By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Word leaked out just before the scheduled 2 pm press conference in San Francisco. Given the expectation that Governor Newsom was going name his AG pick on Wednesday and the location of the press conference, I figured it would not be Adam Schiff and we already knew on Tuesday it would not be Darrell Steinberg.
Still, I was surprised and pleased to learn it was Rob Bonta. If I had a top three of realistic people—people that were likely to be in the mix—it would have been Bonta, Ash Kalra (the Assemblymember and former Public Defender) and Contra Costa DA Diana Becton.
Of the three, Bonta probably topped my list to be honest. His record in the legislature on criminal justice reform is really second to none. Word was that if he didn’t get selected by Newsom, he was going to run for DA in Alameda County—which would have been fun to watch as well.
A lot of people believe that, if it weren’t for the recall, Newsom might well have chosen Adam Schiff. But Bonta gives California a new direction.
He put an emphasis on “the broken criminal justice system” and on “criminal justice reform.”
In response to questions about conservative pushback to criminal justice reform, Bonta doubled down noting that fixing the “fundamentally broken criminal justice system” is a top priority for him if he gets confirmed.
“Criminal justice reform is ripe for change that can be led by the Attorney General’s office,” he said. He noted that many of the bills that he will be responsible for implementing will be bills that he himself authored. “Criminal justice reform has been a top priority for me and you should expect that to change.”
Police personnel records has been a big issue with AG Becerra being criticized by progressives, reformers and some in the media for not being aggressive in releasing those records.
He said that will be an area that he will look at if he’s confirmed.
He will also be aggressive on police accountability noting that the new statute just came into effect this year, requiring “independent investigations of officer involved shootings that lead to the death of an unarmed Californian.”
Bonta said organizing those efforts “will be critical” and he said he would carry out the law.
Still, at the end of the day, this appears to be one of deep political calculation.
Polling that came out shows that if the recall election were held today, Governor Newsom would survive—barely. But one thing that probably vexes him is that he was only receiving about 66 percent support from Democrats. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. Given that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by nearly a two to one margin, the recall is going to be about shoring up Newsom’s base.
Progressives have not been that happy with Newsom. Yes, he put a moratorium on the death penalty, but he didn’t commute the sentences of the people on death row and he has yet to follow the advice of courts or public health officials in reducing prison populations in the wake of COVID—and as such, nearly half the people in prison have contracted the virus.
Putting a reformer like Bonta—who will focus on criminal justice reform, police accountability, bail reform (he was co-author of SB 10, and later today the Humphrey decision comes out), and the like—will fire up the progressive base to defend Governor Newsom.
Second, Bonta becomes the first Filipino-American as Attorney General. He will focus on cracking down on anti-Asian hate crimes and help to shore up the Asian base.
Hate crimes were a huge focus of the media during the press conference. The son of immigrants from the Philippines, the Bontas were active in the farm workers movement.
According to the Governor’s release, Bonta’s parents worked alongside Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Philip Veracruz, organizing Latino and Filipino farmworkers for racial, economic and civil rights.
Bonta has a powerful story and a powerful record.
And once again we can see the shift in California politics. The three people appointed by Newsom now since the last election: Alex Padilla to the Senate (Latino), Shirley Weber to Secretary of State (Black) and Rob Bonta to AG (Filipino). That leaves just Newsom and Feinstein as the only white elected statewide officials.
In an editorial from the Sacramento Bee, they called it a “bold move.
“The symbolism of Newsom’s choice is especially important at a moment when we are seeing a rise in hate crimes targeting anti-Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the nation and here in California,” they write.
They note that Bonta brings more than “symbolism … He brings a good deal of substance as an experienced attorney and legislator who has boldly taken on big reforms—and won. As a legislator, Bonta authored or co-authored successful bills to ban the use of for-profit private prisons, abolish cash bail, expunge old marijuana convictions from Californians’ records and require the attorney general’s office to investigate police shootings of unarmed people.”
Progressives are excited as well.
SF DA Chesa Boudin, a leading reformer, was excited by the pick.
“Assemblymember Bonta has been a leader in the fight for criminal justice reform and we have partnered on reforms together. I commend @GavinNewsom for this fantastic selection!” Boudin tweeted.
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón was also excited about the pick.
“I commend Governor Gavin Newsom on his selection of Rob Bonta to be California’s next attorney general,” District Attorney Gascón said. “As evidenced by his prolific authorship and support for reform-minded policies in the legislature, Mr. Bonta shares a commitment to safety, equity, rehabilitation and redemption that will serve the interests and well-being of all Californians as we work to modernize a dated system of justice.”
He noted, “The governor’s selection of Mr. Bonta also comes at a particularly difficult time for our AAPI community as elected and law enforcement leaders across the nation are working to #StopAsianHate.
“That California’s chief law enforcement official is a member of the AAPI community speaks volumes to the Golden State’s commitment to advance tolerance and inclusion and end the violence visited against vulnerable members of our community.”
Rob Bonta was reluctant to speak against current AG Xavier Becerra. But the backdrop here is important, Becerra and before him Kamala Harris were slow to respond to things like prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct.
We would expect a much more aggressive response to police shootings. We would expect an AG’s office under Bonta to not challenge recusals of DA’s offices as we have seen in Orange County and San Luis Obispo.
What that looks like right now, it is hard to know. But Bonta figures to be someone who backs progressive prosecutors like Chesa Boudin and George Gascón rather than fights against their policies.
He also has a chance to revolutionize the response to wrongful convictions—something not discussed during the press conference, but a key criticism of both Becerra and Harris was that they defended bad prosecutions. We can expect that to end as well.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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