Given California’s current political climate, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s selection of Assemblyman Rob Bonta to be attorney general was virtually preordained.
Newsom ardently embraces the identity politics that dominate his Democratic Party and therefore feels compelled to pay homage to its major ethnic, gender and cultural components via appointments.
Thus, when Newsom made his first state Supreme Court appointment last year, he proudly declared that retired appellate court justice Martin Jenkins “would be the first openly gay California Supreme Court justice and only the third African American man ever to serve on the state’s highest court.”
Just a month later, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who identifies both as Black and Asian-American, was elected vice president, giving Newsom another shot at a high-level appointment.
Newsom was under pressure to appoint a successor who represented at least one of her three identities, but chose, instead, a male Latino, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, while simultaneously naming a Black woman, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, as Padilla’s successor.
Newsom hailed them as “California’s first Latino U.S. Senator (and) the first-ever African American secretary of state.”
With Weber, Newsom was clearly compensating for not naming a Black woman to succeed Harris, but he was giving her an office several notches below a seat in the U.S. Senate. Therefore, as the campaign to recall him heated up, Newsom sought to fend off any residual disappointment among Black leaders by publicly promising to choose a Black woman to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein should she retire before her term expires three years hence.
All of those appointments — and the promise vis-à-vis Feinstein’s seat — left one major group, Asian-Americans, still waiting for its due in the complicated machinations of identity politics. When, therefore, Attorney General Xavier Becerra was tapped by President Joe Biden to become health and welfare secretary, Newsom was virtually compelled to name an Asian-American successor — even more so in response to the recent spate of anti-Asian violence.
By choosing Bonta, who was born in the Philippines and as a child came to California with his parents, Newsom closed the circle of identity appointments and ensured that all of the major groups would remain loyal during the ensuing recall campaign.
Bonta, in fact, is a two-fer appointment in that he also identifies with the most liberal, or progressive, wing of the Democratic Party and thus may placate its activists who sometimes fault Newsom for moving leftward too slowly.
Beyond identity politics, Bonta’s ideological positioning is the most important aspect of his selection, because it gives a big boost to those seeking to overhaul California’s criminal justice system to make it less punitive and more restorative. Bonta has championed the cause in the Legislature, including landmark legislation to abolish cash bail that was overturned by voters last year.
“Too many Californians have faced unfairness in the many broken parts of our criminal justice system,” Bonta said, “and they deserve more compassion, more humanity and a second chance.”
Bonta will be aligned with a small cadre of reform-minded prosecutors, led by George Gascón, who had been district attorney of San Francisco before defeating Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey last year.
Gascón and several other like-minded district attorneys founded their own group, the Prosecutors Alliance of California, that is waging open warfare with the California District Attorneys Association. Pointedly, the new organization praised Bonta as “a leader that has dedicated his career to protecting and uplifting vulnerable communities.”
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