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East Bay State Assembly Candidates Launch Campaigns to Fill Rob Bonta's Seat

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East Bay Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta stands with his wife, Mia Bonta, during a press conference in San Francisco on March 24, 2021, as Gov. Gavin Newsom introduces him as his pick for California attorney general. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The race to fill a potentially vacant East Bay state Assembly seat got underway almost immediately after Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Assemblyman Rob Bonta on Wednesday to be California's next attorney general.

By day's end on Thursday, three candidates in one of California's most liberal districts announced plans to run. And more contenders are almost certain to join the accelerated campaign before a special election takes place this summer.

"It’s a mad scramble because it’s not a traditional cycle," said Bill Wong, political director of the California Assembly Democrats. "There's probably going to be a lot of interest, because it’s a really progressive seat and there’s a lot of local electeds there."

Vacant legislative seats in the deep-blue East Bay tend to draw fervent interest from candidates: In 2018, an opening in the adjacent 15th Assembly District drew a field of a dozen hopefuls.

Already, three candidates have declared that they will enter the race to replace Bonta if he is confirmed: social justice attorney Janani Ramachandran, Alameda City Councilmember Malia Vella, and James Aguilar, a San Leandro Unified School District Board trustee.

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In interviews with KQED, the three Democrats expressed a commitment to the progressive policies that make the district — which includes most of Oakland, along with the cities of Alameda and San Leandro — one of the most progressive in the state.

Nearly two-thirds of the district's voters are registered as Democrats, the second highest percentage of any Assembly district in California.

Latino, white, Asian and Black residents each account for at least 20% of the district's population.

Three Candidates Announce Campaigns

Ramachandran was the first candidate to launch a campaign for the seat — she began running weeks ago as speculation mounted about Bonta's possible nomination for attorney general.

Her career began as a case manager at a community health clinic, before she founded the nonprofit Berkeley Resistance Against Inter-Partner Violence.

"I started getting involved in not only legal aid, domestic violence work, but also every issue that intersects with violence, because you can't, in my opinion, take a social problem and think about addressing that one thing alone," she said.

That led to work on eviction protection litigation and a spot on the Oakland Public Ethics Commission.

Ramachandran said her campaign platform would consist of a $22 minimum wage, tenant protections, criminal justice reform and environmental justice.

"The perspective that I am going to bring into this seat is a very community-driven understanding of things, with the combination of my understanding of the law, how laws are formed, how they're interpreted and how and to what extent they're enforced," she said.

Malia Vella, who was elected to the Alameda City Council in 2016, has expressed an interest in working on issues of housing affordability, and touts her work in introducing an eviction moratorium in Alameda during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The issues here are really no different city to city. We're all facing issues around housing," said Vella, who argues that her local government experience positions her well for a move to the state Capitol.

"It’s one thing to say I’ve got these pie-in-the sky ideas, it’s another to see how they are implemented," she added.

Vella also works as an attorney for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, and could bring the support of organized labor into the race. She said dealing with members' concerns is akin to working with constituents.

"I like to tell people I don’t have one boss, I have thousands of bosses, and being in the Assembly is similar to that," she said.

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James Aguilar, the San Leandro school board trustee, is seeking state office after being elected to the school board in 2018, at age 18.

"Not only as the youngest voice in the race, but the son of union workers and labor organizers, and as a gay Latino, I have all of these intersecting experiences that would be of value to the Assembly district," he said.

Aguilar said the debate over the resumption of classroom learning (his district is beginning hybrid learning for all grades on April 12) has been an instructive political experience.

"It's been stressful, but it's also been really great because we have had an opportunity to connect with our community more than ever," Aguilar said. "I would say we've had our calls maxed out on Zoom and that community participation is just absolutely tremendous and we haven't had that kind of involvement before."

If elected, Aguilar said he looks forward to working on legislation addressing climate change, racial justice and education.

Likely to Be a Crowded Field

More candidates are expected to join the race in the coming days. A large field would almost certainly ensure that no candidate receives a majority of votes in the primary election, which would likely take place in June.

"If you’ve got seven or eight candidates, the math never works out that way," said Wong.

So far, no candidate with the districtwide name recognition needed to clear the field has entered the ring.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whose term expires in January 2023, has no interest in the seat, a spokesperson for the mayor said.

Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Mia Bonta, president of the Alameda Unified School Board — and Rob Bonta's wife — did not respond to requests for comment.

If no candidates gets a majority, then the top two finishers in the primary would advance to a runoff election, which would likely take place in August.

Adding another wrinkle, the district's map will change in the next year as part of California's redistricting process, so the winner will have to run for reelection in a redrawn district in 2022.

Under legislation signed by Newsom earlier this year, every registered voter in the district will automatically receive a ballot in the mail. It remains to be seen how Alameda County will supplement the mail voting with in-person options.

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In 2020, KQED reported on a series of voting issues in Alameda that raised questions among experts about the management of elections in the county.

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