Monday Morning Thoughts: A Large Pool of Candidates for AG

Assemblymember Ash Kalra introduces Racial Justice Act in March

By David M. Greenwald

There will be a lot of wrangling over who the Attorney General appointment by Governor Newsom will be—that is if he even gets the opportunity.  While President-elect Joe Biden appointed Xavier Becerra to Secretary of Health and Human Services, he was, as Attorney General, a thorn in the side of President Trump—filing over 100 lawsuits, many of them on immigration and the environment.

Governor Newsom made his pick for Senate by naming Alex Padilla and then, after angering some Black leaders in the state, he named Shirley Weber, the Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus to fill Padilla’s spot as Secretary of State.

Still, prominent Black leaders like San Francisco Mayor London Breed complained about the pick, criticizing him for passing over Black legislators like Barbara Lee and Karen Bass in favor of Padilla.  Progressives worried that Padilla’s record on issues like Criminal Justice Reform was mediocre at best.

So the key battle now will be over who gets the AG appointment—a position which, unlike that of Senator, is directly involved in criminal justice reform efforts.

Will Governor Newsom attempt to assuage some of the criticism by Black leaders by naming another Black to head that post?  Or will he push the envelop on criminal justice reform and name one of the top reformers there?

This weekend, the Vanguard learned that he asked the Legislative Black Caucus to make a recommendation.  Does that mean that the governor is looking to appoint a Black or is he simply doing due diligence?  We have heard from reliable sources that the LBC will be interviewing candidates this week, starting today.

While yesterday’s article featured Paul Henderson, talking to folks in San Francisco, the Vanguard has found that many reformers have been critical of him for not pushing hard enough on police reform issues.  The California Association of Black Lawyers also pushed for Diana Becton—Becton served as a judge in Contra Costa County for 22 years and since 2017 has been a reform-minded prosecutor and a close ally of people like George Gascón and Chesa Boudin.

A third candidate they recommended is Alameda Assistant DA Terry Wiley—a curious choice given that according to our sources he is not even considered a reformer.

If Newsom goes the reform route, the two most logical choices, backed by reformers, are two Assemblymembers—Rob Bonta and Ash Kalra.

Bonta was the first Filipino American elected to the California State Legislature.  The children of farm workers, his parents worked for the United Farm Workers and organized Filipino and Mexican American farm workers.  He worked as a Deputy City Attorney for San Francisco.

Two of his strongest pieces of legislation include AB 32 which made California the first state in the nation to end the use of private, for-profit prisons.  He also co-authored SB 10 with Senator Bob Hertzberg, which ended cash bail in California—overturned by Prop. 15 this year.

He represents Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro since 2012.  The Bee reported this weekthat a growing group of supporters think Bonta would be best for the job.

“As a career-long advocate for justice and equality, Rob Bonta has led the fight in the Legislature to reform the criminal justice system and treat people with dignity,” Assemblymember Evan Low said in a statement. “I’ve known Rob for years, and he would lead the California Department of Justice with distinction.”

A number of criminal justice advocacy groups also announced their support for Bonta this week, citing his leadership in the Assembly fighting to outlaw private prisons, end cash bail and reform sentencing laws.

Then there is Santa Clara Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a former Public Defender who authored the Racial Justice Act.

Upon the Governor’s signing of the seminal legislation, Kalra said, “Those in opposition say that this bill is impractical; I say that injustice is impractical. We cannot ignore what is happening in our society and continue to allow the court system to reflect racial biases that punish our Black and Latinx communities. If the current system has been created by design, then let us create a new design for our criminal justice system, a design that actually upholds justice and the Constitutional rights of equality for all Californians.”

Systemic racial disparities are pervasive in mass incarceration in California, where Black men are over eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

“California’s Civil Rights law clearly prohibits discrimination in housing, in employment, and public accommodation,” Assemblymember Kalra said at a press conference back in March. “But nowhere in California law is there a clear statement that racial discrimination will not be tolerated in our criminal justice system.

In February at a conference in San Francisco, he said, he has the desire to actually “accomplish public safety, not just the veneer of public safety.”

He added, “If we give someone ten more years, then the public feels safer.  But we know that’s false.”  He said the reason we are where we are: “We want to make people feel better, but not necessarily safer.  At the same time, brutalizing entire communities.  The process creating an industry that feeds off itself.”

Recently pushed as a candidate, Kalra has strong support from justice groups looking for a former public defender to lead the justice department, just as former public defenders have taken over DA’s offices across the country.

“Clearly, the manner in which California previously handled criminal justice did not make us safer,” Kalra told one publication. “It just locked up a lot of poor people for many, many years. I think that we can be safer by ensuring that our criminal justice system is applied equally.”

Which way will Governor Newsom go?  We’ll find out in the coming weeks.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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