Column: California attorney general is one of few key races on the ballot. It’s worth our attention
Except for governor, the most important statewide elective office in California is attorney general. And there’ll be a pivotal vote on the job in the June 7 primary.
Voters will choose the two runoff candidates to compete in the November general election. Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta is a shoo-in for one slot simply because there’s a “D” after his name in this deep-blue state.
Whether he’s contested competitively in November may well hinge on whom voters select as his challenger.
The top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, will advance to the runoff. Citizens can vote for any candidate, regardless of their party registration.
Besides governor and attorney general, half the other statewide offices could be eliminated and the only thing we’d give up would be a lot of unnecessary spending.
The attorney general is powerful. The office is responsible for seeing that our laws are enforced — criminal and civil. It can appeal court decisions and bring suits. The last attorney general, Xavier Becerra, sued then-President Trump more than 100 times.
Attorney general also is a potential springboard for higher office. Earl Warren, Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown used the office as a steppingstone to governor. From there, Warren became U.S. Supreme Court chief justice. Kamala Harris won a U.S. Senate seat as attorney general, then became vice president.
When Becerra was selected by President Biden to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, Gov. Gavin Newsom elevated Bonta last year from the state Assembly to be attorney general.
Bonta, 49, has an American dream story: He was born in the Philippines and brought up by parents who helped Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta unionize farmworkers. And he’s California’s first Filipino American attorney general.
Because only Democrats have been elected in California to statewide office since 2006, and Democrats hold a roughly 2-1 registration advantage over both Republicans and independents, Bonta must be regarded as a heavy favorite to win in November.
But there are some uncertainties in that projection.
Bonta has never run for statewide office before, so we don’t know how he’ll hold up. But Becerra hadn’t either when he easily won election in 2018.
And Bonta is certain to raise a ton more campaign money than his rival. Right now, he has around $5.5 million in available cash, roughly five times more than any opponent.
Another question is how important rising crime will be in the attorney general’s race. You’d think very important, since Republicans running for all offices across America are pounding on the issue.
Bonta’s past support for reduced sentencing leaves him vulnerable to “soft on crime” charges among centrist and conservative voters. But we don’t know how vulnerable he’ll be with moderates.
The gurus are forecasting a big year for Republicans nationally, and that could affect voting even in heavily Democratic California. But enough for an upset? Highly unlikely.
And, regardless of whether you agree with Bonta on every issue, he has been an energetic attorney general who is likable and scandal-free. That’s worth some points.
Two Republicans are running against him: former Assistant U.S Atty. Nathan Hochman and Los Angeles-based attorney Eric Early. So is Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, who left the GOP four years ago and became an independent. Also on the primary ballot is Green Party candidate Dan Kapelovitz, an L.A. attorney.
Hochman, the candidate officially endorsed by the state GOP, bills himself as a “pragmatic” and “common sense” Republican in the “hard middle.”
But he ducks a lot of policy questions, refusing to say how he stands.
“If I wanted to … legislate California policy, I’d run for the state Assembly or the state Senate or maybe even for governor,” he told CalMatters, a nonprofit news service. “I view the job of California attorney general as enforcing the laws. ... Full stop.”
And Hochman won’t say whether he voted for Trump.
Early, however, is a full-stop Trumpster. He’s an unabashed conservative whom the Bonta team would love to run against in November.
In fact, Bonta labor forces are trying to sell Early to conservatives. An independent expenditure committee not affiliated with the Democrat’s official campaign is running TV and radio ads on outlets popular with conservatives touting Early as antiabortion, pro-gun and loyal to Trump. They’re trying to boost him into a runoff spot.
Either Republican or the independent would offer voters a sharp contrast with Bonta on law-and-order issues.
The most interesting candidate, for me, is Schubert, 58, a career prosecutor who pioneered in the use of DNA to catch criminals.
She led in tracking down the so-called Golden State Killer, who two years ago pleaded guilty to 13 murders and many other crimes during 13 years of horror up and down California.
Schubert is highly critical of two Democrat-backed ballot propositions, 47 and 57, which lowered sentences — mainly, she says, because they reduced the number of felony arrestees whose DNA could be collected, and misclassified violent crimes as nonviolent.
On abortion rights, Schubert strongly favors them.
Why did the prosecutor leave the GOP?
“I just kind of got disgusted with the politics of it all,” she says. “It was very distasteful for me.”
When Trump was running for president, she wrote in Condoleezza Rice.
The problem for Schubert now, however, is that as an independent, she doesn’t have a partisan voter base to help boost her past the primary.
She’d be California’s first openly gay attorney general.
“I’m proud of who I am as a person,” Schubert says. “I’m a prosecutor who is gay. I’m a mom.”
This will be one of the very few important races on the state primary ballot and is worth paying attention to.
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