SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Three men seeking to replace current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra took advantage of his absence from the first and only scheduled debate Wednesday to paint him as a political pawn “obsessed” with President Donald Trump.
The candidates – former El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Steven Bailey, state insurance commissioner Dave Jones and business attorney Eric Early – routinely wove Becerra into their responses on topics like immigration, the expansion of oil and gas drilling and the death penalty.
Jones, a Democrat, accused Becerra of “ducking” the first official debate and of being “missing in action” during his first 14 months on the job. He criticized the appointee for being soft on Exxon polluting the environment and failing to take guns from people on the state’s prohibited list.
“You didn’t get a chance to hear from the appointed attorney general and that’s a shame,” Jones told the small paying audience gathered blocks from the Becerra’s office.
Early called Becerra “arrogant” and obsessed with suing Trump, accusing him of wasting tens of millions of dollars on federal lawsuits. Bailey said he would review all of California’s lawsuits filed against the Trump administration because many are “frivolous.”
“California has significant problems of its own that need an attorney general with a strong hand,” Bailey said while blasting Becerra for being lax on public safety.
The trio is pursuing Becerra, who in his short stint as attorney general has so far sued the Trump administration 28 times. Gov. Jerry Brown tapped the Los Angeles Democrat and 12-term congressman in December 2016, taking over after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Becerra, 60, is the first Latino to hold the office and has taken the federal government to court on issues including immigration, health care, air quality standards and fracking regulations. State political heavyweights including Brown, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the new state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and the Service Employees International Union have endorsed Becerra.
Despite the wave of endorsements, Becerra hasn’t secured full support of his party.
At last month’s convention in San Diego, delegates signaled the chance of a November upset and favored Jones over Becerra by a wide margin. Jones received 56 percent of the vote, just missing the required 60 percent to gain the party’s statewide endorsement.
The down-ballot race has received scant attention, with Wednesday’s debate the only scheduled before the June primary. The race hasn’t been featured in a major statewide poll.
Republicans meanwhile applauded the federal government’s recent lawsuit against three California immigration laws, saying that it’s time to end sanctuary cities.
Bailey called the controversial laws unconstitutional and said they result in immigration agents going into neighborhoods to “scoop up” undocumented immigrants. Early said he doesn’t want mass deportations, but he agrees with the small city of Los Alamitos’ move to exempt itself from the newly enacted immigration laws.
Jones, an accomplished public servant who has worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, Sacramento City Council and the state Assembly, said he would uphold the laws. He promised to fight the Trump administration and mentioned the possibility of leading new lawsuits.
Early and Bailey said they support California’s death penalty, with Early saying it “needs teeth” and should be used more frequently. Jones said he opposes the death penalty because it’s not a deterrent and is costly.
Jones focused much of his allotted time on Becerra, distancing himself from the Republicans’ stances and responses.
Becerra’s campaign manager Dana Williamson said the attorney general’s absence was simply a scheduling conflict.
“The attorney general was at the Supreme Court yesterday to defend a woman’s right to health care and traveling back to California today. Let’s not put politics before doing one’s job,” Williamson said in an email.
Jones promised to fight the federal government’s plan to expand offshore drilling and said he would not accept campaign donations from the oil industry, unlike Becerra.
Bailey said there were “many places” ripe for new oil operations onshore and Early said he supports limited oil expansion.
Bailey retired from the bench in 2017, but faces 11 counts of ethics violations from the Commission on Judicial Performance. The Republican has been charged by the judicial watchdog with ordering criminal defendants to an alcohol monitoring company that employs his son and of taking prohibited event tickets.
The former judge says the charges were “timed to coincide” with his candidacy, adding that many of the commissioners are Democrats connected to Brown. The charges were not mentioned at the debate.
Early is managing partner with Early, Sullivan, Wright, Gizer & McRae in Los Angeles, handling business and entertainment matters. Also a Republican, he noted the attorney general race is not getting enough attention.
“If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you will have no better friend in the attorney general’s office; if you’re a lawbreaker, however, I will not be your friend like Mr. Becerra has been for the last year since he’s been appointed,” Early said in closing.
California uses a top-two or jungle primary system, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the November ballot.
The last elected Republican attorney general was Dan Lungren in 1990.