What would Nathan Hochman do as California attorney general?

Nathan Hochman, candidate for California attorney general, answers questions from CalMatters reporters.
(Martin do Nascimento / CalMatters)

In a 70-minute interview, Nathan Hochman, a Republican former federal prosecutor, vows to end a “spiral of lawlessness” in California as he runs for attorney general. Hochman is seeking to finish in the top two in the June 7 primary against Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta.

What does California’s attorney general actually do? According to Republican Nathan Hochman, who wants to be the next one, the job description is simple: Enforce the law.

That’s why during his 70-minute sit-down interview with CalMatters reporters in April, the longtime Los Angeles lawyer was quick to emphasize the depth of his experience as a federal prosecutor, defense attorney and tax law expert. It’s also why he was happy to speak at length about crime across the state and to lay the blame at the feet of current Attorney General Rob Bonta.

But on nearly all questions of policy preference and political point of view, he took the proverbial Fifth.

“If I want to go ahead and legislate California policy, I’d run for the state Assembly or the state Senate or maybe even for the governor,” he said. “I view the job of the California attorney general as enforcing the laws on the books of the state of California, full stop.”

Hochman was also mum when he was asked for his views on the death penalty. “I’m signing up for a job that’s enforcing the law, not making the law.”

And ditto on gun control measures and additional support for out-of-state women seeking abortions in California, both under consideration by the Legislature. “That’s for the California Legislature to decide,” he said.

Did the self-described “pragmatic” Republican vote for Trump? “I’m not willing to answer that question.”
Hochman’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach could reflect his earnest belief in the nonpartisan nature of the position. But steering clear of controversy could also be his best shot at winning over a generally left-of-center electorate that hasn’t put a Republican in statewide office since 2006.

Either way, he has his work cut out for him if he wants to become California’s next attorney general.

First, Hochman, who has never held elected office, will have to introduce himself to the state’s roughly 22 million voters. Then he’ll have to persuade the Democratic-voting majority to overlook his party affiliation and pick him over Bonta, a Democrat; Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert who is running without a political party label; or anyone else vying for the job of California’s top cop.

Finally, he’ll need to convince voters that legal experience really does matter more than partisan affiliation — and to forgive him for his silence on most of the hot-button issues of the day.

Here are three other highlights from our conversation with Hochman:

A few exceptions to taking the Fifth

While Hochman was clear that he preferred not to talk policy details, he made a few notable exceptions.

He had a clear position on Proposition 47, the 2014 state ballot measure that reclassified the theft of items valued at less than $950 from a felony to a misdemeanor, along with other low-level crimes. Like virtually every major Republican office holder in the state, Hochman blames the measure for the apparent increase in property crime statewide over the last two years.

“You got the idea that people can just go ahead and commit crimes of higher and higher degrees because there’s no consequences,” he said of the law. “If you create a spiral of lawlessness, you are going down the wrong path. I would do my best from Day One to create a ‘spiral of lawfulness’ — that crimes actually do have measured consequences.”

Hochman also said he emphatically supports the legalization of online sports gambling, a position he said he’s held for decades. That puts him firmly on one side of what is likely to be one of the fiercest ballot measure fights in November. Sports betting giants DraftKings and FanDuel are funding a November initiative to legalize the practice online, while tribal governments are pushing a competing measure that would restrict sports betting to their regulated casinos. Hochman’s position also draws a policy contrast with his main competitor for the tough-on-crime vote, Schubert.

Pointing to his resume, calling out Schubert

Hochman touts his resume as his chief qualification. Of the three top candidates for attorney general, his does run the longest.

For eight years he worked as a federal prosecutor, culminating in a one-year stint as assistant attorney general for tax law enforcement in the George W. Bush administration. He also has decades of experience working as a defense attorney in private practice in Los Angeles. His past clients include the hip-hop and R&B singer-songwriter Lauren Hill, when she got into trouble with the IRS, and disgraced former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca.

It’s that diversity of experience that Hochman says more than makes up for the fact that he’s never been elected to anything. It also makes him the strongest candidate, he said.

Anyone running for office “without a criminal background,” he said, “should go back to the Legislature and legislate” — a not-so-subtle dig at Bonta, who was serving his 11th year in the Assembly before Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him.

And “to the extent that people are running for the attorney general’s position and have no civil litigation experience, God help them,” he said. That one was directed at Schubert, who has spent her entire legal career as a Sacramento prosecutor.

Only the top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary will move on to the November ballot. And with most rank-and-file Democrats likely to back Bonta, Hochman will be competing most directly with Schubert.

GOP, no problem

Hochman and Schubert make very similar criticisms of Bonta. What distinguishes them most clearly is that Hochman is a Republican and Schubert is running with “no party preference.”

Schubert isn’t the first statewide candidate to ashew the GOP label and run without the support of a party. Political consultant Dan Schnur and former state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, both former Republicans like Schubert, tried it. Both failed. But with Republicans making up only 23% of California voters, the argument for ditching the brand remains as compelling as ever.

But Hochman said he doesn’t buy it.

First, he emphasizes that he is not a partisan firebrand. Touting his approach as “pragmatic” and “common sense.” He criticizes current state criminal statutes, which he said makes it too onerous for police and prosecutors to enforce the law, but also the “blanket policies that result in mass incarceration.” He dubbed his third way, alternative approach “the hard middle.”

But Republicans, he said, have also tended to do well when crime is top of mind for most voters. After a decades-long hiatus, angst about safety is on the upswing, even if it still isn’t a top concern for most voters. In this political environment, the California electorate, he predicted, are “going to look beyond the party and they’re going to look at the actual individual — on who can make their communities more safe and more secure.”