Fil-Am community leaders applaud Bonta’s nomination for attorney general

Surrounded by his family, Assemblymember Rob Bonta on Wednesday, March 24 was nominated by Governor Gavin Newsom to serve as California’s next attorney general. Now in his fifth term in the state Assembly, Bonta is poised to be the Golden State’s first Fil-Am in the top lawyer post. Photo courtesy of Chet Canlas/Manilatown Heritage Foundation

WHEN California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Assemblymember Rob Bonta as his pick for attorney general, Filipino American leaders and community members across the state joined in applauding the move.

On Wednesday, March 24, Bonta was revealed as the choice to succeed outgoing Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lead the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month.

Once approved by the state Legislature, the 48-year-old lawmaker — who has represented Alameda, Oakland and San Leandro in the Assembly since 2012 — is set to be the first Fil-Am to serve as state’s chief law officer.

Speaking from the International Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco on Wednesday, Bonta shared a piece of his upbringing, moving from the Philippines at a young age and living in a trailer in La Paz, in the Tehachapi Mountains outside Bakersfield, California, as his activist parents worked with Filipino and Latino farmworkers and labor leaders, like Philip Veracruz, Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

His mother, Cynthia, immigrated to California in the 1960s by a three-week boat ride, while his father, Warren, who grew up in Ventura County, was committed to service and social justice from a young age. As a student, the older Bonta joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights organizing in Alabama to pass the Voting Rights Act.

His parents were working as missionaries in the Philippines when he was born, training young people to serve the needs of rural villages through service, community organizing and ministry, according to the governor’s office.

“Forty-five years ago, my mother Cynthia was one of those great activists who stood outside the International Hotel, linked arms and formed a circle to protect those who were inside from being evicted,” Bonta said, sharing the significance of the announcement’s location. “And now my mother, Cynthia, and my father, Warren…will see a governor nominate their son to be the first Filipino American attorney general.”

Bonta said these experiences and seeing his parents’ work with the United Farm Workers movement motivated his decision to become a lawyer and later have a career in public office.

He will also become the second Asian American attorney general, following Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in the role before being elected senator in 2016.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who is part Filipino and served with Bonta in the Assembly, hailed the announcement as a “great choice” by Newsom.

“I have seen Rob’s leadership and advocacy for justice first-hand in the Assembly and I know it’s exactly what’s needed in this moment,” Gloria said.

Vallejo Vice Mayor Rozzana Verder-Aliga praised Bonta’s leadership and values.

“He will make a very good attorney general because of his integrity, honesty, lived experience, knowledge, skills, passion and compassion,” she told the Vallejo Times Herald.

“He understands the rules of law, state policy and has experience as a state legislator. As a state legislator he built coalitions to pass laws that benefit all Californians.”

Los Angeles Board of Public Works Commissioner Jessica Caloza remarked that Bonta represents many communities, including Asians, Filipinos and immigrants, and has kept them in mind when pushing for inclusive policies and programs as a legislator.

“He not only looks like us, but he fights for us. He’s demonstrated that in the Alameda City Council, State Assembly, and I am confident he will continue to fight for justice as the next Attorney General of California. Community leaders and organizations from diverse backgrounds have his back and will continue to partner with him to ensure policies, laws, and programs work for all Californians, especially those who may have been left out in the past,” Caloza told the Asian Journal in an email.

Since Becerra’s nomination as health secretary back in December, Fil-Am elected officials and organizations, as well as those from other Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) groups, started mobilizing and sending letters to Newsom, making a case as to why Bonta would be a fit replacement.

HISTORIC APPOINTMENT. Assemblymember Rob Bonta (3rd from left) was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom (center right) to serve as California’s next attorney general. The announcement was made on Wednesday, March 24 at International Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco, the site of the 1977 International Hotel Eviction and the city’s historic Manilatown neighborhood. Joining Bonta and Newsom in photo are Chet Canlas, production manager, Bonta’s mother Cynthia Bonta, Manilatown Heritage Foundation Executive Director Caroline Cabading, foundation boardmember Eleanore Fernandez, and Johnella Fernandez-Payne. | Photo courtesy of Jibril Alvarez/Manilatown Heritage Foundation

In recent weeks with the recent surge in anti-Asian hate, especially in California, community leaders and members doubled down on the need to appoint an AAPI attorney general.

“This is especially true in this moment when Asian Americans are being attacked and we are seeing a terrifying rise in hate crimes and incidents. We must do more and we can do more for our vulnerable communities. Rob represents that hope, dream, and opportunity to do better as a state, and together I know that’s possible,” Caloza said.

The National Filipino American Lawyers Association, which was one of the groups that endorsed Bonta for the post, said Newsom’s nomination sends a strong message to the AAPI community.

“As anti-Asian hate and acts of violence [have] risen in California and across the country, we commend Governor Newsom for his commitment to protecting the AAPI community by ensuring that California’s chief law enforcement officer will understand, listen to, empathize with, and is fully committed to protecting the AAPI community,” the association said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Bonta said as attorney general, he would take action to investigate the attacks against the community that have “seemed to be swept under the rug.”

“We’ll take action — it won’t just stop with denunciations and condemnation…We need to track hate crimes and make sure we have the right data so we can have the right interventions. We can conduct investigations to help prevent crimes, hate crimes from happening in the first place. We can meet throughout the state with our API community to talk about how to support community-based organizations that are on the ground doing the work,” he said.

In addition to his reforms in racial, economic and environmental policies, Bonta authored bills to highlight the contributions of Fil-Am farmworkers, including Assembly Bill 123 to ensure the state’s public schools teach the manongs’ leadership in the farmworkers movement, and Assembly Bill 7, which established Larry Itliong Day on his birthday, October 25.

JoAnn Fields of the Filipino Resource Center Director in San Diego said the Fil-Am community now “has a strong advocate at the helm in the highest law enforcement position in California.”

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is the Managing Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach her at christina@asianjournalinc.com.

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