Meet California’s New Attorney General

After months of speculation, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced Rob Bonta, a Democratic state lawmaker, as his pick to become the next attorney general.

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

The job has been officially open since Xavier Becerra was confirmed last week as the head of President Joe Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services, where he will help lead the nation’s pandemic response.

But from the moment the president selected Becerra, the political gears started turning.

Bonta is the governor’s last of three major appointments in the great reshuffling of Democratic power in the state, which was tipped off by the ascent of Vice President Kamala Harris. The vice president — in case you have forgotten, since it was approximately 10,000 pandemic ages ago — was previously California’s junior senator.

In December, Newsom appointed Sen. Alex Padilla to replace Harris, and Shirley Weber to replace Padilla as secretary of state.

As my colleague Shawn Hubler reported, Bonta will be the first Filipino American to be the state’s “top cop,” and the second Asian American. (Harris, of course, was the first.)

Here are answers to other questions you may have about the announcement:

Who is Rob Bonta?

Bonta is a member of the state Assembly who has represented the East Bay since 2012.

The son of civil rights activists, Bonta, 48, was born in the Philippines and grew up in the Central Valley, where his parents, Cynthia and Warren Bonta, helped organize farmworkers alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The family eventually moved to the Sacramento area.

Bonta is a graduate of Yale University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and his law degree. He and his wife, Mia Bonta, who is president of the Alameda Unified School District Board, met there.

They have three children and live in the East Bay with their dog, Lego.

A former San Francisco deputy city attorney, Rob Bonta served briefly on the Alameda City Council before running for the state Assembly.

Bonta called the job “the honor of a lifetime,” in a statement.

“I became a lawyer because I saw the law as the best way to make a positive difference for the most people,” he said.

Why did Bonta get the job?

Picking the state’s top law enforcement officer came with a complex set of considerations — particularly as Californians increasingly call for broad criminal justice reform.

While Becerra was attorney general, he was known for leading the legal resistance to the Trump administration, suing more than 100 times. But he was also criticized for failing to follow through on promises to hold the police accountable for misconduct.

Bonta has wide credibility with progressives, many of whom applauded his appointment Wednesday.

“As a state Assembly member, Bonta fought to end cash bail and cure the conflict of interest that occurs when elected prosecutors receive financial and political support from law enforcement unions,” the Prosecutors Alliance of California said in a statement. “He is a leader that has dedicated his career to protecting and uplifting vulnerable communities.”

The group of “reform-minded” prosecutors was formed last year and includes George Gascón, Los Angeles’s district attorney, whose election last year was a major victory for progressive activists.

Bonta is also Asian American and had the backing of a coalition of lawmakers who called on Newsom to pick an Asian or Pacific Islander — a call that took on particular urgency after last week’s killings of eight people in Atlanta-area spas, including six women of Asian descent.

“At a time when our communities are facing hate and disturbing patterns of violence, it sends a powerful signal,” David Chiu, a state legislator leading the charge, said in a statement Wednesday.

Who else was a candidate?

As with the jockeying to replace Harris in the Senate, the field eventually narrowed to three top contenders.

Along with Bonta, Rep. Adam Schiff was angling for the job, with the backing of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento’s mayor, was also in contention.

Both men issued statements congratulating Bonta on Wednesday.

Observers have noted Newsom’s penchant for history-making political appointments; Padilla is the first Latino senator from California, and Weber is the first Black woman to serve as California’s secretary of state.

What power does the attorney general’s office have?

In addition to being a springboard to higher office — alumni include Harris and former Gov. Jerry Brown — the job is broad. And the attorney general has wide latitude to set his or her own agenda.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, who has worked with Bonta on the state’s Commission on APIA Affairs, told me that as a lawmaker, Bonta “has been really strong on immigrant rights.”

He pushed for more transparency from law enforcement agencies about their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and has sought better data collection on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities — information that advocates have said is crucial for addressing hate crimes and incidences of discrimination.

Ramakrishnan said he believed that Bonta has an chance to continue that work.

“I think we have an opportunity to see how he would innovate in the role of the attorney general,” he said.

What kind of political situation is Bonta walking into?

Well, as we have mentioned, there is a significant effort underway to recall Newsom.

So in addition to appointing an attorney general he believes can win a statewide election in 2022, Newsom needs a progressive ally.

Additionally, Ramakrishnan said that record numbers of Asian American voters turned out in 2020. Bonta could harness that excitement among Asian American communities who have long been underrepresented in politics. That is especially true in California.

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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