A ‘no party preference’ prosecutor could shake up California attorney general’s race
As a prosecutor, Anne Marie Schubert has thrived on being able to pull off what seemed impossible.
Schubert, who has served as Sacramento County’s district attorney for eight years, has a reputation for poring over long-forgotten cases and detailed DNA evidence. Her work drew national attention when it led to an arrest and conviction in the infamous case of the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized dozens of victims throughout California in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I like to help solve problems,” Schubert, 58, said. “And I’m pretty relentless.”
It will likely take persistence and political good fortune to succeed in the race for California attorney general as an unaffiliated, independent candidate — a campaign in which she hopes to cast off her former Republican reputation and secure one of two spots on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Schubert is running to unseat Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, the Democratic incumbent appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year as the first Filipino American to hold the job. Should she advance to November, the race could become one of the fiercest competitions of 2022, testing the political viability of both independent candidates and a tough-on-crime platform reminiscent of California campaigns from the 1990s.
To Schubert, a career prosecutor, the race feels personal. She has long opposed many of the same criminal justice policies that Bonta championed as a member of the Assembly and which she argues have made it harder to punish criminals and help victims.
Schubert contends that public safety should transcend partisan politics, that California needs a prosecutor leading the state Department of Justice to handle a recent uptick in certain crimes and to push back on a criminal justice reform movement that she blames for many of the state’s problems.
“We have lost that sense of meaningful accountability and victims’ rights,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing it. I don’t have a desire to do anything else in my life. I’m not interested in hopping to some other seat. I started as a prosecutor and I want to end that way.”
But Schubert knows her promise to be independent of partisan politics could strike some as opportunism, given her family’s deep Republican roots.
She first registered with the GOP when she was 18 and said her father was a longtime Republican. So is her brother, Frank Schubert, who led the heated battle in 2008 in favor of Proposition 8, the state ballot measure that sought to block same-sex marriages. His public affairs firm has consulted for an independent campaign committee working to get her elected.
The progressive incumbent Rob Bonta will have to defend his record against tough-on-crime campaigns including Anne Marie Schubert’s.
Frank Schubert’s strident views put his sister, who is gay and the mother of two sons, in a tough position.
“I love my brother. I disagree with him,” she said.
Schubert dropped her Republican affiliation in 2018, shortly after winning her second term as Sacramento’s district attorney. On the June 7 ballot, she is listed as having “no party preference.”
Her explanation is that she doesn’t think a local district attorney or state attorney general should be considered partisan positions. She describes herself as a “law and order kind of person” and thinks her socially liberal positions on other issues will attract more than just conservatives.
In addition to her belief in marriage equality, Schubert said she supports abortion rights and would defend them as attorney general. Even though she supports the death penalty, she said she would respect the will of the voters if they chose to abolish capital punishment.
In 2016 and 2020, Schubert said she wrote in the name of Condoleezza Rice, the former Republican secretary of state, as her choice for president.
“Do I agree with everything about the GOP? No,” she said. “But it was really, ultimately about the fact that the job is nonpartisan.”
Schubert doesn’t plan to register as a Democrat, either. Instead, she boasts of being the candidate for Californians who are “sick of politics,” especially those disillusioned by the state’s criminal justice policies.
But the odds are daunting. Independent candidates haven’t had much success in California’s top-two primary system, despite voters being told in 2010 that it would help propel more centrist candidates into office. Democrats maintain a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and have held every statewide office for the last decade and a half. The five Californians who have served as attorney general since 1999 were all Democrats and the party has an almost two-to-one advantage in voter registration over either Republicans or independents.
“It’s risky to be an independent. But in this state, it’s also risky to be a Republican,” said Kim Nalder, a Sacramento State professor of political science.
Bonta has raised more than $5 million, according to state campaign finance records and is backed by the powerful California Democratic Party. As the party’s only candidate in the race, he is expected to breeze out of the primary. Schubert’s best chance at landing at least the second spot on the Nov. 8 ballot is if the two Republican primary candidates split their party’s vote next month and she has enough support from independents and moderate Democrats, Nalder said.
