Rep. Xavier Becerra. | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
SAN FRANCISCO — With his nomination to become California’s first Latino attorney general, Rep. Xavier Becerra is now primed to be the public face of the Democratic resistance to Donald Trump on issues like climate change, health care and, most visibly, immigration.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s surprise announcement on Thursday that he would nominate Becerra to fill the post has given the longtime congressman a new relevance in his home state, and on the national stage.
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Becerra, a son of Mexican immigrants who represented parts of Los Angeles in the House since 1993, is a chair of the House Democratic conference, with a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But with Democrats unable to make substantial gains in the House, he stood to be mired in the minority for the foreseeable future.
“Xavier Becerra is the luckiest man in Washington right now,’’ said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson.
California officials have already signaled their intention to resist any efforts by Trump — who has called global warming a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese — to roll back the state’s progressive climate-change policies. And efforts are underway to expand the state’s “sanctuary” protections for undocumented immigrants to include college campuses in the state system. California counts dozens of such cities and counties within its borders, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, the nation’s first sanctuary city.
Trump has pledged to block funding for any cities that do not share information with federal immigration authorities.
“We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” he said at a rally in Phoenix in September.
“If Donald Trump is serious about combating sanctuary cities in California, then California is going to be one nation-state of lawsuits for the next four years,’’ said Whalen, who called it Becerra’s “primary mission for the next several years” to fight Trump on immigration.
Becerra will be taking on a mirror-image version of the role that catapulted current Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to conservative stardom.
As the attorney general of the nation’s biggest red state during Barack Obama’s presidency, Abbott filed more than two dozen lawsuits against the federal government, especially the Environmental Protection Agency. Texas was also party to the multi-state lawsuits against Obamacare.
Those efforts turned Abbott into a hero on the right — and propelled him to the Republican nomination for governor practically unopposed in 2014. “Barack Obama may have won this last election, but we cannot let him or his ideology win the future of this country,” Abbott said at a FreedomWorks event in 2013, before launching into some of his legal history with the administration.
Becerra did not mention Trump in his statement accepting the nomination on Thursday, but said California is “ahead of the country when it comes to clean energy, commonsense treatment of immigrants, real health security and so much more.”
“Governor Brown has presented me with an opportunity I cannot refuse — to serve as Attorney General of my home state,” Becerra said. “As a former deputy attorney general, I relished the chance to be our state’s chief law enforcement officer to protect consumers, advance criminal justice reform and, of course, keep our families safe.”
The Democratic leader in the California State Senate, Kevin de Leon, called Becerra’s appointment “the perfect matching of man and moment, given that California’s prosperity and people are currently under threat by a hostile Trump Administration.”
De Leon, in the wake of the November election, said that the Republican businessman’s victory represents a watershed moment for the nation’s most populous state on immigration, climate change and other key issues.
“In California, we have moved forward progressive policies that have really benefited our state, and we will defend those policies against a Trump Administration,” he told POLITICO. “If there’s any attempt to undermine, to weaken, our policies, we will defend them.”
“The political space will be a little difficult given that [Republicans] have the trifecta, the House and the Senate,” he said. “But that means litigation, absolutely.”
During months of rumors about who Brown might select as attorney general, de Leon had urged the governor to nominate “someone who’s going to be a fighter, he needs someone who’s not going to be passive — he needs someone who’s going to be prepared to defend the state’s climate change policies, the state’s progressive values when it comes to women’s equal rights and right to choose, and to protect our immigrants in California.”
Jessica Levinson, who teaches politics and ethics at Loyola University of Los Angeles, said “it may not be a coincidence that Becerra is a son of Mexican immigrants. It’s a very strong statement that California is different: We not only support our immigrants, but we elevate them to highest offices.”
Becerra’s nomination fills the post that will be vacated by Kamala Harris in January, after she was elected to the U.S. Senate in November to fill the seat of Sen. Barbara Boxer, who declined to seek re-election. It also sets off a scramble to fill Becerra’s congressional seat, illustrating the growing ranks of Latino elected officials who may be in line for future powerful posts in California. Former legislator John A. Perez — the first openly gay California Speaker of the Assembly — immediately announced his intention to run for the seat.
But it’s Becerra who is now in position to serve as the state’s most high-profile Latino officeholder.
“The timing is really incredible for him,’’ said David McCuan, a professor at Sonoma State University. “Democrats in Washington are lost in the wilderness right now. And this give Becerra a leadership role on being the anti-Trump from the left coast — on immigration, on education, in environment, on housing.
“The attorney general deals with a whole host of those issues — and issues that get to the ballot,’’ he said. “So this grows his stature in a big way: He’s elevated on a national stage, which is where he was going to go if Hillary Clinton had been elected.”