retired judge from South Lake Tahoe who placed second to Becerra in 2018, said Friday that he is setting up a campaign committee for a possible run for attorney general next year. Others considering a run include Los Angeles attorney Eric Early, a Republican who also ran against Becerra in 2018 and against Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) last year. Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen, a Democrat, is keeping his options open, sources say.
Schiff’s supporters had urged Newsom to appoint him to the post. On Wednesday, Schiff took to social media to call the Bonta appointment a “good pick.” Asked whether Schiff plans to run for attorney general in 2022, spokesman Patrick Boland said in a statement: “Congressman Schiff is focused on representing his constituents, and plans to run for reelection.”
Asked about the possibility of a candidacy, Rosen would say only that he was grateful the governor had considered him for the appointment, and he is focused on reforming criminal justice and improving public safety.
Law enforcement groups are so far not publicly committing to any challenger, but are instead welcoming Bonta to the table.
“We look forward to working with him to address the many important challenges and opportunities facing California’s law enforcement community today,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, the largest statewide law enforcement association in the nation.
Campaign committees have also been formed — though well before Bonta’s appointment — by Rep. Lou Correa, a moderate Santa Ana Democrat, and former state Sen. Ellen Corbett to raise money for possible runs for attorney general in 2022. Correa has raised $344,000 and Corbett has $100,000 in her account, though neither responded to requests for comment on their plans now that Bonta has been appointed.
Democrat Rick Chavez Zbur, who runs the LGBTQ civil rights group Equality California, was also under consideration for an appointment.
He hailed Bonta’s appointment, and a spokesman said that he “believes Rob Bonta will be an exceptional attorney general, and he looks forward to supporting him in 2022.”
Bonta will have some advantages in a 2022 race, including being an incumbent and having strong support from organized labor, criminal justice reform advocates and the Asian American-Pacific Islander community that urged Newsom to appoint him
In addition to getting a head start with fundraising, Bonta’s political operation is already adding staff, including Click.
But the strength of his candidacy will also depend on how well he does in office during the next year and a half, experts say.
“Rob Bonta is a tremendously talented leader,” said political consultant Roger Salazar, who worked on Becerra’s 2018 reelection campaign. “I’ve always said that the best way to get reelected to an office is to do the work. If he works as hard as attorney general as he has as an assemblyman, he won’t be facing any serious challenges.”
San Jose State’s Gerston also cited the benefits of Bonta’s background, as someone who grew up in a family of union organizers and graduated from Yale Law School to work on behalf of disadvantaged people.
“His resume is the political equivalent of an all-American Boy Scout,” Gerston said.
Among the challenges he faces, Gerston said, “he comes from the Bay Area, a less populated area than Southern California and therefore without the exposure of folks like Adam Schiff.” He will also have a relatively short time to ramp up a campaign.
“Those issues notwithstanding, Bonta will go into the campaign as the favorite even with a brief incumbency,” Gerston said.
History is also on Bonta’s side, said Tony Quinn, a historian of California government and senior editor of California Target Book, which handicaps political contests.
In the last 120 years, not a single California attorney general has been defeated in a general election, said Quinn, who has served as a redistricting consultant to Republicans and as an assistant to Republican California Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger in the 1970s.
“So history would work quite well for Mr. Bonta,” Quinn said. “In essence, you have 4,000 people in the Department of Justice working every day to make you look good.”
Bonta said he is not taking anything for granted.
“I know this [election] is different and I respect and honor that, that it’s a statewide campaign,” Bonta said. “My theme in any election has always been the voters will decide but I will never be outworked. So I am going to put in the elbow grease, the hard work.”
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