Rob Bonta makes history as California’s first Filipino American attorney general

Rob Bonta was first elected to the California State Assembly in 2012. | File photo

CALIFORNIA is set to have its first Filipino American attorney general.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who became the first Fil-Am in the state Legislature, is making history again after Governor Gavin Newsom nominated him to be the next chief law enforcement officer on Wednesday, March 24.

“Thank you, Governor Newsom, for the privilege and honor of a lifetime,” Bonta said on Wednesday, speaking from International Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco, surrounded by his family. “I’m so humbled in the trust, faith and the confidence that you placed in me.”

His nomination is subject to confirmation by the California State Assembly and Senate within 90 days, according to the governor’s office.

“Rob represents what makes California great — our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices,” Newsom said in a statement. “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.”

The 48-year-old Fil-Am’s ascension to the top post comes after outgoing Attorney General Xavier Becerra was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 18 to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I stand here because of so many people who come before me, including people like the Asian Americans and Filipino Americans who assembled right here at the International Hotel on August 4, 1977,” Bonta said, crediting his activist parents Warren and Cynthia, who organized against evictions at the San Francisco residential hotel.

This is Newsom’s third historic appointment to a key post since January, following Alex Padilla being tapped to take over Vice President Kamala Harris’ Senate seat, and Dr. Shirley Weber, a former assemblymember, for secretary of state. Padilla became the state’s first Latino U.S. Senator, while Weber is the first African American in her role.

 

A grassroots campaign within the Filipino American community — and the broader Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community — started in December in a bid to get Bonta appointed following President Joe Biden’s nomination of Becerra as health secretary.

Groups, including Fil-Am advocacy organizations and lawyers associations, sent endorsement letters to Newsom’s office and organized virtual press conferences amplifying Bonta’s work in the legislature.

“Mr. Bonta has demonstrated himself to be one of the most effective and capable leaders in the legislature during his tenure. He has an excellent track record of authoring bold, ground-breaking legislation and building strong coalitions,” a group of over two dozen past and former Fil-Am elected officials wrote in a letter to Newsom. “He is extremely competent and is also someone who will bring people together, listen, and lead. He is exactly who we need as our next Attorney General.”

They argued that his experience would be a fit to address the state’s challenges, which include recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, civil rights movement against systemic racism and the rise in hate crimes, including against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

The endorsements also came from notable unions and caucuses, such as the California Faculty Association and the Latino Caucus of California Counties.

High-profile activists and personalities, from CNN’s Van Jones to “Orange Is the New Black” actor Diane Guerrero, similarly were vocal in support of the Fil-Am lawmaker on social media.

On a representation level, advocates argued Bonta’s appointment would be a win as California is home to the largest AAPI population in the U.S. with over 5 million. Fil-Ams are among the top two largest Asian ethnic groups in the state with a population of over 1.6 million.

“It’s rare for me [to] make any political endorsements, but I’ve admired @RobBontaCA for years: his support for criminal justice reform and immigrant rights, the multiracial coalition he builds and attracts,” wrote Jose Antonio Vargas, author and immigration activist, in a Feb. 18 tweet. “Representation matters, especially since Filipinos are often underrepresented in America’s civic life. Filipinos are the largest Asian group in CA — the first Filipinos landed in what is now CA in 1587.”

“Rob makes me proud to be Filipino American in California,” Vargas added.

In recent weeks, following a slew of attacks on Asian Americans, particularly elders, in the state, AAPI lawmakers and activists doubled down on the need for Newsom to appoint a representative from the community.

Of the nearly 3,800 incidents of hate and discrimination since last March, 1,691 (44.5%) were reported in California, according to Stop AAPI Hate.

“[Bonta] understands as the son of immigrant parents what it’s like to come to this country when English is not your first language, for example, when there is mistrust of law enforcement,” state Treasurer Fiona Ma said during a press conference on Wednesday, March 17, a day after the Atlanta shooting that claimed the lives of eight individuals, six of whom were Asian women.

Ma, along with other elected officials, said an AAPI attorney general could help mend fears and tensions between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

The state’s API Legislative Caucus, which is comprised of lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate, came out in support of Bonta after initially recommending four AAPI candidates.

Bonta was reportedly among the contenders for attorney general in 2017 when Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. Becerra, then a congressman representing the 34th congressional district in Southern California, was ultimately selected by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Fil-Am lawmaker in November 2020 was reelected for a fifth term to represent the state’s 18th Assembly district, which covers the East Bay areas of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro. He currently serves as the assistant majority leader, and sits on several committees, including appropriations and health.

File photo from October 2019 shows Newsom after signing AB32, authored by Bonta, which moved for California to be the first in the nation to ban for-profit, private prisons and civil detention facilities.

Amid the protests over the summer, Bonta introduced a bill to classify racially motivated 911 calls as hate crimes. His extensive legislation record includes a 2019 bill, which was signed into law by Newsom, to phase out the use of all private, for-profit prisons, including both prisons and immigration detention facilities in the state.

In response to the recent hate attacks, Bonta introduced AB 886, which seeks to fund community-based organizations that provide culturally competent mental health services for victims of hate violence and restorative justice programs, and to expand eligibility for victims of hate violence to access compensation funds even if they do not file a police report.

The measure also seeks “to proactively increase the likelihood that an individual who caused the harm would not do additional harm,” Bonta said, as previously reported by the Asian Journal.

On Wednesday, he said one of his top priorities as attorney general would be to build bridges with communities that have “been othered, that have been persecuted, that have been targeted.”

“That will be one of my top priorities — to make sure that we protect those who are facing the forces of hate and that we hold accountable those who perpetrate hate violence against others in our community,” he said.

Bonta, who was born in Quezon City, Philippines, immigrated with his family to California’s Central Valley, where his parents worked for the United Farm Workers of America, organizing Filipino and Mexican American workers.

“Those lessons stuck with me, and it became clear to me that an injustice against one is an injustice against all. It made me want to become an attorney to fight for people who’ve been wronged, who’ve been hurt, who’ve been harmed, who’ve been mistreated, and be their champion,” Bonta said on Wednesday.

He obtained a law degree from Yale Law School and clerked for Judge Alvin W. Thompson of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut before moving to San Francisco law firm Keker & Van Nest.

Prior to his election to the state Assembly in 2012, Bonta was San Francisco’s deputy city attorney for nearly a decade, and served as director of the Alameda Health Care District and then part of Alameda’s City Council as vice mayor.

Other candidates who were reportedly considered for attorney general included Rep. Adam Schiff, California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and state Sen. Anna Caballero.

If confirmed as attorney general, Bonta will serve through 2022 and will have to run for election. He said he knows “what it takes to win” and has the infrastructure in place” to launch a campaign.

With his momentous appointment, he joins another Fil-Am in a top state post — Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

“In California, we have created the most diverse state in the nation, and the most robust democracy in the world. And while that sign may have said, ‘Positively No Filipinos Allowed’ in the 1920s, in today’s California, everyone is not just allowed, we belong,” Bonta said. “I will do everything in my power to make sure everyone continues to belong and that I fight for them.”

Christina M. Oriel
Christina M. Oriel

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

5 Comments
  1. Proud to be a Filipino-American to have a person who will champion the rights of Asian-Americans in our communities in California. Congratulations to Rob Bonta.

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