Rep. Xavier Becerra was in Philadelphia with other House Democrats last week, trying to find a path back to relevancy after their November drubbing, when he took time to call his mother and father.
Manuel Becerra, 86, worked at the Sacramento railyard and in construction, and has the gnarled hands to prove it. He built the family home on 20th Avenue on the east side of Freeport Boulevard, where he and Maria Becerra, 81, raised their four children. They rent it out now.
“My father said that when you build something, you need to start with a strong foundation,” the congressman said on a speaker phone as he contemplates giving up a safe congressional seat for a chancy run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated in 2016 by Barbara Boxer.
Becerra, who turned 57 last week, is entering his 25th year in office, 23 of them in Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles district he represents is one the five poorest in California. Before the Affordable Care Act became law, it had the lowest number of people with health insurance in the state, the U.S. Census Bureau found.
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In the 1990s, reporters regularly described Becerra as a rising star. Now he is part of Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, though he remains in the shadow of more senior members.
A Stanford-educated attorney, Becerra can articulate the Democrats’ agenda well and has become a regular on cable news shows. But like most members of Congress, especially ones from Los Angeles, he is little-known beyond his district. He captured only 6 percent of the vote in 2001 when he ran for Los Angeles mayor.
In Congress, Becerra is a moderately adept fundraiser, $2.3 million in the 2014 election cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. He’d need 15 times that sum to run a serious Senate campaign.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, the one announced candidate, is amassing endorsements, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is stepping closer toward candidacy. Both are, Becerra says, “very capable.” More to the point, they have national fundraising bases.
Becerra said he won’t make a decision for a month or two. He is talking it over with his wife, a physician and the mother of their three daughters. The older two attend Stanford. The youngest will go to college next year.
“I’m talking to my family about how this would help me help more folks,” Becerra said.
There will be plenty of time to pick over Becerra’s congressional record if he enters the race. I wanted to know about his Sacramento days and asked to meet his parents. Some politicians would calculate the risks and get back to me in the fullness of time. Becerra decided on the spot.
Manuel and Maria Becerra live in a tract house at the far southern end of Sacramento. He was born in Sacramento and grew up in Tijuana. She grew up in Guadalajara and crossed the border after marrying Manuel. A home-sweet-home sign is perched above their front door. An American flag decal is posted on an entryway window.
Framed portraits of their three daughters and one son decorate a table in the front room. They attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where Masses were in Spanish; graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School; and produced 10 grandchildren. Pictures of them are all around. One wears a U.S. Marine uniform; he served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Maria Becerra pulled a photo from the wall of her and Manuel smiling and standing with their son and President Bill Clinton, taken some time in the 1990s.
“He called Xavier ‘the little rascal,’” Maria said, chuckling at the memory.
Maria Elena, an older sister, has moved back to Sacramento to help manage her parents’ rental property. She’s got a mischievous grin.
Did I want to see the car her little brother drove when he was in high school? Oh, yeah.
In the garage, she pulled back a tarp, revealing a ’68 Buick Riviera, purple metal flake, and white leather interior. With a little work, it’d be cherry, perfect for a Saturday night cruise, so long as gas prices remain low. I let the congressman know I had seen the ride.
“That Rivi could tell lots of stories,” Becerra messaged me back.
His father would come home dusty and sweaty from a day’s work. The parents would tell the kids that they needed to go to school, unless they wanted to toil in the heat like the old man. Not knowing much about Stanford, he filled out an application, and got in on the strength of grades and test scores.
He saw The Farm for the first time when he and his mother drove up in the Riviera for the start of classes in 1976. It was, he realized, a long way from where he grew up. He went on to Stanford Law School, paying for it all with financial aid, work and loans. He met his wife, Carolina Reyes, at Stanford. She went on to Harvard Medical School.
Becerra’s first political job was with a Los Angeles legislator, Art Torres. He got to know the district by helping residents fight plans to build a prison in East Los Angeles. He won a Los Angeles Assembly seat in 1990 with Torres’ help.
“When they say all politicians are crooks, it hurts me,” his mother said. “I don’t like the criticism. Maybe it’s because I’m his mother, but you can trust him. Xavier was always a good boy.”
If he runs for the Senate seat, it’d be the first time his parents could vote for him. “I hope his dream comes true,” Manuel Becerra said.
In the 40 years since leaving home, Xavier Becerra has learned to move easily in the halls of power. It’s a long way from the family home his father built at 20th Avenue and 21st Street, but not so far that he forgets to call home now and then.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.