East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta speaks during a press conference at the International Hotel in San Francisco's Chinatown on March 24, 2021, where he was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be California attorney general, replacing Xavier Becerra. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Democratic East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta Wednesday to be California's next attorney general, a position vacated by Xavier Becerra, who was recently confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services for the Biden administration.
Bonta, a 48-year-old Filipino American, will take the job amid escalating violence against Asian Americans, an issue that has gained growing national prominence.
Newsom made the announcement at the International Hotel in San Francisco's Chinatown. He praised Bonta, who will be the first Filipino American to hold the position, as having the history and experience to lead the powerful office in this moment.
"This is someone ready to hit the ground running. Someone who has been working hand in glove on many of the issues that are front and center and are certainly topical today," Newsom said. "And I appreciate Rob bringing up the most salient and most obvious point around the issue of API hate in this state, in our region, in this city, our nation, for that matter, globally. And I think from his unique life and lived experience, we have someone that doesn't need to be educated on these things, that truly will be a potent, powerful figure."
Bonta has represented the 18th Assembly District, which includes areas of Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro, since 2012.
If confirmed by the state Legislature, as is widely expected, Bonta will serve out the remainder of Becerra's four-year term, which ends in 2022. As such, he would presumably run next year for a full term.
Bonta has authored several criminal justice reform bills, including ones that ban the use of private prisons, mandate independent reviews by the state Department of Justice of officer-involved shootings and eliminate cash bail. All three of those were signed into law, but Senate Bill 10 — the bail measure — never took effect and was overturned by voters last year.
The assemblymember has also earned broad support from leaders in California's criminal justice community, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Lenore Anderson, chief executive and president of Alliance for Safety and Justice.
"Rob has been a champion in the Legislature for safety and justice reform, and he has been a steadfast and forward-thinking partner for the reform movement," Anderson said in a statement before Bonta was named.
Civil rights advocate Tim Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation, called Bonta a leader in the fight to reform California's criminal justice system.
"I've worked closely with him and have seen up close his resolve and determination to create a more just world," Silard said.
When asked by a reporter on Wednesday how he plans to charge serious repeat offenders, including those convicted of hate crimes, Bonta doubled down on his commitment to criminal justice reform.
"My values don't change when it comes to specific application to a certain type of crime," he said. "We have enough enhancements, enough criminalization, enough mass incarceration, enough over-sentencing, more than we need. We need prevention. We need healing. Rather than retributive justice, we need restorative justice."
Bonta was born in Quezon City, Philippines, in 1972 and came to California with his parents when he was just 2 months old, after Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. In California, his mother worked for the United Farm Workers union, helping to organize Filipino farmworkers.
Bonta graduated from Yale Law School in 1998 and served as San Francisco deputy city attorney from 2003 to 2012, until he was elected to the Assembly.
In a statement announcing the appointment, Bonta said he became a lawyer because he saw it "as the best way to make a positive difference for the most people." He pledged to "work tirelessly every day to ensure that every Californian who has been wronged can find justice and that every person is treated fairly under the law."
Even though he has won his recent elections overwhelmingly, Bonta is known as a prolific fundraiser, finishing 2020 with $2.4 million in the bank, money that can now be used for his 2022 campaign for attorney general.
California's attorney general is sometimes referred to as "the state's top cop," managing the Department of Justice, with broad jurisdiction and power.
The office includes 4,500 attorneys, investigators and other employees who oversee a vast portfolio of legal issues, including public safety, hate crimes, consumer protection, environmental justice, elections, civil rights and narcotics enforcement. The office also handles civil rights issues related to police practices, including the review of allegations of misconduct by local law enforcement agencies and their officers.
Additionally, the state DOJ represents "the people of California" in all civil and criminal matters before trial and appellate courts as well as the state Supreme Court. It also provides legal counsel to state government boards, commissions and agencies.
With a possible recall of Newsom on the electoral horizon, it's notable that the attorney general's office also writes ballot titles and summaries for statewide ballot measures and can offer legal opinions on election-related issues. While the office is supposed to be nonpartisan, its actions often reflect the political party of its chief.
But as the state's top law enforcement official, the attorney general generally maintains good working relationships with county district attorneys, sheriffs and police departments. This can lead to friction, criticism or disappointment from criminal justice advocates when the AG does not go as far as they would like in pushing for reform on hot-button issues such as police misconduct.
Becerra was roundly criticized by media organizations, including KQED, for withholding thousands of records on police misconduct and shootings made public by a landmark transparency law, SB 1421. Becerra claimed the law was not retroactive, a position rejected by the courts.
The former attorney general also earned the wrath of Republicans for the more than 100 lawsuits his office filed against the Trump administration.
The attorney general post is considered an important springboard to higher office, In fact, there's an old joke that "AG" stands for "aspiring governor." In California, the last three AG's — Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra — went on to become governor, U.S. vice president and secretary for Health and Human Services, respectively.
Other Democrats that Newsom reportedly considered for the job included Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff and Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of Equality California, an LGBT rights organization.
The last Republican attorney general elected in California was Dan Lungren, who served two terms from 1991 to 1999.