On Global Filipinos: California Attorney General Rob Bonta: ‘For the people not the powerful’

Bonta pointing to a picture of his mom at the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies at the University of California, Davis.  He helped secure funding for the center.

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

On April 23, Assemblymember Rob Bonta was sworn in by Governor Gavin Newsom as California’s 34th Attorney General, making him the highest ranked Filipino American in the state and the second Asian American — after Vice President Kamala Harris — to hold the position.

In his remarks, Bonta made a pledge that “Government should work for the people — not the powerful — and as Attorney General, I will make it my mission to hold the powerful accountable when they cheat Californians and abuse the public trust.”

It is destiny that Rob Bonta has become the “top cop” as the New York Times called him, of the most populous state in the country. An estimated 1.5 million of the population are of Filipino ancestry.

Bonta was born in Quezon City, Philippines on September 22, 1972, one day after then President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. Two months later, his American citizen father Warren Bonta and his Filipino wife Cynthia left for the United States with their 2-month-old baby Rob and older sister Lisa. They would not tolerate living under a dictatorship. As a student, his father joined Martin Luther King’s civil rights organizing in Alabama for the Civil Rights Act. His parents were working as missionaries in the Philippines.

The Bonta family initially lived in a trailer, near the headquarters of the United Farm Workers. His parents joined the clamor for fair wages and better working conditions for farm workers led by Filipinos Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, and U.S.-born Latino activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huertas.

In 1977, his mother joined the protest to save the International Hotel in San Francisco where Filipino old-timers and low-income tenants had lived by themselves for decades.

California Governor Gavin Newsom swore in Attorney General Bonta on April 23. The ‘People’s Attorney.’

Growing up in the “crucible of activism,” as Bonta stated at his oath-taking,  his parents “instilled in my siblings and me a commitment to making the world a better place. They taught me to call out – and to root out – injustice wherever I saw it.”

To support himself at Yale University — financial aid was not sufficient for books and tuition — he cleaned laundry rooms as a working student. He graduated Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1993. He attended the University of Oxford for one year, studying politics, philosophy and economics, giving him a better understanding of how nations rise and fall.

He returned to enroll at Yale Law School – again with the help of financial aid — and graduated with a Juris Doctor degree in 1998.

“I knew the law provides the best path to make a positive difference for the most people,” he said at his swearing-in ceremony.

He met his future wife Mialisa Tania Villafane at Yale Law School, “my partner in life and in service.” She was an Afro-Latina from the Bronx whose parents were activists in the Young Lord’s Party. She is currently president of the Alameda Unified School District. They have three children and live in the East Bay Area with their dog Lego.

For 10 years, Bonta was a Deputy City Attorney representing the City and County of San Francisco and its employees.

Rob and Mialisa and their children Iliana, Reina, and Andres.

By 2010, he ran and was elected to Alameda City Council. By 2012, he won the State Assembly seat representing East Bay (Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro) becoming the first Filipino American legislator in California’s then 165-year history. He had authored major changes in the penal code, immigration, health care and housing law.

In 2013, he authored a bill to require California public schools to teach students “the role of immigrants in the farm labor movement.”  It was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown that same year. In 2016, he filed a bill to outlaw “balanced billing” by hospitals to help consumers avoid surprised medical bills. Brown signed it into law that same year.

In 2018, Assemblyman Bonta together with State Senator Robert Hertzberg filed a bill to eliminate money bail for suspects while awaiting trial and replace it with a risk-assessment system. California became the first state to eliminate the bail system, which imprisons the poor without trial.

In 2019, Governor Newsom signed into law legislation introduced by Assemblyman Bonta to end the use of for-profit private prisons and detention facilities, making California again the first state to ban private prisons and civil detention centers.

In the same year, he filed a Bill to outlaw baseless evictions combined with a statewide cap on rent increases. The proposed legislation is now a law.

In 2020, Newsom also signed into law a bill to mandate an independent review by the California Department of Justice of any police officer involved in shootings. Bonta is the principal author of this bill.

Last year, he Bonta introduced legislation making it a crime to make a false call to the police based on someone’s race, religion or gender, inspired by the incident in Central Park in New York where a White woman called the police because a Black man called her attention about her dog running without a leash.

The Prosecutors Alliance of California applauded the appointment of Bonta. “Mr. Bonta fought to end cash bail and cure the conflict of interest that occurs when elected prosecutors receive financial and political support from law enforcement unions. He is a leader that has dedicated his career to protecting and uplifting vulnerable communities.”

As California’s Attorney General, he continues his fight for justice for the underserved and the powerless.

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