In an attack ad blasting California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a woman named Rachel describes her deep frustration over the five-month probation sentence for the juvenile driver who slammed into her and her 8-month-old child in Los Angeles last year.
The disturbing incident was caught on tape and quickly went viral on social media, cited by countless critics as yet more evidence of a spike in brazen and violent crime across the state.
Rachel, a Democrat, says she will vote for Nathan Hochman, the GOP candidate for attorney general. Even though she and Bonta share other political beliefs, she said the Democratic attorney general isn't doing enough to stop the surge in violent crime across the state. She's particularly angry that Bonta has declined to take over her case from embattled Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón.
“The kid tried to murder me and my child, and the state couldn’t have cared less, and they proved that by only giving him five months of probation,” she says. “California Attorney General Rob Bonta has the ability to step in and take over from district attorneys like George Gascón, but Bonta chooses not to. It’s about voting for the right candidate, and the right candidate is Nathan Hochman.”
The ad is part of a soft-on-crime barrage Republicans are deploying across the country to skewer Democrats’ public safety records. Too many Democratic officials have pushed liberal policies that emboldened criminals, critics argue. Top policy targets include cashless bail, early release for tens of thousands of prisoners, and reduced punishment for many convicted of theft and other nonviolent offenses.
Over the last three months, worries about rising crime have helped power New York Rep. Lee Zeldin to within striking distance of incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul. And growing anxiety over public safety ranks among the top three to five issues in many urban areas across the country.
In California, rising violent crime has been a flash-point all year, before and after San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was accused of coddling criminals and neglecting rampant drug use on city streets, was recalled in early June. In Los Angeles, critics of Gascón, who is known as the “godfather of progressive prosecutors” and preceded Boudin as San Francisco DA, claimed to have collected 715,000 signatures to launch a recall of him. County officials, however, invalidated 200,000 of the signatures, preventing a recall but prompting an ongoing legal fight.
A Harvard/Harris poll released Oct. 14 found that 68% of respondents considered crime to be “very important” and are more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in the upcoming midterm election because of that concern. Earlier this year, two-thirds of registered voters in California said crime had risen in their neighborhoods, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Just more than half of voters surveyed said California Gov. Gavin Newsom was doing a poor job on crime and public safety, up 16 percentage points from 2020.
Hochman, a federal prosecutor with 30 years of experience, is running to replace Bonta, a former state assemblyman for Oakland who previously served as the deputy city attorney for San Francisco. Newsom appointed Bonta to replace Xavier Becerra when he stepped down to become President Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services.
Hochman says he’s running because Bonta has failed to intervene in counties where crime has risen sharply, and policies he’s championed, including cashless bail, have placed the interests of criminals above victims. Bonta has countered that he’s “strong, effective, and smart on crime” and can make the criminal justice system fairer without compromising public safety.
Over the last week, Hochman has been touring the state on a bus emblazoned with his promise to “stop the spiral of lawlessness.” Along the way, he's touted his endorsements from across the political spectrum – from Death Row Records founder Michael “Harry-O” Harris and Hollywood A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow to former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Two dozen district attorneys from across the state and Female Business Leaders, a Democratic-leaning group in Los Angeles have also endorsed him. In late September, Hochman received the backing of the San Diego Union-Tribune, which said both candidates are strong, but Hochman has a “better plan for responding to growing crime.”
In numerous interviews and a recent ad, Hochman has hammered Bonta as “missing in action” when it comes to the state’s fentanyl crisis. Fentanyl is responsible for 5,722 California deaths in 2021, including 224 between the ages of 15 and 19, according to the California Department of Public Health.
In mid-October, Bonta appeared to respond, arguing that the state is “all-in when it comes to protecting California families from the dangers of fentanyl” and issuing an update to the state Department of Justice’s work to address the crisis.
Both MSNBC and Fox News in recent days have dubbed the race one of the most competitive in the country. RealClearPolitics talked to Hochman about his chances on Election Day and the current political mood in California. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q: The district of attorney recall efforts in several cities, including San Francisco, shows that many California voters, including Democrats and independents, are looking for new leadership. Still, no Republican has won statewide in California since 2006. How can you overcome that big hurdle?
Hochman: I would classify myself as a moderate Republican and [someone] who has the best chance in a generation to win this office. Here's why: The first is a change in conditions on the ground. 2014 was considered one of California's safest years in the last 30. [This year] public safety has risen to a top-three issue in polling for the first time in a generation.
