Capitol Alert

His opponent was missing. So a candidate for attorney general addressed an empty chair.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. rbenton@sacbee.com

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra came under intense fire for missing the first debate Wednesday in the state attorney general's race, with his Democratic opponent repeatedly attacking him as "MIA" and Republicans denouncing his pro-immigrant stance.

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, running to the left of Becerra, chastised the incumbent in his absence, at times motioning to an empty chair and addressing Becerra as if he were there.

"If he were here, I would tell him to do the job," Jones said. "There's a lot more to the attorney general's office than suing Donald Trump... There's a long list of things this attorney general is not doing because he is so fixated on Trump."

The two Republicans in the race also slammed Becerra for not being present.

"It's a sign of his arrogance that he's not here," said Republican Eric Early, a Los Angeles business and real estate attorney. "He's thumbed his nose at California voters."

Becerra said through spokeswoman Dana Williamson that he could not attend because he would be traveling back from Washington, D.C., where he attended a U.S. Supreme Court hearing yesterday in a First Amendment lawsuit against California that could have major implications for women seeking an abortion.

"This debate was scheduled at a time when Attorney General Becerra was set to be at the U.S. Supreme Court defending California's values and a woman's right to health care," she said in a statement. "While he was doing his job, his opponents were busy squabbling in Sacramento trying to score cheap political points."

Jones went after Becerra for accepting campaign cash from oil and gas companies, saying he would not accept such money, and attacked him for not investigating ExxonMobil for misleading the public about the realities of climate change.

"The appointed attorney general is not only missing in action today, but he's missing in action in regard to a host of important things that need to be done in California...holding ExxonMobil accountable for its climate (change) denial, criminal justice reform (and) making sure we're doing everything we can do make smart investments in mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment..jobs for offenders that are coming out of our jails and our prisons."

Campaign finance data shows Becerra has accepted at least $21,900 from Chevron and Phillips 66 combined since he took over the job from former Attorney General Kamala Harris, now in the U.S. Senate. A peer-reviewed Harvard study found last year that the oil and gas giant had misled the public about climate change and the risk of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere.

At one point, Jones asked the absent Becerra a question about unlawful possession of firearms by serious criminal offenders, people with mental illnesses and those with domestic violence restraining orders.

"Why haven't you gotten each and every one of those individuals to surrender their weapons? What's your excuse for not performing that critical function?" Jones asked the empty chair.

Williamson defended Becerra, saying he has been "hard at work." She also touted Becerra's lawsuits against the federal government, saying he "has more than a dozen legal victories, from stopping Trump from gutting our air quality protections to blocking his effort to restrict a woman's access to birth control."

Jones said he would continue lawsuits brought by Becerra, and file others, including against Trump for his business dealings, which Jones said violate the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. He also said he'd fight the Trump administration in court for taking any action to open up public lands for oil and gas drilling or offshore oil exploration.

Jones criticized Becerra for backing the death penalty, for "failing to lead" on ending the state's cash bail system and said he would work to establish a legal framework for single-payer, universal health care.

"In this state, we're going to have a big fight on our hands with the federal government to make sure federal monies that currently go to California for health care get transitioned to a single-payer system, which I support."

Becerra has also said he supports single-payer, universal health care. His spokeswoman said he has taken on the National Rifle Association, Big Oil and has "championed bail reform."

"While his opponents make empty promises, (he) is actually doing the job and delivering," Williamson said.

On the death penalty, she noted that Becerra will uphold the Constitution, which "prescribes calls for the death penalty for the most brutal, heinous, cold-blooded crimes."

Both Republicans denounced the roughly two-dozen lawsuits Becerra has brought against the Trump administration since he was first appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Candidates for California attorney general voiced support, opposition to immigration policies in a March 2018 debate.

They singled out the lawsuit against Trump's proposed border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. They denounced California's so-called "sanctuary state" law that restricts the ability of local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

"California has problems of its own," said Republican Steven Bailey, a retired El Dorado County judge. "Suing the federal government over the likes of whether we ought to have a border wall was frivolous...(and) is quite frankly, disturbing."

Early called the border wall lawsuit "outrageous."

"We are a country of laws, and we simply cannot afford an endless flow (of immigrants)," he said.

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