Newsom's AG pick will test California's mood on criminal justice

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·9 min read
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OAKLAND — Becoming California's top cop may have been the easy part. Keeping the job is another story.

Rob Bonta was Gov. Gavin Newsom's choice for state attorney general after eight years as a liberal Democratic state lawmaker. He was celebrated in March by police reformers and Asian American organizations as a groundbreaking pick at a time of social upheaval.

But Bonta has routinely been at odds with law enforcement, who remain powerful in California and could very well back a credible challenger. Whether Bonta survives next year in his first statewide election will be the ultimate test of whether this once tough-on-crime state has truly changed.

Bonta enters as one of the nation's most liberal attorneys general and has repeatedly spoken about a lack of trust between law enforcement and the communities they police. His ascension comes as reform-minded prosecutors have come to power around California and the country and ignited a fierce battle with from law enforcement. Bonta is allied with those prosecutors.

“I’ve been proud to partner with each of you to pass a number of big reforms and to right historic wrongs — to repair our criminal justice system,” Bonta told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing, adding that he hoped to make California “a national vanguard for reform.”

Bonta, 48, takes over a position that has become a prime Democratic stepping stone. The last three state AGs were now-Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Eight years ago, Bonta arrived in Sacramento in the midst of a generational shift in thinking on law and order. Emboldened by durable Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature and victories at the ballot box, California lawmakers have spent years repudiating the state’s tough-on-crime past by pushing to reduce incarceration and cut down sentencing. Bonta’s record as a lawmaker aligns him firmly with that trend.

Still, voters remain unpredictable. While they affirmed sentencing rollbacks at the ballot last year, they also chose to keep California's cash bail system, overriding the Legislature's attempt to ban it.

Two serious Bonta challengers have emerged and more could follow. Republican Nathan Hochman, a former assistant U.S. attorney general, and independent Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced they would run soon after Bonta was confirmed last month.

Schubert in particular could pose a tough challenge if she survives the June top-two primary. She left the Republican Party in 2018 and has won big headlines for playing a lead role in solving the Golden State Killer crime spree — perhaps the state's most puzzling cold case in the last 50 years — and helping to identify inmates who were illegally collecting unemployment benefits from California during the pandemic.

She said in an interview that “some of these bills that Bonta is supporting or passing” fuel “the continual erosion of crime victims rights and really a danger to public safety.”

The campaign could morph into the latest referendum on California’s aggressive moves away from stringent sentencing and incarceration. A new class of progressive prosecutors like Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has come to power in California, channeling a national racial justice movement and tapping into a national fundraising network that can counter the deep resources of law enforcement unions. Bonta endorsed Gascón and has worked with Boudin on police use-of-force legislation.

Both Boudin and Gascón have faced headwinds since their election. They are staring down recall campaigns, and a statewide group representing prosecutors joined with Los Angeles line attorneys in suing to block Gascón’s efforts to suspend sentencing enhancements, expanding a rift between the majority of California’s prosecutors and a new generation of reformers. Schubert is a leader in the prosecutors' group, the California District Attorneys Association.

Bonta’s reelection campaign is likely to reproduce those dynamics on a statewide scale. Bonta predicted at his introductory press conference that “a lot of folks [are] prepared to get behind an election.” Law enforcement interests could throw their weight behind a candidate who rejects the agenda of reformers like Bonta and Gascón.

Schubert already has repudiated Gascón, refusing to share jurisdiction on cases with him, and she said in an interview that “when Gascón and Chesa Boudin are the ones tweeting out their overwhelming support for [Bonta], anyone who’s concerned about public safety should be concerned about this nomination.”

“I believe crime victims’ rights have been eviscerated and they have been ignored by these types of individuals,” she said.

Bonta political adviser Dana Williamson responded that Schubert is "tremendously flawed" and called the Sacramento prosecutor's criticisms "Trumpian lies" in a likely preview of campaign messaging next year. Williamson was quick to point to CDAA's misuse of $2.9 million in enforcement funds on political activities and Schubert decisions not to prosecute officers in high-profile police shootings.

"She has refused to bring excessive force cases and serves as treasurer of an organization that misspent millions meant to prosecute polluters," Williamson said in a statement. "Now she wants to lead the Department of Justice — the same entity that is investigating her organization's misdeeds."

