San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra is jockeying to replace Attorney General Xavier Becerra as the state’s top law enforcement official.
Becerra was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to be the next U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, leaving California’s attorney general position vacant. If Becerra is confirmed, Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint the state’s next attorney general— and Kalra thinks it should be him.
Kalra, a Democrat, represents Assembly District 27, which encompasses most of San Jose, including downtown and the East Side.
CAPA 21, an Asian-American Pacific Islander political action committee, urged Newsom to consider Kalra along with Assemblymember Rob Bonta, Assemblymember David Chiu and Congressman Ted Lieu.
Kalra told San José Spotlight in an interview that his legislative experience combined with more than a decade of service as a public defender sets him apart, and gives him a unique stance on criminal justice reform.
“It’s really important that we have an attorney general that is truly progressive and is looking to lead an agency that will protect Californians,” Kalra said. “That means being aggressive against corporations that are polluting or taking advantage of workers, hospitals that may be taking advantage of patients and creating a criminal justice system that truly focuses on public safety, not simply incarceration.”
Kalra said creating a more equitable criminal justice system that holds individuals, law enforcement and the judicial system accountable is paramount for public safety.
Earlier this year, Kalra authored a bill signed by Newsom known as the Racial Justice Act, which prohibits the use of race, ethnicity or national origin as a basis for a conviction or sentence.
“Clearly, the manner in which California previously handled criminal justice did not make us safer,” Kalra said, reflecting on his time as a public defender and an assemblyman. “It just locked up a lot of poor people for many, many years. I think that we can be safer by ensuring that our criminal justice system is applied equally.”
Peter Ortiz, a trustee on the Santa Clara County Board of Education and longtime advocate for San Jose’s Latino community, said Kalra’s background as a public defender and advocate for communities of color sets him apart from past attorneys general who have served as prosecutors—Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, for example.
“We should give someone with a public defender’s background a chance,” Ortiz said. “Someone who believes in restorative justice and getting to the root of society’s problems, instead of just mass incarceration and criminalizing the poor.”
Kalra’s strategy for criminal justice reform emphasizes prevention. He said California’s “revolving door” in and out of prison has only served to victimize communities. To eliminate the revolving door, Kalra said the state needs to support previously incarcerated individuals —especially youth— to ensure they don’t commit crimes again.
California also needs to invest money and resources into those who have been a victim of “unchecked corporate greed” and “egregious income inequality” statewide, Kalra said. He’s committed to not accepting corporate or law enforcement money.
His other hot button issue is the climate crisis. Kalra said the office must be aggressive in combating climate change by enforcing regulations on industrial polluters and supporting green policies.
Jesse Quijada, a former San Jose City Council aide, said Kalra has been a mentor to him since he was a high school student.
“He has clearly shown that he is a true advocate for the people: the underserved, those who are often forgotten. Most importantly, he is not afraid to stand up to major corporations or at least take a stance on unpopular opinions,” Quijada said. “Ash will do a great job as our attorney general, if appointed.”
Kalra served on the San Jose City council for eight years before being elected to the state Assembly in 2016. The first Indian-American to serve in the California Legislature, he’s now in his third term. If appointed attorney general, he would be the second Indian-American in the position, followiing Harris.
If Newsom doesn’t choose Kalra, the District 27 representative plans to happily “stay right where he is” in the state Assembly and continue to push a progressive agenda.
In the past four years Kalra has had 32 bills signed into law.
“For someone who never even planned on being an elected official, to now be in the position I’m in and to have the opportunity to chime in on such important issues that have affected 40 million Californians is by itself an honor,” Kalra said. “And the idea that I could build even more influence over improving the lives of my constituents is quite humbling.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.