The California Republican Party has endorsed former Asst. U.S. Atty. Gen. Nathan Hochman in the race, who has raised more than $1.7 million for what he describes as a centrist campaign to restore political balance in Sacramento. The second GOP candidate, L.A. attorney Eric Early, is running a more politically far-right campaign. Dan Kapelovitz, a Green Party candidate who ran unsuccessfully to replace Newsom in last year’s failed recall effort, will also appear on the ballot.
“Really the question is can [Schubert] beat out the Republicans to get that second spot,” Nalder said.
Schubert’s campaign has sought to connect Bonta to San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascón, two progressive prosecutors who face recall campaigns. She said she believes the same voter frustration that fueled those efforts will drive her into the office of attorney general.
“You cannot ignore the correlation,” Schubert said. “Everybody knows what’s happening in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
Bonta supported Gascón’s 2020 campaign but has rejected attacks on his record as “political shots that are not based on the facts.”
“Public safety is, and has been, job No. 1, 2 and 3,” he said during an April news conference.
Even so, dozens of California’s top law enforcement organizations have endorsed Schubert, along with the majority of the state’s 58 prosecutors.
Greg Totten, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Assn., said that’s because California’s prosecutors “trust her to be a solid law enforcement leader.”
The association does not endorse statewide candidates, but Totten said California’s prosecutors have watched Schubert handle difficult cases, often under intense political pressure and scrutiny.
In 2019, Schubert’s office did not charge the two Sacramento officers involved in the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed Black man killed in his grandmother’s backyard a year before. Becerra’s office conducted its own independent review of the incident and later reached the same conclusion.
Schubert has also been at the forefront of several statewide cases. These include efforts to track fraud in jobless benefits paid by the state Employment Development Department during the early months of the pandemic and a challenge to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issuing additional good behavior credits to thousands of state prisoners.
“When you look at all of the candidates on the ballot ... Anne Marie is by far the most qualified. She has walked the walk,” said Beth Miller, a veteran Republican strategist.
Schubert’s main campaign slogan is that she can end the “chaos” of crime, homelessness and drug addiction in California. One of her main proposals is to establish a statewide task force to “go after the drivers of violent crime.” As attorney general, she said she would spend a lot of time with the Legislature advocating for policies that target fentanyl dealers and felons in possession of illegal guns.
Schubert said she wants to see more mandatory drug and mental health treatment and would work with a broad array of lawmakers to pass legislation.
“I will be a voice,” Schubert said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to scream bloody murder, but I think it can lead us to a much more balanced system.”
Her tough-on-crime approach remains untested with an electorate that has used the ballot box over the last decade to favor rehabilitation programs over longer prison terms. A statewide ballot measure that Schubert supported two years ago to crack down on certain crimes and toughen sentencing rules was sharply rejected, and bills that she has supported in the Legislature — ones that include some of her policy promises in the race for attorney general — have also been unsuccessful.
Polls show that voters are concerned about crime, alongside issues such as housing and gas prices. And while certaincriminal activities such as homicides and auto thefts are up in some of California’s major cities, researchers have warned that rates are a far cry from those of decades past, before criminal justice reform policies took effect.
Advocates of those policies are closely watching who emerges as the winner in the attorney general’s race.
“This is someone who really should be aligned with what the voters have been saying for the last several election cycles, which is that they want a more balanced approach,” said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, an organization that promotes reform efforts.
Samuel Garrett-Pate, a spokesperson for the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, said Californians should be concerned with Schubert’s support for the death penalty and other policies that “over-criminalize the most vulnerable communities in our state.”
Equality California endorsed Bonta, the only candidate who Garrett-Pate said sent in a required endorsement survey. Schubert declined to explain why she skipped the group’s questionnaire but said she would support stronger penalties for hate crimes against the LGBTQ community as attorney general and would push to add domestic violence and human trafficking to California’s list of violent felonies.
She pointed to youth justice programs she oversees in the Sacramento County district attorney’s office as proof that she supports measures to prevent both crime and incarceration — while sharing Democrats’ concerns that too many violent criminals have access to guns.
These are the kinds of issues, Schubert says, that she hopes voters will keep in mind as they fill out their primary ballots.
“I am relentless,” she said. “I’m going to work my tail off to get out of this primary.”
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