California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday nominated Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a criminal justice reformer and the state’s first Filipino legislator, to be its next attorney general.
Bonta, a Democrat, would replace Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed last week as President Joe Biden’s health and human services secretary. Pending likely confirmation by the state’s Democratic Legislature, Bonta would hold the job through 2022 when he would have to run for election.
Bonta, 48, had the backing of a number of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, as well as progressive groups and leaders on criminal and environmental justice. His appointment comes amid a time of rising violence against Asian Americans. After six women of Asian descent were killed in a Georgia shooting spree, top AAPI elected officials called on Newsom to name Bonta to the job.
California is home to more than 6 million people of Asian descent.
“From his unique life and lived experience we have someone that doesn’t need to be educated on these things,” Newsom said during a Wednesday event with Bonta at the International Hotel-Manilatown Center, a San Francisco site rich with Filipino history.
Bonta spoke passionately about the inspiration he takes from his parents, activists in the movement for farmworker rights alongside Cesar Chavez. He was born in the Philippines when they were serving there as missionaries.
“It made me want to become an attorney to fight for people who’ve been wronged, who’ve been hurt, who’ve been harmed, who’ve been mistreated, and to be their champion,” he said. “And it’s that fight for justice for all Californians that continues to motivate me.”
Bonta lives in Alameda and was elected to represent the east San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland, in 2012. He is a prolific author of legislation, often with a criminal justice reform focus. State laws he’s introduced that were signed into law include a measure to automatically expunge marijuana related offenses from people’s records after California legalized recreational marijuana, to eliminate private prisons and to end cash bail. Voters rejected the bail change in a 2020 referendum.
“Rob represents what makes California great — our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices. Growing up with parents steeped in social justice movements, Rob has become a national leader in the fight to repair our justice system and defend the rights of every Californian,” Newsom said in a statement ahead of a planned event with Bonta.
Minutes after the announcement, Bonta posted a campaign-style video on Twitter with details about his parents’ history of activism and his legislative record.
“Rob’s fight has just begun,” a narrator says.
Before joining the Legislature he was deputy city attorney in San Francisco and a member of the Alameda City Council.
Attorney general is among the most highly coveted statewide offices in California, second only to the governor in terms of public recognition and power. Vice President Kamala Harris previously held the job, as did former Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It’s enormously consequential at both the state and national level,” said Nathan Barankin, Harris’ former chief of staff. “I cannot think of a single policy area in public life that the California attorney general can’t exercise some influence over.”
Given California’s size — it’s the nation’s most populous and one of the world’s largest economies — decisions made by the attorney general, such as whether to prosecute a company, can move financial markets, Barankin said.
California attorneys general have used the job to go after private companies over labor law, environmental violations and predatory practices, among other things. Becerra sued the Trump administration more than 100 times during his four years in office, challenging the Republican former president’s policies on immigration and health.
With Democratic President Joe Biden in office, there may still be points of friction, but they will be far smaller than those of the past four years. Instead, California’s attorney general could work in partnership with the federal administration on issues like how to regulate tech companies and how to advance climate policy, Barankin said.
Gina Clayton-Johnson, executive director of the Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit for women with incarcerated loved ones working to reform the prison system, supported Bonta for the job. She cited his bill to end private prisons as well as his support for legislation to ban police from using certain restraints as examples of his commitment to reforming policing and the criminal justice system.
“He is someone who will listen and take my calls and respond to my and my community,” she said.
She said California’s attorney general should take on more independent investigations of police killings of Black people and to otherwise stand up for communities of color. She also suggested the attorney general help facilitate the reopening of cases where people have been wrongfully incarcerated.