Dan Morain

Becerra steps aside, aspires for more

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles AP

Rep. Xavier Becerra is standing down from the U.S. Senate race, but is aiming higher in the House where he has a shot at the top leadership position.

For the past six months, the Los Angeles congressman, who grew up in Sacramento, had been publicly considering running for the Senate seat that will open next year when Barbara Boxer steps down after 24 years. He could have been a serious contender. But in an interview Wednesday, he told me: “I’m going to stick with the House.”

He probably would have made a fine senator; he has served well as a congressman for more than two decades. But he faced serious obstacles in a statewide race.

Becerra is a big shot in the Beltway and a regular on cable news, but hardly is a household name. No member of the California congressional delegation is well-known, except perhaps Nancy Pelosi. He would have needed tens of millions of dollars to change that in this massive state, and should have embarked on the campaign a year ago or more.

Although plenty can happen between now and November 2016, Attorney General Kamala Harris is the clear front-runner, especially after former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, billionaire Tom Steyer, and now Becerra have stepped aside. Republicans aren’t likely to win a top-of-the ticket race any time soon in California.

Becerra says he could have raised sufficient money. But here are the more relevant numbers: 75, 76 and 75. Those are the ages of House Minority Leader Pelosi and her two top lieutenants, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Becerra is chairman of the House Democratic Conference, fourth in the Democrats’ hierarchy. In his 22nd year in Congress, Becerra is 57, and could have many more years in the House. Given his place in the pecking order, he has a realistic chance of becoming Democratic leader and speaker, if Democrats retake the House.

Becerra, the highest ranking Latino in Congress, represents a safe district that includes much of downtown Los Angeles and is more than 65 percent Latino, in a state where Latinos are the largest segment of the population.

“The sky is the limit,” Becerra said of his prospects. Well aware that he could inspire other Latinos, he said: “I hope what it means is that we have an electorate that becomes more participatory, and that voters believe they can make a difference.”

His life is in Washington and Los Angeles, but he plans to spend part of August at his parents’ home, a tract house at the far south end of Sacramento. It’s an all-American place, with a U.S. flag decal stuck to a front window, and photos of children and grandchildren on shelves and walls.

Manuel Becerra, 87, was born in Sacramento and spent much of his childhood in Mexico. On this side of the border, he worked for the railroads and in construction, and built the home on 20th Avenue east of Freeport Boulevard. There, he and his wife, Maria, 81, a Mexico native, raised their three daughters and one son.

The McClatchy High School graduate went to Stanford and Stanford Law School, and found his way to Los Angeles where he began his political career.

Becerra seemed content with his choice. He has seniority on the Ways and Means Committee and on the committee that has jurisdiction over Social Security. He intends to work on tax code and immigration law overhaul. His goal, he said, always is to come up with legislation that will help folks like his parents.

It’s no surprise that Becerra stepped away from the Senate race. Harris will be formidable, though she is finding that raising money is tough under the federal caps. She announced her candidacy more than six months ago, but had $2.9 million in the bank at the end of June. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County Democrat who also plans to seek the seat, had $1.1 million in cash on hand. Neither sum is nearly enough to run statewide.

“I hope it will be a competitive race. These are lasting decisions,” Becerra said. “Voters are entitled to know that candidates are going to respond to all the questions, and make themselves available.”

But that will be between Harris, Sanchez and perhaps some as yet unannounced candidate, and the voters.

Becerra’s decision came down to a simple equation. He could have been a strong Senate candidate. But he risked losing a safe congressional seat, a chance to lead House Democrats, and perhaps to one day become speaker. That’s not bad for the son of Manuel and Maria Becerra.