Newsom Appoints Rob Bonta as California’s First Filipino Attorney General

California Gov. Newsom talks to reporters in East Oakland, wrapping up a statewide homelessness tour. Newsom is flanked by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. (Courthouse News photo/ Nicholas Iovino)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday appointed Filipino-American Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a progressive Democrat from Oakland, as California’s next attorney general, ending weeks of anxious speculation about who will fill the vacancy created when Xavier Becerra left to become President Joe Biden’s health secretary.

“Rob represents what makes California great – our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday. “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. And most importantly, at this moment when so many communities are under attack for who they are and who they love, Rob has fought to strengthen hate crime laws and protect our communities from the forces of hate. He will be a phenomenal attorney general, and I can’t wait to see him get to work.”

Newsom made his announcement at the International Hotel in downtown San Francisco — the cornerstone of Manilatown, a famous Filipino-American enclave that’s all but vanished since the late 1970s.

It’s also where Bonta’s mother organized tenants to fight against evictions. Newsom said it was no surprise that Bonta would take up the mantle of justice work.

“That advocacy lies within him as a son, not only of a remarkable mother, but a remarkable father who was also a stern advocate and who marched with Martin Luther King,” Newsom said.

Bonta, 48, was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States with his family at just two months old. The son of farm worker organizers in the Central Valley, Bonta graduated from Yale University in 1993 and received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1998.

After a four-year stint with the San Francisco law firm Keker and Van Nest, Bonta worked as a deputy city attorney in San Francisco and was briefly member of the Alameda City Council.

In 2012, he became the first Filipino-American elected to the state assembly, where he quickly distinguished himself as a prolific sponsor of bills on health care and housing law, as well as police and criminal justice reform. 

He wrote successful legislation barring the state corrections department from housing inmates in private prisons, capping annual rent increases and cracking down on health insurers who send patients surprise out-of-network medical bills.

He co-authored AB 1506, a law that requires the Attorney General’s office to investigate all police shootings that result in the death of an unarmed civilian, rather than local prosecutors.  Any written reports stemming from the AG’s investigation would have to be posted publicly.

Bonta is also one of the lead sponsors of legislation to overhaul California’s bail system, first through a law that would have abolished cash bail in favor of computer-based assessments of risk, and more recently with a bill to set bail at $0 for all misdemeanors and “low-level” felonies. The first effort failed after voters rejected its enactment through a referendum last November.

Bonta beat out an impressive list of candidates Newsom was said to be considering for the position, including California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.

Liu congratulated Bonta on his nomination, saying in a statement that it is especially meaningful for the Asian American community, given the recent spate of violent attacks and robberies committed against Asian Americans in recent weeks.

“I am delighted and proud to see my friend and law school classmate Rob Bonta nominated for attorney general. California is fortunate to have such talented and diverse leaders in public service, and this nomination is especially meaningful for Asian Americans, particularly at a time when our community is experiencing great vulnerability and many are fearing for their safety,” Liu said. “Our Chief Justice last week underscored the continuing need to tackle ‘the disease of racism,’ and I’ve always known Rob to be a strong leader in combatting discrimination and protecting the rights of all persons, including groups that for too long have been marginalized or ignored.”

His nomination will have to be confirmed by both legislative chambers, a hurdle that should pose little obstacle since Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon has already said he supports Newsom’s selection. 

“By naming Assemblymember Rob Bonta as California’s Attorney General, Governor Newsom has checked the box that counts most: Is this candidate qualified? I have worked with Rob Bonta in the Capitol and know him as an effective and energetic generator of bold ideas. That is what we can expect from him as Attorney General. I know he will bring more than that, thanks to his experience in the courtroom and in local government.” Rendon said in a statement.

Bonta thanked Newsom for “the privilege and honor of a lifetime” at Wednesday’s press conference.

“I am so honored and humbled by the trust and the confidence that you’ve placed in me,” he said. He also thanked his wife and children, and his mother-in-law. “I stand here because of so many people who have come before me, including the AAPI who assembled right here in the International Hotel in 1977. They stood to protect their communities and homes, and they stood against injustice. My mother Cynthia was one of those courageous activists. And now my mother and my father Warren will see a governor nominate their son to be the first Filipino American Attorney General in the history of California.”

If he is confirmed, Bonta will have roughly a year left to serve out Becerra’s term. 

Sacramento State political science professor Wesley Hussey said Bonta’s long career as a politician will serve him well when it comes time to run for a full four years in November 2022.

“He’s someone who can scale up from a legislative campaign to a statewide campaign,” Hussey said. “Liu would have been a great choice but having to fundraise from nothing wold have been hard.”

Hussey said Bonta will likely focus on civil rights cases, as well as rooting out fraud and corruption in district attorneys’ and sheriff’s offices.

“He’s been very interested in civil rights which is an increasingly important component of this job,” Hussey said. Referring to AB 1506, Hussey added that he wouldn’t be surprised if Bonta takes a strong stance on police involved shootings.

His legislative experience should also help him steer resources toward the Department of Justice. Bonta has already expressed a desire for more resources to help fund the Statewide Officer Deadly Force Investigation Division within his office, which will be responsible for investigating fatal shootings by police.

“The attorney general’s office needs to have enough resources to fund the new responsibilities the Legislature wants to give it,” Bonta said Wednesday.

“The things he cares about are going to get funded pretty well. The state has a little bit of extra money right now and I doubt the things he’s asking for are really expensive,” Hussey said. “We might get a sense of what his office is focusing on based on this budget year.”

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