When people are afraid to send themselves, their kids, their parents out at night in their neighborhoods … when you have what I’ve described as a ‘spiral of lawlessness’ that starts with one or two people going into a small business and stealing just under $950 and not being prosecuted because it's now a misdemeanor and the prosecutors aren’t doing their jobs … and that turns into three people running out of Walgreens and people running out of Nordstroms in smash-and-grab robberies, home robberies, train robberies and a double-digit rise in homicides … That's a wake-up call for not just Republicans, but Democrats and independents.
I believe California voters are going to look to the one statewide position that's identified with safety and security, and that's the attorney general position. The kind of conditions on the ground are ripe for change – people are crying out for change.
The Boudin recall and the issues that arose there show that a Republican can win. Chesa Boudin was recalled 55% to 45%. Republicans make up only 8% of the vote in the city of San Francisco, and roughly three-quarters of the votes to recall Boudin came from Democrats and independents.
Secondly, in the last 20 years, you had Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris, and Javier Becerra serving as attorney general. Those are fairly unbeatable candidates with great statewide name recognition and some level of law enforcement background. They were also presiding over a time when safety and security was much more under control.
Rob Bonta was appointed by Gov. Newsom, and shockingly, he had zero law enforcement experience before he took the job. Gavin Newsom appointed an Oakland assemblymember –basically a politician – to be your chief law enforcement officer, someone who's never argued a criminal case or conducted a criminal investigation, dealt with victims or [handled] criminal sentencing and dealt with judges. He is absolutely inexperienced and unqualified to hold that position. Coupled with that, he also has brought along a criminal justice agenda that I believe is too far to the left. I believe it's very pro-criminal.
Q: But aren’t the laws that California voters approved a few years ago the problem, and your job would be enforcing them? Proposition 47 was passed by voters. It reclassified felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors and raised from $400 to $950 the amount for which theft can be prosecuted as a felony. Two years later, voters approved another proposition that allowed prisoners to be released earlier.
Hochman: They call [the attorney general] the top cop in the state for good reason, because under the California constitution, the chief law enforcement officer has the power to go into any one of the 58 counties and take over any case, if you believe it's not being properly prosecuted.
It's an enormous power that’s somewhat unique to California, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
[Bonta’s] opened up the middle ground. That’s where I exist.
In contrast to his zero years of criminal-justice experience, I was a judge's clerk. I was then an assistant U.S. attorney, a federal prosecutor for seven years in Los Angeles where I went after narcotics traffickers, gang members, international money launderers, tax evaders, public corruption cases, dirty sheriffs. I ran the environmental crimes unit. Then [I served as] assistant attorney general running the U.S. Department of Justice's tax division. We had 350 lawyers and a $100 million budget to go after tax cheats across country. I've also been a defense attorney.
Thirty years of experience gives me the perspective to figure out the true public safety threats to our society – who should and shouldn’t be in jail. It requires an individualized analysis of three things: the level of crime that’s committed, the defendant’s criminal history, which is often overlooked, as well as the impact on the victim.
Q: What specifically can a state attorney general do to stop fentanyl overdoses? Fentanyl is coming across the border, and most Republicans argue it’s a border security issue that the Biden administration needs to fix.
Hochman: The fact that Rob Bonta since he took over the position has not been a central figure, front-and-center, leading the task force to go after all the fentanyl dealers that are bringing millions of counterfeit tablets in, spiking marijuana, cocaine and other drugs with fentanyl, is a dereliction of duty. We’re talking about people who are poisoning Californians. It would be like if there were a sniper killing 17 people a day in San Francisco or Los Angeles with a high-powered rifle, and it’s not front-page news in California.
As attorney general, you have the power to educate. You can hold press conferences, you can go into high-school communities … you can do your own PR campaign in connection with all the other state and federal government agencies. By leading an enforcement and an education effort, you could really make a difference. You could save lives tomorrow.
Q: After the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade earlier this summer, Newsom pledged to make California an abortion sanctuary state and signed several new laws strengthening abortion access. What is your position on abortion, and how would you carry out these news laws?
Hochman: I am pro-choice and will fully enforce all the laws on the books in protecting a woman’s reproductive rights. Full stop.
Q: What do you think of Brooke Jenkins, the interim district attorney appointed following the recall of Chesa Boudin – her effort so far to reverse Boudin’s record? She has decided to try some juveniles who committed heinous crimes as adults and has overturned some of Boudin’s plea deals.
Hochman: Anyone from any part of the political spectrum that has safety and security as one of their top goals, and actually enacts policies to do that – I think that’s great. Safety and security and justice should not be political issues. If Jenkins is reversing policies and doing her best to bring safety and security back to San Francisco, I applaud that.