Newsom picks Rob Bonta as California’s new attorney general

Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Assembly member Rob Bonta bump elbows during a press conference announcing Bonta’s nomination for Attorney General at the International Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco on March 24, 2021. Photo Credit: Wernikoff / CalMatters

Faced with a looming recall threat, Gov. Gavin Newsom nominated Assemblymember Rob Bonta Wednesday March 24th, as California’s next attorney general, handing one of the state’s most powerful offices to a trusted political ally who will make history as the first Filipino American to hold the position. 

“This is an incredibly important office in the cause of, yes, racial justice, social justice, economic justice, environmental justice,” Newsom said, adding that Bonta “has been on the forefront” of those causes.

Bonta, 49, a Democrat from Alameda, developed a record as one of the Assembly’s most liberal members during his eight years in the Legislature and had backing from prominent civil rights advocates as he sought the post often called the state’s “top cop.” His selection, which requires confirmation by the Legislature, will likely play well with progressives who are hoping to see the attorney general take a more active role in holding police accountable for misconduct — something former Attorney General Xavier Becerra was reluctant to do. 

Becerra was confirmed last week as President Joe Biden’s health and human services secretary, handing Newsom the opportunity to fill what’s normally an elected office with his own pick. It’s the third such opportunity Newsom has had in recent months, as political dominoes fall following the 2020 election — a rapid run of top-flight appointments a California governor hasn’t enjoyed since the 1950s. 

In December, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris, and Shirley Weber to fill Padilla’s prior role as secretary of state. With all three picks, Newsom diversified the highest ranks of California politics, choosing barrier-busting Democrats who make history as the first person of their ethnic group to hold the position. Padilla is the son of Mexican immigrants, Weber is the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper and Bonta emigrated to California from the Philippines as a baby.  

Newsom drew attention to Bonta’s heritage by holding the press conference announcing his choice at the International Hotel in San Francisco, which was a residential hotel for Filipino and Chinese families and the site of a large protest amid evictions in the 1970s.

“Forty-five years ago, my mother Cynthia was one of those great activists who stood outside the International Hotel, linked arms and formed a circle to protect those who were inside from being evicted,” Bonta said, nearly choking back tears. “And now my mother, Cynthia, and my father, Warren… will see a governor nominate their son to be the first Filipino American attorney general.”

Newsom’s power to shape Democratic politics in the Golden State is an opportunity to build allies and unite Democrats as he works to beat back a likely recall election later this year. He faced pressure from numerous ethnic advocacy groups to pick an Asian American attorney general, both in recognition of California’s growing Asian American population and in response to a recent rise in hate crimes. 

Bonta spoke out against “the sting of hate and discrimination” and said that one of his top priorities will be protecting people from “the forces of hate” and holding perpetrators accountable. He blamed former President Donald Trump for attacks on Asian Americans because Trump described the coronavirus with terms such as “Kung flu” and “Chinese virus” — similar to rhetoric organizers of the recall campaign recently came under attack for using.  

Bonta has been a loyal lieutenant in Newsom’s early fight against the recall. He recently organized a group of Asian American Democrats to blast the campaign to oust Newsom from office, one of several events Democrats have held as they work to portray unity

The California GOP, which is backing the recall, dismissed Bonta as “soft on criminals” and a “loyal friend to unions” and called his nomination “another failed decision by the worst governor in California history.”

Selecting Bonta helps Newsom shore up support from his liberal base heading into the recall. Prominent civil rights advocates, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and attorney/CNN personality Van Jones, endorsed his candidacy. Several progressive interest groups — including powerful labor unions, plaintiffs attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates — immediately praised his selection. 

But it could cause tensions in Newsom’s relationships with law enforcement. As a lawmaker, Bonta wrote bills friendly to the marijuana industry, gave more rights to immigrants in interactions with federal immigration agents and attempted to abolish cash bail. After Newsom called for an end to California’s use of private prisons in his 2019 inaugural speech, Bonta wrote it up as a bill that Newsom signed into law.

Under a new law signed last year, the new attorney general also will be tasked with investigating all deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians — one reason civil rights advocates pressured Newsom to appoint someone who will take a more active role in rooting out misconduct. 

Newsom said he had discussed the attorney general nomination with law enforcement leaders and that he believes Bonta will “keep an open mind” in working with them. Bonta said he respects police and will dialogue with their leaders, but also anticipated some “respectful disagreements.” He made clear he is committed to what he sees as urgent reforms. 

“Too many Californians have faced unfairness in the many broken parts of our criminal justice system,” Bonta said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And they deserve more compassion, more humanity and a second chance.”

Police groups responded with polite statements that masked any sense of rejection they might feel from Newsom picking a top law enforcement officer who is a critic of their profession. Eric R. Nunez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said in a statement, “We stand ready to collaborate and assist the new Attorney General and wish him shared success in safeguarding victims and keeping California safe.” 

The Peace Officers Research Association of California, a powerful lobbying group, said it looked forward to working with Bonta on “improved policies that will raise recruitment standards, increase transparency and place officers in the best possible position to serve Californians.” 

Bonta is a Yale-educated lawyer who previously worked as a deputy city attorney in San Francisco. His wife, Mialisa Bonta, serves on the Alameda school board and is the head of Oakland Promise, a group that helps children get into college. Ethics attorneys have questioned Bonta’s pattern of raising money for groups that employ his wife. A CalMatters investigation found that he helped his wife’s nonprofits raise more than $560,000, largely by soliciting donations from companies that lobby the Legislature. He also asked interest groups to donate to a foundation he created, which in turn loaned $25,000 to his wife’s employer. The arrangement is legal but controversial. 

Regulating charities is part of the attorney general’s portfolio of responsibilities, along with consumer protection, gambling and firearms regulation, internet privacy enforcement and criminal investigations. While California’s last attorney general made headlines for suing the Trump administration more than 100 times, Bonta is likely to keep the focus closer to home. 

Attorney general is widely seen as the second-most powerful office in state government, and has historically been a launching pad for higher office. Harris went from attorney general to U.S senator to the nation’s first female vice president, and Jerry Brown went from attorney general to his second stint as governor, cementing his position as California’s longest-serving governor. 

Bonta said that he plans to run for the office in 2022 — the same year Newsom will be up for re-election, if he survives the recall — and that he will be “moving from day one with the re-election in mind.” He almost treated the nomination process like a campaign, hiring Newsom’s former press secretary to help build visibility for his support. Other Democrats who angled for the position included Rep. Adam Schiff of Los Angeles and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. 

CalMatters reporter Ben Christopher contributed to this report.