Dan Morain

A tale of two attorneys general

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, gestures as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks during a rally in February 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, gestures as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks during a rally in February 2016. Associated Press file

One grew up in Sacramento attending Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where Masses were in Spanish. The other teaches Sunday school at a Methodist Church in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.

One is the son of Manuel Becerra, whose gnarled, 88-year-old hands are proof of the years he spent working at the railyards, and Maria, who arrived from Guadalajara six decades ago when she married Manuel.

The other grew up in Selma, Ala., the son of a store owner and farm equipment dealer. He might have become a federal judge in 1986, but for those bad good ol’ boy jokes and comments about the Klan.

Jeff Sessions, a U.S. senator since 1996, and Xavier Becerra, a member of Congress since 1992, have traveled very different roads. Despite serving two decades on the same small hill in Washington, they know one another only in passing. In the coming years, however, their paths will be inextricably linked, likely not in a happy way, assuming the Senate confirms Sessions as U.S. attorney general, and the Legislature confirms Becerra as California’s attorney general.

Sessions is a tea party idol and one of the most conservative members of either house. He takes the very un-California stands against same-sex marriage, immigration and abortion rights, and he is in steadfast opposition to legalized marijuana, no doubt a coming area of conflict.

Becerra grew up in Sacramento, made it to Stanford and Stanford Law School, and has represented downtown Los Angeles, first in the Assembly and then in Congress, since 1990. He makes clear at every turn that he is the proud son of Manuel and Maria Becerra and identifies with the Dreamers he expects to be called upon to defend.

Attorney General Kamala Harris set off the unexpected series of events by being elected to the U.S. Senate last month, giving Gov. Jerry Brown the rare opportunity to appoint the state’s chief attorney. He and Becerra didn’t know one another well, and Becerra had no involvement in Brown’s elections in 2010 and 2014. But others in the governor’s circle did know Becerra and vetted him. Last week, Brown and Becerra engaged in a 48-hour series of conversations that ended with the announcement early Thursday morning.

President-elect Donald Trump rewarded loyalty by selecting Sessions. In February, two days ahead of Super Tuesday when the presidential nomination was in doubt, Sessions endorsed Trump at a rally in Alabama. Ever the hard-liner, Sessions told the crowd that day that politicians had talked about the fixing immigration system for 30 years.

“Have they done it?” he asked, as Politico reported. “No, but Donald Trump will do it.”

Brown expects Becerra will have a say in that. But friends and critics raise a basic question: Will Becerra stand up to whatever Trump throws California’s way? His success and ability to win election in 2018 will depend on it. No one doubts that he is principled. But he’s also shown himself to be reserved and cautious, perhaps overly so. In the job ahead, he will need to take stands, something he insists he will do.

In a profession known for its sharp elbows, Becerra is circumspect. He was never a voracious fundraiser, which limited his clout in a city where the money chase is all-consuming.

Becerra had risen to the fourth-highest ranking position in the House Democratic leadership, but he was termed out of that post and was seeking to be the leading Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. It wasn’t clear he would win. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were upset that Becerra remained neutral in Harris’ race against Rep. Loretta Sanchez, even though Sanchez was a dreadful candidate.

If his future was uncertain in Congress, Brown has given Becerra a chance to show leadership. It’s also an obligation. Perhaps the clash will come over deportation and the children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in California. Maybe it will come over the Trumpian notion of building a wall at the Mexican border. Perhaps the new administration will intervene in California’s efforts to confront climate change or otherwise undermine California’s environmental law. Or maybe it will come over abortion rights.

Sessions has a 100 percent pro-life voting record and called on the Obama administration to investigate unfounded allegations that Planned Parenthood trafficked in fetal body parts. As U.S. attorney general, Sessions could embark on the witch hunt he envisioned.

As California attorney general, Becerra will inherit a state Department of Justice investigation into the activities of David Daleiden, the anti-abortion activist who covertly videotaped Planned Parenthood executives and claimed it proved the organization was selling fetal tissue. Maybe the clash will come over inaction. Under Sessions, the feds will stand down on civil rights, consumer and environmental law, and labor standards. That would leave it to the states to act.

Alabama attorney Cameron Smith, a former aide to Sessions and a friend who runs the conservative R Street Institute in Washington, said the fight, when it comes, will be over what he sees as Sessions’ “fidelity to the law.” And after eight years of an Obama Justice Department, Smith said, that may seem like “hard-line whiplash.”

“It is not complicated,” Smith said. “He will look at what is the law, and he will enforce it.”

Sessions will take what he and Trump would call a law-and-order stand, and their Justice Department will be formidable. But the law is subject to interpretation, and states have rights. Don’t bet against the son of Manuel and Maria Becerra.

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