Rob Bonta thinks of the upcoming election as a way to measure whether he’s doing a good job.
Is he the darling of the Democrats and hated by the Republicans?
Rob Bonta was late. I was sitting in the waiting room of his offices on the claustrophobic sixth floor of the Capitol Annex in Sacramento, scanning my cell phone, trying to figure out how to get back to the train station in case I missed the next bus.
Suddenly, I heard my name. I looked up. It was Bonta.
“Rob Bonta,” he said, holding out his hand and smiling his big Cheshire cat smile. “Sorry I’m late. My meeting ran over. I understand you have a train to catch.”
I had told one of his aides that I had to get back to the station.
“I’ll see if we can get you a ride,” he said, “and I’ll come along with you and we can talk on the way.”
You might conclude from this that Rob Bonta, the State Assemblyman from District 18, is a pleaser, someone who bends over backward to make people—at least, journalists—happy. That may be. But he certainly doesn’t please everyone, especially Republicans.
Bonta, 42, is a progressive Democrat, not as liberal as some of his Bay Area colleagues, but not a moderate either, as is evident from his support for gun control, labor unions, and that old battle cry: social justice.
Given Bonta’s background, this isn’t surprising. His father, Warren, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and later was involved, along with wife Cynthia, in the farmworkers movement, collecting petition signatures for the lettuce boycott in 1970 and then taking jobs at the United Farm Workers headquarters in La Paz. It was there that the couple and their three children lived in a trailer 500 yards from Cesar Chavez’s house.
“I grew up going to rallies and demonstrations and with my parents strongly articulating their views about justice and how to be more fair and equitable,” Bonta says.
As a result, he wanted to go into public service from an early age. But instead of becoming an activist, like his parents, he thought of becoming an attorney, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird—“the one who fights for the underdog,” he says.
Bonta could afford to set his goals high. He was a star soccer player and the valedictorian at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, outside Sacramento. Aside from that, his mother was Filipino (his father, Scotch, Irish, and Dutch), which increased his attractiveness to colleges hoping to increase diversity.
He was heavily recruited and chose Yale, where, at the minority orientation, a week before the start of classes, he met his future wife, Mialisa. He had a brilliant career at Yale. He was captain of the soccer team, graduated with honors, and, after a stint at Oxford, earned a law degree.
On his return to California, he worked for a private law firm and then as an attorney for the city and county of San Francisco. His wife worked in education and is now executive director of Bring Me A Book, a nonprofit literacy program.
The couple moved to Alameda in 1999, where they still live near the beach with their three children, two daughters ages 14 and 8, and a son, 5.
Bonta didn’t let any seaweed grow under his feet. He soon got involved in local politics, first with the Democratic Party and then by serving on various Alameda boards.
In 2010, he ran for Alameda City Council. He was the top vote-getter in a field of eight. On the council, he was an advocate for local schools, police, and firefighters.
Council Member Lena Tam remembers him as a careful listener who was able to quickly size up situations and says he was a skilled contract negotiator. He also had a soft spot, she says. While most of the council members supported penalties for business owners who failed to pay permit fees, Bonta was forgiving.
“Rob would always give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Bonta’s reputation soared, and his colleagues elected him vice mayor, fill-in to the elected mayor. But not everyone liked Bonta. In fact, one group of residents seemed enraged by every move he made and started a recall campaign in 2012.
Among the group’s complaints: Bonta’s support for firing an interim city manager, Ann Marie Gallant, who had accused council member Tam of giving confidential information to a developer; his part in granting a raise and reduced hours to firefighters who had been working 56 hours a week; and his vote to allow construction of multifamily housing on the island city to comply with state rules for affordable housing.
But the recall went nowhere. A few months after it was announced, Bonta won the District 18 seat for State Assembly, becoming the first Filipino to serve in the lower house of the California Legislature. After the election, he resigned his city council seat, rendering the recall irrelevant.
From the hyper venom of city government, Bonta moved to the Chardonnay—given the Democrats total control of state government—of the Legislature. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.
Bonta’s Assembly district covers Alameda, San Leandro, and most of Oakland, excluding Rockridge and part of Piedmont. The lion’s share of the voters are in Oakland, and that’s why a big part of Bonta’s work during his first year in office took aim at the city’s high crime rate.
Bonta authored a bill to allow Oakland to write its own—presumably tougher—gun registration laws. He also co-authored a bill to put a 10 percent tax on ammunition sales with the proceeds going to children’s mental health.
The gun registration law cruised through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but got shot down by Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Oakland mayor and proud gun owner. In his veto message, Brown said, “I am mindful of the challenges the city of Oakland faces in addressing gun violence, but this is not the right solution.”
The bullet tax did worse, failing to land anywhere near the governor’s desk. After voters passed Proposition 30 in 2012, increasing taxes on the wealthy and upping the sales tax by .25 percent, the governor and top legislators agreed on a moratorium on new taxes. Since the bullet bill included a tax, it was dead on arrival.
Bonta says he was disappointed with the failure of his gun bills, but not frustrated. “If all your bills pass, then you are not pushing hard enough; you are not being aggressive enough,” he says.
Thus, Bonta says he is proud of what he accomplished during his first year in Sacramento. “We had 10 bills signed by the governor,” he says, “That’s a lot for anyone, especially for the first year.”
One of the bills he is most proud requires school textbooks to note the role of Filipino Americans in the farmworkers movement in California. Liberals typically distrust these kind of laws, which conservatives have used in other states to force the teaching of creationism. But Bonta says this law was needed. “I was a history major in college, and I learned that if it’s not in the history books, it’s not going to be told,” he says.
Sue Caro, the chairman of the Alameda County Republican Party, says she has been unimpressed with Bonta.
“He tries to look like a guy who cares about his community,” says Caro, who lives near Lake Merritt in Oakland. “But I think it’s a lot of show. He’s not creating solutions to real problems. It’s identity politics: being a woman or black or Filipino. Republicans start from the position that that’s not important; that as long as we create a level playing field, everyone can have a fair chance.”
Republican David Erlich, a San Leandro electrician, is running against Bonta in the Assembly district. But he isn’t given much of a chance, even by Caro, in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
“I’m running to get the old ideas out there,” says Erlich, who supports limited government, free markets, and small business. “I want to show folks that Republicans aren’t what they say we are.”
Erlich, 43, will at least get a chance to get his voice heard. So far, he and Bonta are the only ones running for the Assembly seat.
Bonta starts the race with a big advantage. Last year alone, he raised nearly $600,000, which may be enough to discourage Democratic rivals from challenging him. But like any smart politician who might offer a ride to a journalist he had kept waiting, Bonta gives another reason for why he is not afraid to re-election.
“I always figured my job security would be based on my performance,” he says. “So I am very comfortable with being on the ballot. It’s an opportunity to find out how voters think I am doing.”