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The race for California’s top cop focuses on abortion, gun control and crime

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has spent the last year and a half working on the same progressive issues he supported during his tenure in the California Assembly.

Bonta, a Democrat, has created a new gun violence prevention office and set up a regional program to apprehend human traffickers and sexual predators.

He’s called out an “epidemic of hate” against communities of color and other vulnerable groups and has leveraged a “housing strike force” to get local governments to comply with state laws.

More recently, Bonta took control of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation into Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others. He also said his office would investigate the Los Angeles redistricting process after The Times published a recording of a racist conversation among city leaders trying to increase Latino political power.

Nathan Hochman, a Republican defense attorney and former federal prosecutor running to unseat Bonta in the Nov. 8 election, doesn’t think that’s enough and says he would do things differently.

Bonta, the first Filipino American to serve as the state’s top law enforcement official, was appointed last March by Gov. Gavin Newsom after Xavier Becerra resigned to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary.

The state attorney general’s post, often a steppingstone to higher office, has become increasingly important in the wake of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that rolled back abortion rights and deemed restrictive gun control policies unconstitutional.

The attorney general supports local criminal investigations and coordinates statewide narcotics enforcement, helps prosecute hate crimes, runs regional forensic crime labs and assists the state in meeting its climate and housing goals.

But Hochman has pointed to Bonta’s relative lack of law enforcement experience and left-leaning legislative record as evidence that the state Department of Justice is in need of leadership that will take a tougher stance on crime. He said Bonta has contributed to a “spiral of lawlessness.”

As an assistant attorney general, Hochman led the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tax Division in prosecuting “tax defiers” such as Wesley Snipes.

At the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California, he prosecuted more than 180 cases involving corruption and fraud, according to his federal Department of Justice biography.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Hochman launched the Los Angeles Disaster Fraud Task Force, which prosecuted more than 70 people for defrauding assistance programs. Hochman also served on the L.A. City Ethics Commission.

As a defense attorney, Hochman has represented clients including former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who was convicted of obstructing a civil rights investigation into the county jails and lying to federal investigators.

Bonta was a deputy city attorney in San Francisco and vice mayor for the city of Alameda before being elected to the state Assembly in 2012. During his tenure representing the Alameda area, Bonta developed a reputation as a progressive willing to push policies to strengthen tenants’ rights and to reform the criminal justice system.

He worked on legislation to phase out private prisons and detention facilities in California and eliminate cash bail. He helped pass a bill in 2019 to cap rent increases and limit when a landlord can evict tenants and supported another in 2020 that requires the attorney general to investigative deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians.

Bonta said that he’s “strong, effective and smart on crime” and that public safety is “priority and job number one, two and three.” He said he can advocate for making the criminal justice system more fair without compromising public safety.

Concerns over crime turned the June 7 primary for attorney general into one of the most competitive of the spring. Hochman came in second over a fellow Republican and high-profile independent prosecutor with 18.2% of ballots cast, compared with 54.3% for Bonta.

But it’s not just crime that’s propelling voters to the ballot box this year.

More than 80% of California voters marked abortion as an important concern in an August UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey, with two-thirds reporting that they disapproved of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down the landmark abortion rights case Roe vs. Wade.

The attorney general is charged with defending California laws in court, and Newsom has recently signed a slew of new laws that strengthen access to abortion. Voters will also soon decide on Proposition 1, a proposed amendment to the California Constitution that would explicitly protect the right to an abortion.

Hochman said he is “pro-choice” and would “fully enforce all the laws on the books protecting a woman’s reproductive rights.”

Bonta called for a resolute defense of reproductive freedoms.

When it comes to abortion access, Bonta said the attorney general needs to be “loud, strong, full-throated, standing up, not sitting down, in the front, not in the back.”

Hochman said he would also enforce California’s gun control policies — considered some of the strongest in the nation — but added that some violate another recent Supreme Court decision against restrictive concealed carry laws.

Hochman said that Bonta has “abjectly failed” to more aggressively confiscate weapons from people prohibited from possessing them and that he should have done more to help pass legislation introduced in response to the Supreme Court case.

Senate Bill 918, which Bonta helped craft, died at the end of this year’s legislative session amid Democratic infighting and lack of support from the moderate wing of the caucus. It would have maintained strict rules to obtain a concealed carry permit in California.

“I will take the weapons out of the hands of criminals while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to own and possess guns under California law,” Hochman said.

Bonta acknowledged that proponents of the bill “lost an opportunity to do something important,” but pledged to pass a similar measure in the new year.

“This fight is not over,” Bonta said, adding that he has made gun violence prevention a top priority as attorney general. He sponsored legislation this year to establish a “firearm industry standard of conduct” that will allow local governments, the state Department of Justice and gun violence survivors to sue over egregious violations of state sales and marketing regulations.

Other policy priorities for Hochman include cracking down on fentanyl with harsher penalties for drug dealers and establishing a statewide task force to end human trafficking.

He has blamed two state laws, Propositions 47 and 57, which voters approved in the last decade, for a perceived “lawlessness” in California’s cities. Proposition 47 reduced some theft and drug felonies to misdemeanors, and Proposition 57 overhauled California’s parole process by increasing good-behavior credits that allow incarcerated people to be released earlier.

Bonta said he’s intensely focused on prosecuting fentanyl dealers and going after human traffickers. His office recently announced that it has seized millions of fentanyl pills and close to 900 pounds of fentanyl powder since April 2021. He said he’s “willing to change course” on criminal justice reform laws but said there’s been little evidence to support the idea that they’re creating chaos in California.

Hochman has raised more than $3 million, according to state campaign finance records, and Bonta has raised more than $8 million.

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