The race for attorney general in California has in some ways become a referendum on the broader tussle over whether criminal justice reform has gone too far in the state — and what the best course is to ensure public safety.
Meet the Right-Leaning Candidates Vying to Replace Rob Bonta as California Attorney General
The incumbent, Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta, was appointed to the role last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom after Xavier Becerra vacated the post to become secretary of health and human services in the Biden administration.
Bonta, who did not respond to repeated requests to talk to KQED for this story, is facing three challengers from the right: Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican who is now registered as no party preference, as well as Republican lawyers Nathan Hochman and Eric Early. The four appear together in the June primary, and the top two vote-getters will face each other in the November general election. (A fifth candidate — Dan Kapelovitz, of the Green party — also is on the primary ballot.)
The contest follows several years of increasing crime rates, both in California and across the nation, a trend that's refocused attention on many of the criminal justice reforms Bonta championed as a lawmaker in the state Assembly, and one that's provided an opening for more conservative law-and-order candidates in this deep-blue state. All three of Bonta's challengers from the right have seized on his support of policies like eliminating cash bail and softening criminal sentencing laws as proof that he's not the best candidate for this moment.
KQED interviewed the three candidates to find out more about why they are running and what their priorities would be as the state's top law enforcement officer.
Eric Early: The pro-Trumper
The most conservative and Trump-like candidate in the race, Early runs a business and entertainment law firm and hosts a Friday night talk radio show on the Los Angeles AM station KABC.
He’s an unapologetic supporter of the former president and claims, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the 2020 election was stolen and dismisses well-documented reports of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race as a conspiracy theory.
As some of his top credentials, Early cites his unsuccessful lawsuits against a school over critical race theory and against news organizations over their coverage of a Republican mining magnate and candidate for U.S. Senate. He also ran for Congress in 2020, challenging Trump critic Adam Schiff for the seat representing a large swath of Los Angeles County — and lost by some 55 points.
Early says he’s running for attorney general on a key bread-and-butter issue: public safety. California is headed in the wrong direction, he argues, and insists he's the one to fix things.
“First thing I would do on Day One is I would call a meeting,” Early said. “I would call in all the sheriffs, all the DAs, all the police chiefs, and we would have a roundtable discussion for as long as we needed to, because I want to hear from the experts on what they believe is needed to get to the bottom of what I call the creation of a criminal's paradise here in California.”
Early said he would use the bully pulpit to help push changes to laws he sees as problematic, including Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that lowered most drug possession charges to misdemeanors and raised the legal threshold to prosecute felony shoplifting.
As a lawyer, Early says, he has helped scores of people targeted by mortgage fraudsters. He also served as lead attorney in the unsuccessful effort to recall Newsom.
And he’s never served in government — something he considers an asset.
“I firmly believe government is the reason for our failures. It's time for somebody from out of government with my experience and background to get in and do what I can to help the people. And you know, I fight for all law-abiding citizens of all races, creeds, colors and sexual orientation,” he said.
Although Early is anti-abortion rights, his spokesperson says he will uphold all laws, even those he disagrees with. But Early also told KQED he would use the office to investigate laws he believes could be unconstitutional, specifically noting that former Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend California’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008, after voters passed Proposition 8.
Early also indicated he might not consider all of California’s gun laws constitutional.
“The attorney general can look at whether or not a law should even be enforced if it is unconstitutional. The attorney general absolutely can support our Second Amendment right, which is what I do,” he said, without citing any specific state gun restrictions he was particularly concerned with.
In recent years, the attorney general’s office has been in constant litigation defending the state’s restrictive gun laws.
And while Early is encouraging voters to cast their ballots for him in any format allowed — including by mail — he also said he has questions about the integrity of the state’s entire voting system, opposes universal vote-by-mail rules, and questions the security of electronic voting machines.
“If I get this job for attorney general, I will investigate our election apparatus,” he said, echoing a pledge made by pro-Trump candidates nationwide.
Those ties to Trumpism make Early look like an easy target for Democrats in a state that overwhelmingly elected President Biden — groups backing Bonta have gone so far as to run ads promoting Early in the hopes that he will be the easiest of the three candidates to beat in November.
Nathan Hochman: 'The hard middle'
Nathan Hochman says he may be a Republican and a former federal prosecutor, but hopes voters won’t pigeonhole him.
“My message is bipartisan. It's commonsense. It's pragmatic. It's what, if you were sitting around trying to figure out the solutions to these problems, most people would come up with,” he said. “And that's where I want to go. The hard middle.”
A native Californian, Hochman says his career as a U.S. attorney and private defense lawyer has spanned the gamut from going after tax cheats, polluters and dirty cops to prosecuting political corruption and defending people accused of white-collar crimes. He notes he’s the only candidate who has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney; he also served on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission for five years, including as its president for one of them.
