California Attorney General Xavier Becerra | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

President-elect Joe Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services in the 46th president’s cabinet this week. The post, currently held by Alex Azar, plays a pivotal role in the COVID vaccine program and is the wellspring for more grant dollars than all other federal agencies combined.

If Becerra is confirmed, it will be another of many firsts in his life: first in his family to attend college, first Latino Attorney General in the state, and the first Latino on the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Becerra has a bachelor’s in economics from Stanford, where he also earned his law degree. Before becoming California’s AG in 2017, following Kamala Harris in the job, he served one term as a California assemblymember and was then elected in 1992 to Congress, where he represented a Los Angeles district for 24 years. He led the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the late ’90s and the House Democratic Caucus in his last two terms, and over time he came to mentor and befriend many young politicians, including Santa Barbara’s Rep. Salud Carbajal.

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“Very excited that my friend, Attorney General Becerra, has been nominated for HHS Secretary,” Carbajal said on Tuesday. “He has been a fierce advocate for California, for the Latino community, and the Affordable Care Act. I’m confident he has the experience needed to help President-elect Biden lead us out of the pandemic, and I look forward to working with both of them to expand access to quality, affordable health care.”

In August 2017, Becerra shared a stage at Santa Barbara City College with Carbajal, then-State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and Monique Limón, an assemblymember at the time — who was sworn in as Santa Barbara’s new state senator on Monday. The event had the feel of an emotional-support meeting for Democrats after a half year of Trump’s attacks on immigrants, election investigations into Russian propaganda, and the “fine people” at the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally. Becerra’s conversation ranged from Trump to Dreamers and DACA to the actions his office was undertaking as it prepared to do battle with Washington, D.C.

Xavier Becerra in Santa Barbara in 2019 with the attorneys general of Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado to announce their fight with 17 other states and cities against Trump’s attempt to repeal the Clean Power Plan and pave the way for fossil fuel and coal production.

For the past four years, Becerra’s office has filed roughly 100 lawsuits and court briefs against the Trump administration, often in conjunction with other states, to challenge attempts to weaken environmental rules, add restrictions to the Census, revoke the Affordable Care Act, and criminalize immigrants, not to mention filings and settlements in California against major corporations — Wednesday morning he joined 46 states in a suit against Facebook for monopolistic behavior — and also the group that secretly filmed a Planned Parenthood official discussing fetal tissue and then released altered tapes.

Those incessant challenges could temper the questioning when Becerra appears before the Senate for confirmation hearings, a chamber where the political balance rests on the results of two Senate races in Georgia on January 5, 2021. If the reception is welcoming, Becerra will be in charge of a vast agency that tucks emergency preparedness, partnerships with faith-based organizations, and family, children, and senior programs under its umbrella, as well as health agencies like the FDA, CDC, National Institutes of Health, Medicare, and Indian Health Services.

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