Bonta’s history has trained him for a legal career while orienting him toward activism. His parents helped organize California farm workers, giving him a front-row seat from the family trailer — provided by the powerful United Farm Workers — to one of the state’s most storied social justice movements. That experience ensured, in Bonta’s words, that “their fight for justice has been hardwired into who I am.” He went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, where he captained the soccer team, before working as an attorney for San Francisco and as a health care official and then vice mayor of Alameda.

He won his East Bay Assembly seat in 2012, wearing a traditional barong tagalog for his swearing in as he became the first Filipino-American to serve in the Legislature. Throughout his time there, Bonta has been a reliably progressive vote at the leftward end of Sacramento’s ever-growing Democratic caucus, and his bills show a long-running commitment to overhauling how California incarcerates immigrants and inmates — repeatedly putting him at odds with influential law enforcement interests.

He fought for years to limit California’s use of private detention facilities, in 2019 securing a ban on for-profit prison contracts. His efforts to phase out cash bail culminated in a law banning the practice that voters subsequently overturned. He sought repeatedly to limit California’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He has pushed to expand compensation for crime victims and to offer services like condoms and pregnancy care to inmates. He firmly opposes the death penalty.

Bonta has also pushed year after year to have California collect more precise data on Asian American subgroups. One of his first bills signed into law required state curricula on California’s farmworker movement to cover the contributions of Filipino-Americans like his parents.

That record helped build an alliance of criminal justice reformers and Asian Americans who pushed Newsom to appoint Bonta attorney general — a message that gained urgency after a wave of anti-Asian violence. In an interview, Bonta said it was possible to be “smart on crime, while pursuing accountability, supporting our victims and enforcing our existing laws is the right way.”

Progressive backers hope Bonta will continue pushing to reduce incarceration and policing in marginalized communities, forego the death penalty and advocate for more police accountability. During his confirmation hearing, Bonta endorsed legislation that would allow California to decertify peace officers for misconduct — a priority for reformers.

“What's happening in the world is we're talking about accountability for individual officers, as we just saw with the Derek Chauvin trial,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles Chapter, “but we're not talking about accountability for departments. And so we'd love to have Bonta engage in a way that brings accountability for departments.”

That accountability would include investigating police departments when officers shoot and kill suspects, Abdullah said. One of Bonta’s tasks will be enforcing a new state law requiring his office to take over police slaying investigations — which was enacted last year after years of thwarted attempts.

Bonta will have just months on the job before he has to stand for reelection in 2022. That he represents a safely Democratic seat in the liberal Bay Area brings advantages and disadvantages: a lack of competitive elections has let him pile up a $2.4 million war chest, but it also means Bonta has never been truly tested during election season and has scant statewide name recognition.

Despite the competitive election ahead, Bonta can win public opinion, said Tinisch Hollins, the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. She points to the elections of Gascón and Boudin as an indication that voters want progressive-minded law enforcement officials.

“There will always be a public political debate about it,” said Hollins, “but when we look at where folks have placed their priorities in terms of what they want to see around public safety, AG Bonta and others like him are on the right track.”

Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen, a progressive who was on Newsom’s short list for the attorney general nomination, said he believes California voters have a strong desire to see “smart and balanced” criminal justice reform that will be reflected during the election, but cautioned that there’s “very little appetite for a radical dismantling of the criminal justice system.”

“It's not defunding police, it's not tearing down the jail, it's not closing all the prisons,” he continued. “I think [voters] are looking for solutions that keep them and their families safe, and that reduce crime in a humane and effective way.”

Law enforcement groups are taking a cautious approach for now, wary of antagonizing the state’s new top prosecutor before he takes office. San Francisco Police Officers Association head Tony Montoya said Bonta’s record would put him to the left of any prior California attorney general, but Montoya said he remains optimistic they can find common ground as long as Bonta acts “based on the law and the facts” and “with the least amount of politics involved.”

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, who heads the California District Attorneys Association, argued Bonta will come to power at a critical moment for public safety, pointing to a “staggering” surge in homicides in Los Angeles and criticizing Gascon’s “reckless” policies.

“It’s a big responsibility, and we’re really hoping he’s a serious attorney general that will recognize some of those serious problems we’re facing,” Pierson said. “In Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent in San Francisco people don’t feel safe.”