The most contentious and closely watched California election in 2022 is likely to be the race for attorney general, where voters will choose in June from the liberal incumbent who was appointed to the job last year, three unheralded challengers and an openly gay career prosecutor whose campaign could hinge on the public’s new fears about crime.

For state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, the timing of his first statewide campaign could be challenging. The race coincides with increased scrutiny of recent criminal justice reform efforts, a juxtaposition that his opponents see as an opportunity to pin the blame for rising crime on Democrats. They believe that new leadership at the California Department of Justice will strengthen law and order and bring political balance back to Sacramento.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Bonta last year to be the first Filipino American to serve as California attorney general after then-Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra was appointed U.S. Health and Human Services secretary.

Before his appointment, the Democrat spent eight years in the state Assembly focused on efforts to modify the criminal justice system to favor rehabilitation over long incarceration. He co-wrote a law, later overturned by voters, that aimed to end cash bail in California, and another that banned for-profit private prisons. In 2020, he supported a law that requires the state to investigate certain officer-involved killings, a program he now oversees as attorney general.

Bonta faces the challenge of being “the incumbent, but not the incumbent who was elected,” said Wesley Hussey, a Sacramento State political science professor, possibly forcing the Democrat to spend much of his first statewide campaign defending his record in the Legislature.

Already, Bonta’s opponents have tried to characterize him as a far-left politician of the same ilk as two of the state’s most embattled local prosecutors, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascón and San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin. Both men face recall efforts.

“There’s a long list of things that can legitimately be talked about with his criminal justice record,” Hussey said of Bonta. “Winning with that record, and winning [as] attorney general, puts himself in a better spot to win reelection than just being chosen by a governor who seems very partisan.”

Bonta faces two Republican challengers along with Sacramento Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, a career prosecutor who ditched her GOP registration in 2018 and is running as a “no party preference” candidate.

The attorney general goes into the race with significant political advantages, including a nearly $5.2-million war chest, according to campaign finance records, and the backing of the powerful California Democratic Party. More than 46% of voters are registered Democrats, compared with 23.9% registered as Republicans and 22.8% as unaffiliated independents. Democrats have built a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature over the last decade and have won every statewide election since 2006, leaving little room for Republicans to regain their political relevance.

And Bonta has sought to deflect his opponents’ efforts to depict him as soft on crime.

“Public safety is, and has been, job No. 1, 2 and 3,” he said Wednesday during a news conference to highlight his record on defending reproductive rights. “I’m fully aware that in politics people like to take political shots that are not based on the facts.”

Bonta points to a program he launched last year to apprehend human traffickers and the recent felony charges his office filed against alleged members of a statewide organized retail theft ring. He said he’s focused on defending California’s strict gun laws and has ramped up efforts to remove firearms from prohibited persons.

“We like action. We like doing the hard work every day,” Bonta said. “And we realize that while we do that important work, there will be some that will choose the shortcut of political rhetoric without basis, without facts, evidence or record to support it.”

The race begins with a split decision among public safety groups. Last week, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. endorsed the attorney general, praising Bonta in a statement for his “takedowns of gangs, human traffickers and transnational criminal organizations and expanding efforts to get illegal guns off California streets.”

But dozens of other law enforcement organizations have lined up behind Schubert, along with an overwhelming majority of California’s district attorneys.

Schubert, who is openly gay, said she’s the candidate for Californians who have grown “sick of politics,” and hopes that voters view her decades of experience fighting against child abuse and sexual assault and her 2019 prosecution of the Golden State Killer as proof that she’s right for the job.

She has so far raised about $2 million for her campaign, a notable sum for a candidate without a party affiliation.

“My priorities at the outset are going to be, let’s get control of the crime issue,” Schubert said in an interview. “Let’s get control of the illegal guns. Let’s get control of the fentanyl crisis that we have. Let’s get control of the drug addiction, mental health, homelessness that is destroying people’s lives, as well as the quality of lives of the individuals that are surrounding them.”

Hussey said Schubert still faces an uphill battle as a “no party preference” candidate, but it’s possible her political record and fundraising could pull her through the June 7 primary, especially if the two Republicans split their party’s vote.

“If she has a solid consistency of Republicans, and NPPs and people who don’t know what they are, maybe even some tough-on-crime Democrats or people who just see her ads, she might be able to slip through to that second round,” Hussey said.

Like Schubert, Republican candidate and former Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Hochman said he is trying to appeal to Democrats and independents who want a candidate in the “hard-middle” of the political spectrum. Hochman, who has raised almost $1.7 million, said his campaign is about reinstating a balance between the tough-on-crime era of decades past and what he calls the “far left” policies of today.

His endorsements include a list of Republican state and federal lawmakers, as well as Democrats in law enforcement, such as Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and former Los Angeles County District Atty. Jackie Lacey.

“I believe this race is a once-in-a-generation race for this position, in which people will actually look at the person rather than the party in making their decision,” he told The Times.

The second Republican in the race, Los Angeles-based attorney Eric Early, is focused on crime rates and campaigning on a more far-right political platform that promises investigations of election security, school closures during the pandemic and a fight against any efforts by the state to adopt critical race theory. Early ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2018. In 2020, he lost a congressional race to unseat Burbank Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff. He has almost $500,000, according to state campaign finance records.

“Right now we are facing a public safety crisis in the state of California. Frankly, as a result of what I call just a systemic failure of government,” Early said.

A fourth hopeful, Green Party candidate and L.A. attorney Dan Kapelovitz, will also appear on the ballot. Kapelovitz, who ran as a replacement candidate in the failed recall effort last year against Newsom, said he has yet to raise money for his campaign.

The attorney general’s job expands far beyond crime, said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and a former deputy under then-Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. The state Department of Justice oversees the enforcement of environmental and housing laws and runs a civil rights division. California has also taken an important leadership role in recent years, she said, to fight efforts in Republican-led states that target reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community.

Crime “is part of the job. It’s not all of the job,” Diaz said. “The other part of the job is really defending and upholding not only our state Constitution but California’s values at a really important time in our nation’s history.”

On Wednesday, Bonta argued that he was the candidate uniquely qualified to do both.

“We are going to fight,” he said. “We fight for Californians, and we fight for all folks throughout this country.”

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