The California attorney general’s job is big under any circumstances: The AG is the state’s top law enforcement official, its chief counsel, it’s most potent advocate for consumers, and the manager of a 4,500-person law office and criminal justice bureaucracy.
But since the 2016 election, the position has been especially important. On environment, health care, social justice, immigration and a host of other issues on which California has set the national standard, the state – which voted 2-1 for Hillary Clinton – has been under almost constant attack from President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress. The state now has more than 30 lawsuits pending against the administration; the Trump presidency is a kind of wartime, with California’s very character at stake.
For an era in which an attorney general must be as much a general as an attorney, the June 6 primary ballot offers two solid options in incumbent Attorney General Xavier Becerra and outgoing Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
For an era in which an attorney general must be as much a general as an attorney, the June 5 primary ballot offers two solid options in incumbent Attorney General Xavier Becerra and outgoing Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. Both are aggressive, both have distinguished records, both are committed to defending the state against federal overreaches and at least one already is doing that while performing the other duties of the office.
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Neither Republican in the top two race – the two leading vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to November – shares their commitment to challenging Trump. Retired El Dorado County Judge Steven Bailey told The Sacramento Bee editorial board that, though he didn’t vote for the president, he’s generally “pleased” with the direction of the administration. Los Angeles attorney Eric Early said he did vote for Trump, and enthusiastically backs him.
But even for voters who aren’t part of the resistance, we can’t recommend either. In his interview with the editorial board, Early, who practices business and real estate law, seemed unfamiliar with the AG’s role, focusing instead on legislative budgetary decisions and the taxpayer costs of supporting undocumented immigrants and unnamed “others.”
Bailey does understand the job, but the district attorney in his own county, a fellow Republican, has not endorsed him, and he is under investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance for what he says are “partisan” misconduct charges.
Since January, when Kamala Harris moved to the U.S. Senate and Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to finish her term, Becerra has relentlessly defended the state againt Trump, filing lawsuit after lawsuit and taking the lead in multi-state efforts. He has also taken some strong state and local stands on other issues, suing Sutter Health for allegedly driving up health care prices and overseeing the local district attorney’s investigation of the Stephon Clark police shooting in Sacramento.
A longtime congressman, Becerra has also veered on occasion toward overly politicizing the office. Jones has criticized him, fairly, for stacking his senior staff with Washington hands, including chief of operations Amanda Renteria, a Clinton campaign operative who is now running for governor. And Becerra got caught using partisan instead of neutral language to write the summary wording for the GOP initiative to repeal Brown’s hard-won gas tax.
Jones, a former assemblyman and Sacramento City Councilman, and before that, a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, has been an effective consumer advocate as insurance commissioner, and has pushed good legislation to protect policyholders reeling from recent natural disasters. He also has experience running a state agency, a side of the job arguably new to Becerra.
But the AG post is not nonpartisan either. And Jones’ experience is more at the state level, and Becerra has national stature, which matters. They are clearly the most qualified candidates in the primary. Jones versus Becerra will make for a robust general election contest.