Republican in uphill bid to upend appointed attorney general
Nathan Hochman thinks he has the resume that California Attorney General Rob Bonta can only dream of having: assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. Assistant U.S. attorney general leading tax fraud investigations under President George W. Bush. President of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Defense attorney in private practice.
But one title — Republican — makes his a decidedly uphill battle to unseat Bonta, who is running in his first statewide election after he was appointed to the state's top law enforcement post last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Hochman is running in California, where the GOP has 24% of registered voters compared to Democrats' 47%. Another 23% have no party preference.
“If this were 1994, the race would be a lot closer," Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney said, referring to the last time California elected a Republican attorney general. “I just think the partisan advantage is extremely difficult to overcome.”
Hochman said there's no comparison between his 30 years of legal experience and what he called Bonta's “zero.”
“I believe that experience matters when you want to have the single most important position in California in enforcing the criminal laws,” Hochman said.
Bonta has his own credentials to run on: He's a Yale Law School graduate who served as a deputy city attorney in San Francisco.
“My opponent has no experience as an elected official at all, not one day," Bonta said. “This (job) is really the intersection of politics, policy and law, and that's what I've been doing my entire career.”
Bonta came up as one of the Legislature's most progressive Democrats, and bills himself as “the people's attorney” at a time when Hochman is betting that voters from both major parties and independents would prefer a more traditional nickname for the office: “top cop.”
Hochman hopes to capitalize on voter anger over rising crime and homelessness, issues that led voters to unseat San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall election this year. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly two-thirds of Californians say violence and street crime is a problem.
Hochman's first digital ad tries to tie Bonta to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, another progressive prosecutor who has sidestepped two recall attempts. He argues that as attorney general, Bonta could take over any local case, as he did a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigation. Bonta says that intervention was unique and Hochman misunderstands the independent role of elected county prosecutors.
He argues that Bonta hasn’t done enough with his office to fight not only those issues, but human trafficking and opioid deaths.
“This election is really about the next four years of their safety and security,” Hochman said. “Democrats, independents and Republicans are fed up, angry and even afraid of what’s going on on their streets.”
Bonta said he views public safety as “job one, two and three for us. ... But that is certainly not the only issue, although it's a critical one, that Californians care about.”
It took Bonta a nonstop seven minutes during an interview to rapidly recite all the areas in which he has been active since taking office: reproductive rights, efforts to combat gun violence, consumer protection, consumer privacy, climate change, environmental crimes, hate crimes, housing availability and affordability — all issues about which he said Hochman has been largely silent — not to mention winning opioid settlements and creating a fentanyl task force.
And Bonta scored 54% of the vote in the June primary election despite similar criticism by his three law-and-order challengers and recent headline-grabbing viral videos of largescale smash-and-grab robberies and other lawlessness. Hochman squeaked into second place with 18%.
“He talks a big game about prosecution and being tough on crime, but what he’s actually been doing is being a defense attorney, getting paid for it, representing alleged tax cheats. ... The opposite of tough on crime," Bonta said of Hochman.
Bonta has had a couple of high-profile missteps this year: His department improperly released personal data on thousands of gunowners and lawmakers failed to enact his bill replacing a concealed weapons law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hochman had more than $3 million going into the fall campaign, which is more than all but one other GOP statewide candidate but is still dwarfed by Bonta’s roughly $9 million.
And Bonta has aggressively used his incumbency to introduce himself to unfamiliar voters, often hosting multiple news conferences each week to tout new programs or legal actions.