Xavier Becerra was in class at C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento when he saw a buddy who’d just bungled an exam getting ready to toss something in the trash.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Well, I was going to apply to this college but no reason to do that anymore,’ ” Becerra remembered four decades later. “I said, ‘Don’t throw it away. Give it to me.’ ”
It turned out to be an application to Stanford University. Becerra, who didn’t even know where Stanford was, made it into the elite university, starting the son of immigrants on a path that led to 24 years in Congress and now nomination as California’s attorney general – at a time when Donald Trump’s election to the presidency means uncertainty for the state’s embrace of immigrants, the Affordable Care Act and environmental protections.
As one of California’s 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a Los Angeles district, Becerra is far from a statewide household name. He made a run for Los Angeles mayor in 2001 and came away with just 6 percent of the vote. He considered running for the U.S. Senate seat that opened with Barbara Boxer’s retirement, but decided to sit it out.
Becerra, though, is well known in Congress, where he has borne the label of perpetual rising star for two decades. He leaves Congress as the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House and the most senior Latino. But his path to the top of the Democratic leadership was blocked when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and her aging top lieutenants showed no desire to leave. He would have lost his position as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus to term limits at the end of the year.
Immigration and the Affordable Care Act are among Becerra’s signature issues, giving him a personal stake in both that will inform his actions as attorney general, if, as expected, he’s confirmed.
Becerra, 58, stays relentlessly on message in public as an amplifier of Democratic Party positions. Poised and bilingual, he is a frequent guest on national political television programs and is known to millions of Spanish-language viewers through appearances on Univision.
“He’s extremely well known in the Latino community,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “He is able to go on English-language media or Spanish-language media and is someone who can have a foot in both worlds. That is an incredible asset and has helped propel him to the forefront of leaders in the Latino community.”
Becerra grew up in a family of six crammed into a 685-square-foot house near Hughes Stadium in Sacramento. His mother, Maria Teresa, grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, while his father, Manuel, a laborer who mostly worked construction, was born in Sacramento but raised in Tijuana.
“We never had designer clothes. I never had Levi’s jeans or Converse sneakers or things like that. But we always ate well,” Becerra said. “We had a home we could come to with some absolutely good food. Some of the best Mexican food you can find.”
Becerra grew up roaming the neighborhoods south of downtown Sacramento on his bike. He was fascinated by science books and magazines about organisms and development of new medicines. He told people he was planning to pursue a career as a biochemist.
“If you would have asked me what an attorney general was I couldn’t have told you,” he said.
Known at Stanford as a straitlaced kid with his head buried in the books, he decided after taking chemistry and calculus that biochemistry wasn’t for him. Becerra entered the world of politics through a fellowship at the California Legislature after he graduated from college.
“I wanted to be an adviser to one of those legislators. I thought that was cool stuff,” Becerra said. “You know, you see in the movies how they give great advice and then the legislator knocks off some great question or something. That’s where I thought I was going, and so I decided to do law school.”
He graduated from Stanford Law School, worked for a state senator from Los Angeles and as a deputy in the state attorney general’s office before being recruited to run for a state Assembly seat from L.A. Two years later, in 1992, he ran for an open U.S. House seat when Ed Roybal retired. Becerra has never faced a close re-election since, winning this year with 77 percent of the vote.
“He’s a widely respected member of the California delegation, very bright and thoughtful,” said Mary Beth Sullivan, executive director of the nonpartisan California Institute for Federal Policy Research in Washington.
Becerra’s district includes much of downtown Los Angeles and is more than 65 percent Hispanic.
Immigration has been a driving issue for him. He approached Republicans and tried to broker compromises that involved tightened border security while granting legal status to immigrants already in the country illegally. He was part of a bipartisan group that came close to a deal in 2013.
Negotiations got tense when Becerra balked at demands to deny health benefits to those immigrants, and one Republican, Idaho’s Rep. Raúl Labrador, who’d been the go-between with tea party members of Congress, said he had left the talks as a result. But hopes for a deal remained alive until Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, then the second-ranking House Republican, lost re-election to a conservative challenger who had attacked his willingness to consider overhauling immigration.
“There were a lot of things that went into the negotiations not ending with a vote on the floor,” Becerra said. “The loss by Eric Cantor probably made it more difficult for Speaker Boehner and the Republicans in the negotiating group to try to get their colleagues to agree to move it forward.”
Becerra, a longtime member of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, also played a role in crafting the Affordable Care Act. He worked on issues including reimbursement for doctors serving poor areas. “It makes a big difference if you live in a district like mine, where you have a lot of very low-income folks who haven’t had insurance,” he said.
Becerra had a 100 percent rating in 2015 from the influential liberal group Americans for Democratic Action. He voted against the Iraq War in 2002 and broke with the majority of fellow House Democrats to oppose the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman in an era when lawmakers resisted same-sex marriage. He’s known in the Democratic caucus as ambitious and capable of using sharp elbows at times.
With no clear path to advance and his tenure as House Democratic Caucus chair about to end, Becerra’s move to the attorney general’s post makes sense.
“The House of Representatives is filled with 435 former class presidents who see themselves as very, very important,” said Marc Sandalow, a political analyst and an associate academic director for the University of California’s Washington Center. “And if you’re not in a leadership role it’s very hard to stand out.”
Becerra is among a handful of Democrats who might have eventually replaced Pelosi at the top, potentially as speaker of the House if the Democrats were to rebound at the polls, Sandalow said. But that path was far from certain.
Accepting Gov. Jerry Brown’s nomination to be attorney general of California’s nearly 40 million people gives him an important new platform, Sandalow said.
“This puts him in the forefront of being able to stand up to Donald Trump as the top law enforcement official in the largest state in the country,” Sandalow said. “He’s certainly going to be talked about as a potential governor, potential vice president, maybe even a presidential candidate. It puts him in a different league.”
Becerra, who would need to run for election in 2018 if he’s confirmed and wants to remain California’s attorney general, declined to discuss what his political future might look like.
He said, though, that he’d reached the point where he knew exactly where his path was taking him.
“In those early days, when I said I wanted to be a biochemist, I thought it would be fun,” he said. “When I decided to run for that state Assembly seat in 1990, I did it because I thought it would be fun. When I decided I wanted to be AG, to accept the governor’s offer, I still thought it would be fun. But I also understood what I was doing and how to get there. That is a big difference.”