Schiff as Attorney General: Long Shot to Top Contender

Two months ago, I wrote a column about the long-shot possibility of Gavin Newsom appointing Representative Adam Schiff as California’s Attorney General. I was immediately attacked, both by hard-core conservatives, who were furious with Schiff for his role in Donald Trump’s 2020 impeachment, and by equally zealous progressives, who were enraged by Schiff’s law and order history on criminal justice issues during his years in the state legislature.

But the possibility of Newsom selecting Schiff to serve as the state’s top law enforcement official seems to have grown considerably, to the point where the respected political website Politico recently ran a story titled “Five Reasons Schiff Could Be AG.” The article went on to detail Schiff’s credentials for the job and the incentives for an embattled Newsom to appoint him.

The story was clearly inspired by a leak from someone in Newsom’s orbit, who launched the trial balloon to gauge potential levels of opposition and support from Democratic insiders to the prospect of such an unexpected pick. In recent weeks, Newsom has appointed a Latino to the U.S. Senate and a Black woman as California’s new secretary of state. Asian Pacific and LGBTQ leaders have been ratcheting up the pressure for the governor to select an Attorney General from one of their communities, and so a straight white male like Schiff has received little attention.

But the Politico article did not emerge out of the ether. Had the story been planted by a Schiff ally, the reporters who wrote it would have done so with much more skepticism. This leak must have been delivered by a source close to Newsom for it to be treated so credibly, which means that Newsom has Schiff on a short list of finalists for the job. All of a sudden, the one-time long shot is a top contender.

As well as he should be. As I have written previously, Schiff would be a fine statewide official. His legal, political and public policy credentials are all extremely strong, but the most helpful attribute he would bring to the job is a calm and level-headed disposition. California politics has become just as shrill and almost as maddening as the national brand. And while a new administration in Washington is attempting to lower the volume in the nation’s capital, Sacramento would also benefit from much less rancor.

Schiff would bring a calm and level-headed disposition to the job.

My opinions on Schiff will surely enrage his critics on both the right and the left. Resentful Republicans will dismiss the idea of the man who led Trump’s impeachment as anything but a hyperpartisan warrior. Although he has been an advocate for police reform, implacable progressives will reject him as a conservative-in-sheep’s clothing for his tough-on crime apostasies (similar to those of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris) earlier in his career.

But California GOP leaders should realize that the odds of Newsom appointing a Ted Cruz or Ken Starr are slim, and that they might want to reconcile themselves that a centrist Democrat like Schiff is about as good as they are going to get. Committed criminal justice reformers should similarly acknowledge that Newsom is just as unlikely to turn to George Gascón or Van Jones and that a defund-the-police attorney general would be of little use to a governor already facing the prospect of recall.

Tumultuous times call for restrained and reassuring leaders. California is still a long way from making it past the pandemic and even further from post-CPVID-19 economic recovery. Even then, ongoing debates over criminal justice, police reform and public safety require steady and consistent leadership to bring them toward resolution. Schiff is not a magic answer to any of these problems, and many of California’s most daunting challenges lie well outside the purview of the attorney general. But a smart, experienced and calm addition to our state’s leadership team can’t help but to help.

It’s reassuring that Newsom has considered looking beyond the confines of traditional reward-based politics toward a laudable and less-obvious alternative like Schiff. The governor will be pressured to fill this job with a representative from one of California’s underrepresented communities. But Newsom would be doing himself — and the rest of us — a great service if he instead chose Schiff, the best candidate for the job.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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