California’s Democratic AG seeks to keep state’s top law job

PLAYA DEL REY, CA - APRIL 28: California Attorney General Rob Bonta, flanked by his legal team, announced Thursday at Dockweiler State Beach that his office has launched an unprecedented investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries

Rob Bonta was one of 120 ambitious yet relatively obscure California state lawmakers just last year, but now he’s on the cusp of an election that could allow him to become the most populous state’s top lawman for nearly a decade.

Bonta is heavily favored over Republican challenger Nathan Hochman when the votes are counted for attorney general Tuesday, given Democrats’ predominance in the deep blue state.

He’s running to retain the office after fellow Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom picked him to fill the vacancy in March 2021. Because Bonta, 50, was appointed more than midway through his predecessor’s four-year term, he’s eligible to run for two additional full terms, which could allow him to serve nearly 10 years in an office that already has given him a national stage on issues as diverse as abortion, climate change, gay rights and gun control.

The job has launched the careers of many of those who have held it.

Bonta took over when Xavier Becerra left to become the Biden administration’s health secretary, and Becerra succeeded Kamala Harris, who went on to the U.S. Senate and now is vice president. Edmund "Pat" Brown became governor and his son, Jerry, won the post and then became governor again more than three decades after first holding the job. Earl Warren went on to become the U.S. Supreme Court’s chief justice.

Bonta’s wife, Mia, in turn won a special election last year to replace her husband in a San Francisco Bay Area state Assembly district where nearly 70% of voters are Democrats. Her election made the pair one of the state’s top power couples.

The state’s first Filipino-American attorney general is a particularly hot draw at events featuring the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, which makes up about 16% of California’s nearly 40 million residents.

Hochman, a former federal prosecutor, has tried to tap into voter anger over rising crime and homelessness, decrying what he calls the state’s "spiral of lawlessness." He had more campaign cash than all but one other GOP statewide candidate, but concentrated his TV advertising in the Los Angeles area with one commercial trying to tie Bonta to progressive LA District Attorney George Gascón and another featuring an endorsement by a co-founder of Death Row Records.

Bonta released a single online ad two weeks before Election Day that never mentions Hochman but emphasizes Bonta’s defense of reproductive rights. He also announced forming a California Reproductive Rights Task Force along with 14 local law enforcement officials to confront abortion restrictions in other states and protect access and privacy in California.

"We seek to be the strongest reproductive freedom state that there is in the nation," Bonta said.

Yet, Hochman said he too favors abortion rights and supports the measure on Tuesday’s ballot that would enshrine them in California’s constitution.

Meanwhile, Bonta has aggressively used his incumbency to introduce himself to unfamiliar voters.

He recently stood before a large, colorful mural depicting a victim of a deadly shooting to announce that he was creating a first-in-the-nation Office of Gun Violence Prevention within his state Department of Justice. The office, Bonta said, represents "a paradigm shift," and aims to "prevent gun violence from happening in the first place."

Bonta was backed by more than a dozen gun control advocates and gun violence survivors, along with his wife. She had sought to create the office and declare gun violence a public health crisis through legislation that died in an Assembly committee in May — so her husband did it by administrative fiat.