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Brown names immigrant-rights advocate as state attorney general

Dec. 1, 2016

WASHINGTON — In tapping Rep. Xavier Becerra, a veteran Los Angeles lawmaker and son of Mexican immigrants, to become California’s next attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday placed a stalwart defender of immigrant rights at the forefront of anticipated legal battles between California and the incoming Trump administration.

Becerra, 58, the governor’s surprise pick to replace outgoing Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was elected last month to the U.S. Senate, on Tuesday had announced his intention to seek the top Democratic spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax and health care law and the nation’s huge entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, all targets for overhaul by the new administration and Republican-led Congress.

If confirmed as expected by the state Assembly and Senate, Becerra would become the state’s first Latino attorney general, putting him in position to defend California’s far-reaching environmental, health and immigration laws against expected attacks at the federal level.

In a telephone interview, Becerra said “without a doubt” he expects to defend the so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the United States as children by their parents without papers, and given relief from deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that is considered vulnerable under the Trump administration.

Rep. Xavier Becerra has been picked by Gov. Jerry Brown to be California's next attorney general. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Brown’s choice for the elected seat was unexpected. Sacramento insiders had speculated that the governor would appoint a placeholder — perhaps a career member of the attorney general’s staff — to fill out the two remaining years of Harris’ term. Becerra himself said the appointment came as a surprise, following recent phone conversations with Brown.

But his selection drew wide accolades from California Democrats.

State Senate President pro tem Kevin DeLeón, D-Los Angeles, called Becerra’s appointment “a perfect matching of man and moment, given that California’s prosperity and people are currently under threat by a hostile Trump administration.”

California Republicans were less kind. San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member, called Becerra a poor choice because he lacks recent courtroom experience.

“He hasn’t practiced law for 24 years and that strikes me as not the best choice for attorney general for California,” she said.

Becerra’s law license has been inactive since 1991, according to the California State Bar, but this is not expected to hinder his confirmation because of court rulings that allowed Brown to serve as attorney general from 2007 to 2011, despite being in a similar situation.

Meanwhile, the pick prompted instant interest in Becerra’s downtown Los Angeles House seat. Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez announced his candidacy for the seat within hours of the news.

Born in Sacramento, Becerra grew up in a 685-square-foot home he shared with his parents and three sisters. A self-described “affirmative action baby,” Becerra was the first in his family to go to college, earning his undergraduate degree in economics and law degree from Stanford University.

Becerra said that his parents will serve as his touchstone in his new job, which is the second-most-powerful elected position in California behind the governor.

“They now are the models that I look to to know if I’m doing a good job” as the state’s top law enforcement officer, Becerra told The Chronicle. “Am I protecting people like my parents from violence and criminal activity? Am I protecting them from consumer abuse? Am I making sure that they have clean air and clean water? Am I making sure ... that other immigrants like them know that they have a home in California?”

The Legislature has 90 days to confirm his selection once Harris leaves office. His two years as attorney general would then provide a launch pad either for election to a full four-year term or higher office.

Brown said in a statement that Becerra, who was a state deputy attorney general for three years before his 1992 election to Congress, “will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change.”

Genial and well-liked on Capitol Hill, Becerra served on several high-profile deficit-reduction committees, where he defended Social Security from GOP efforts to cut benefits and raise the retirement age. He is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress and former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Term-limited out of his House leadership job as caucus chairman this year, Becerra flirted with a U.S. Senate bid and was floated as a possible vice presidential pick for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

In an interview with The Chronicle last spring, Becerra described how his father, now 88, dropped out of school in the sixth grade because he “got tired of being put in the corner and having a dunce cap put on him because he had a difficult time understanding English.” Now he has a grandchild who was just accepted at Yale, Becerra said. His mother, now 82, came to the United States from Mexico at 18 to marry his father.

Becerra said in the interview that he had envisioned continuing his career in Congress, but was always ready to do more.

“Put me on the field,” he said. “I just want to play. I don’t care what the position is. I’ll catch. I’ll block. Whatever you need me to do, I’m going to try to do.”

Becerra is married to Dr. Carolina Reyes, a Stanford graduate with a medical degree from Harvard. They have three daughters, Clarisa, Olivia and Natalia.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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