Hochman, for example, says he doesn’t think everyone needs to be locked up and that California should invest in alternatives to incarceration, including diversion programs, home detention and community service.
Like Bonta’s other challengers, Hochman cites public safety as his top issue and is critical of major criminal justice reforms, including Proposition 47. He also says he wants to use existing laws to prosecute fentanyl dealers and crack down on human trafficking.
And he says California should invest in both a strong police force and law enforcement alternatives, rather than prioritizing just one.
That varied experience, he says, “gives me an ability to calibrate who are the true public safety threats, who need to be imprisoned and taken off our streets, and who can serve their debt to society in some other way.”
“People like to complain about the police, but then they want to actually cut their budget and assume they're actually going to get better at their job,” he said, while adding, “I also believe that social service organizations need to be funded.”
Hochman's spokesperson did not respond to a question about the candidate's position on abortion. Hochman, though, argues that “the job of the California attorney general is to defend and enforce the laws on the books of California. Full stop. If I wanted to make the laws, I'd run for a different position.”
And, Hochman pledges he would use the full power of the attorney general’s 4,500 lawyers to pursue both criminal and civil cases that matter to Californians — including investigating how fraudsters bilked an estimated $20 billion in unemployment payments out of the state EDD, and whether anyone in state government should be held accountable.
While there’s already a special counsel at the EDD doing just that, as well as multiple investigations at the state and federal levels, Hochman argues the attorney general should be investigating as well.
“I would hold responsible the people who either fraudulently, corruptly or negligently allowed $25 billion [sic] to go out the door in a completely criminal way. You know, it was ripped off. I mean, that's shocking. And then I absolutely go after the people who ripped it off,” he said.
Anne Marie Schubert: The career prosecutor
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is a lifelong prosecutor — the reason, she argues, voters should make her California’s top cop.
“Why do I want this job? Because it's all I've ever done,” she said. “And I believe very much in public safety and victims' rights. And I've watched the demise of public safety around California. So I'm going to step into this role to help lead the state back to a balanced public safety system.”
Schubert is a former Republican who registered no party preference in 2018, citing the nonpartisan nature of the DA’s office and the fact that she has a range of liberal and conservative views on varying issues.
She worked as a prosecutor in Contra Costa and Solano counties before coming home to the Sacramento DA’s office in 1996. Elected district attorney there in 2014, she made headlines for helping crack the decades-old Golden State Killer case using forensic DNA and genealogy databases; she also got heat in 2019 when she declined to charge two police officers who shot Stephon Clark to death in his grandmother’s backyard.
Schubert cites violent crime as a top priority, pledging to advocate in the Legislature for more money for law enforcement and longer criminal sentences.
And, she says, as attorney general, she would intervene in counties where she feels district attorneys aren’t being tough enough — by filing charges herself. San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the cities she has singled out, both of which have progressive district attorneys who are facing recalls and whom she has frequently targeted.
“Clearly, the issue of violent crime is the most pressing. It's the issue of violent crime and illegal guns. So, you know, Day One or Week One or Month One … [the job] I think is to get control of violent crime. And that means working on your relationships across California with law enforcement, which I have already,” she said.
Schubert is an outspoken critic of many of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms — including Proposition 57, a 2016 measure that offers shorter sentences to some prisoners who participate in rehabilitation programs. As attorney general, Schubert says she would help lead the push to change those types of laws. In the shorter term, she says, partnering with — and better funding — police agencies is key.
Schubert also says the state needs to do a better job making sure programs aimed at helping criminal offenders actually work.
“That’s not just rehabilitation within the prison walls, but the reentry plans, the supervision that's necessary,” she said.
Schubert says she is pro-abortion rights and will defend the “constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion,” as well as all other state laws.
“I am deeply disturbed and, quite frankly, shocked that our [U.S.] Supreme Court would overrule 50 years of legal precedent,” she said in a written statement, in response to the recent leak of a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
“Additionally, the concept that some states would criminalize a woman’s decision to seek an abortion is outrageous to me,” she added. “As a career prosecutor, I’ve had cases where women and children were raped and impregnated by their rapist. It’s reprehensible that some states want to ban a woman’s right to choose even under these acts of violence.”
But on another hot-button issue — gun control — Schubert says the state needs more enforcement of existing laws, not new limits on guns.
“I get that there's people like Rob Bonta that want to pass more gun control, more gun control, more gun control,” she said. “This is a crime-control issue. This is about taking that gun out of the hands of convicted felons and the prohibited person that shouldn't have it.”