Politics

Trump's shadow looms over California attorney general race

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks to members of the media about the investigation of the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California on March 27, 2018.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks to members of the media about the investigation of the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California on March 27, 2018.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Xavier Becerra was plucked from Congress to lead California's opposition to all things Donald Trump. He's done that as state attorney general, with a litany of lawsuits over policies involving immigration, the environment, birth control and health care.

His opponents in the June 5 primary say he's so focused on the Republican president that he's falling down on other key areas of the job.

"There's a long list of things that this attorney general's not doing because he is so fixated on Trump," said state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat like Becerra.

Becerra said he's done much more than sue the Trump the administration.

"We do far more work on important matters that have nothing to do with Donald Trump than those cases that get written up in the newspaper," Becerra said, listing crackdowns on criminal gangs, fraudulent charities and businesses that charge exorbitant prices, fees or interest rates.

Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra as California's first Latino attorney general just as Trump took office last year. The job came open when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Becerra is running his first statewide campaign after nearly a quarter-century in Congress. He's being challenged by Jones, who has twice won statewide elections for insurance commissioner, and Republicans Steven Bailey and Eric Early. Bailey is a former Superior Court judge and Early is an attorney specializing in business, entertainment and real estate litigation.

The top two vote-getters advance to the November general election no matter their party affiliation.

Both Republicans are running to Becerra's right on issues led by crime and immigration, while Jones carved out space to Becerra's left in stridently advocating for a single-payer health care system and an end to the death penalty. Jones says Becerra isn't doing enough to fight the opioid overdose crisis, to take guns from those who are no longer allowed to have them, or to sue corporations that contribute to global warming.

Jones got his start providing free legal assistance to the poor. He was special assistant and counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno before winning seats first on the Sacramento City Council, then in the state Assembly. If elected attorney general, Jones said a major focus would be on criminal justice reforms including providing more rehabilitation, mental illness and drug addiction treatment programs.

Bailey is a recently retired El Dorado County Superior Court judge who started as a legislative assistant and later deputy legislative director for the state Department of Social Services.

Like Becerra, Early is a son of immigrants, born to a father from Austria and mother from Poland. He now manages a Los Angeles law firm. If elected, he pledged to consider creating permanent facilities for those with severe mental illnesses, housing that he said would reduce violence and homelessness.

Early charged that Becerra "cares more about illegal immigrants who have come here and then broken the law since they got here, some of them violent criminals, than he cares about our tax-paying citizens."

Becerra had twice as much money in his campaign account going into this election year, $3.2 million to Jones' $1.56 million, with both GOP candidates trailing far behind.

If retained by voters, Becerra said he will emphasize protecting consumers, investigating companies that may be contributing to climate change, and deterring sex trafficking beyond his role in shutting down the Backpage.com online marketplace.

The powerful California Nurses Association, which champions government-funded health care for everyone, endorsed Becerra over Jones. Neither won the California Democratic Party's endorsement, though Jones received more votes at the state convention.

Both Republicans oppose recent voter-approved initiatives that reduced criminal penalties and both support the death penalty. Becerra is pushing for California to resume executions for the first time since 2006, despite his personal reservations.

Bailey says the goal should be to treat those with mental illnesses or drug addictions instead of locking them up. He also criticized Jones and Becerra for seeking to end the state's existing money bail system, which they say takes a harder hit on the poor.

The state Commission on Judicial Performance is investigating whether Bailey steered business to an electronic monitoring service where his son worked, improperly accepted gifts and used his judicial office to advance his bid for attorney general. Bailey denies what he says are political motivated allegations. The commission could publicly admonish Bailey but not disqualify him from the attorney general's race.