Gov. Jerry Brown has tabbed Rep. Xavier Becerra to serve as California’s interim attorney general, selecting the Los Angeles Democrat to fill a vacancy opened by the imminent departure of outgoing Attorney General Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate.
Assuming he wins confirmation by the Legislature – a strong possibility, given the 12-term Democrat’s role as a mainstay of Democratic and Los Angeles politics – Becerra would serve as California’s top law enforcement official through 2018, with an opportunity to serve for another eight years if he runs for the office. He would be California’s first Latino attorney general.
The election of Donald Trump as president has alarmed California Democrats and thrown into question the state’s liberal stances on issues like climate change and immigration. Brown’s choice of a liberal stalwart like Becerra reaffirmed the state’s future role as a pocket of resistance.
“Xavier has been an outstanding public servant – in the State Legislature, the U.S. Congress and as a deputy attorney general,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “I'm confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change.”
Referring to himself as “the son of immigrants” who is motivated to “fight for working families like the one I grew up in,” Becerra said in a statement that he had accepted Brown’s offer and summarized his liberal bona fides.
“I have been part of some of the greatest debates confronting our nation, from opposing the Iraq War, to fighting to help Americans recover from the Great Recession, to launching the bipartisan immigration talks and helping write our nation’s health security law,” Becerra said, adding that “California right now is ahead of the country when it comes to clean energy, common sense treatment of immigrants, real health security and so much more.”
A member of the House of Representatives since 1992, Becerra already has some experience in the California attorney general’s office. He worked as a deputy attorney general from 1987 to 1990 before winning a spot in the state Assembly. He has a law degree from Stanford University and said he will have to renew his status as an active California lawyer with the California State Bar.
A son of Sacramento whose father worked in the city’s railyard, Becerra graduated from McClatchy High School. His father, Manuel, was born in Sacramento and grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. His mother, Maria, grew up in Guadalajara.
In a conference call with reporters, Becerra said he would be “vigorous in defense of what we’ve done” to expand clean energy, protect parts of the federal health care law that Republicans seek to dismantle and preserve efforts toward “criminal justice reform” that seek to protect “young men of color.”
“We have policies in place that probably won’t pass at the federal level for another five, 10, 15 years,” Becerra said. “If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us.”
And in the face of Trump’s vow to deport millions of immigrants with criminal records, Becerra appeared to back California’s efforts to prevent removal of unauthorized immigrants who pose no threat to public safety.
“No one who goes to a grocery store to shop should believe the state of California is going to do anything to keep them from going home to see their kids if they’re just being regular, hardworking individuals,” Becerra said. “You’re talking to the son of immigrants, and I’m going to do everything I can to give that child of immigrant parents every chance I had.”
Signaling that Becerra would likely win confirmation, legislative leaders issued statements of support. Their phrasing continued a post-election theme of defending California against federal encroachment, with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, saying Becerra would defend “the civil and human rights of every Californian” that are “under threat by a hostile Trump administration.” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, lauded Becerra’s “tenacity” and “respect for the rights of all Californians” as “much-needed qualities for an attorney general given the troubling times ahead.”
During the 2016 election campaign, Becerra served as one of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s most prominent surrogates and campaigned for other congressional candidates, reflecting his role as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He also issued fiery denunciations of Trump.
“At every stage in his life, Donald Trump has exploited America’s laws to put himself first,” he said in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Cleveland.
In an interview with The Sacramento Bee on Thursday, Becerra said the appointment had been a “whirlwind” and “very unexpected.”
“It’s tough to leave the work I’ve done for 24 years in Congress. We had a lot of work to do. But right now, when California continues to lean forward on so many issues: environment, clean energy, immigration, criminal justice and consumer protection, we’re going to need a chief law enforcement officer to advance those positions and protect them,” he added. “I know how to do the fight.”
By choosing Becerra, Brown ends months of speculation about who will lead California’s massive Department of Justice with Harris about to take the Senate seat replacing outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer. He plucked Becerra out of a crowded field of potential picks that included various district attorneys, current and former state lawmakers and two members of Brown’s inner circle: Nancy McFadden, a top aide, and Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown.
As California’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general wields vast powers to pursue criminal and civil investigations, join federal lawsuits and oversee thousands of lawyers and peace officers. The post has also historically been a launching pad for public officials seeking higher office.
Given Becerra’s political experience, name recognition and deep ties to the Democratic establishment, he would be in solid position to run to keep the attorney general job should he choose to run in 2018. In the conference call, Becerra deflected a question about running.
“My horizon at this stage is what happens between now and any confirmation vote in Sacramento,” Becerra said. He also said the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate should 83-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein retire was “not really even on my mind.”
“Ask me that later,” he said.
If he does run to remain attorney general in 2018, Becerra could need to defeat California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat who had $2.9 million in two campaign accounts as of the most recent filing. San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, a Republican who has been sharply critical of what he calls Sacramento’s lenient approach to crime, has also declared a run.
Days before Brown announced Becerra’s appointment, the Jones campaign issued a press release that read like a pre-emptive defense against whomever Brown chose. It noted he had already won statewide office, had won the endorsements of local party officials and had established his fundraising prowess.
Dan Morain contributed to this report.
Residence: Los Angeles
Education: Law degree, Stanford Law School, 1984; bachelor’s degree, economics, Stanford University, 1980.
Experience: House of Representatives, 1993-present; Assembly, 1990-1992; deputy attorney general, California Department of Justice, 1987-1990.