Just two months ago, Representative Xavier Becerra made a star turn on The Daily Show to predict confidently — amid Trevor Noah’s inevitable jokes about “pussy grabbing” and “Vladimir Putin’s nipples” — Hillary Clinton’s election as president.
“What we’re watching is reality TV for Donald Trump,” said Rep. Becerra, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “But on November 8, reality will set in for Donald Trump, when we show him who we really are.”
Time for Plan B.
Today, the 58-year-old Becerra faces a very different post-election reality than he or anyone else (outside, perhaps, of Russia) expected.
Just appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to replace state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who moves to the U.S. Senate in January, Becerra now stands as the progressive vanguard of opposition to Trump, a unified Republican Congress, and the president-elect’s cabinet, packed with right-winger ideologues, plutocrats, and kleptocratic cronies.
“I believe with this nomination, I have a chance to let California know I got their back,” the 12-term Los Angeles congressmember told reporters the day his nomination was announced. “If you want to take on a forward-leading state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us.”
Insider ovations. Brown’s nomination of Becerra, which requires pro forma approval from the Capitol’s Democrats, who own supermajorities in both legislative houses, was hailed among the cognoscenti as a sagacious and superb choice.
“It’s a shrewd pick,” said veteran Democratic consultant and erstwhile Lois Capps’ strategist Bill Carrick, who described Becerra as “really smart, politically savvy, and somebody who can manage that office.”
A well-traveled surrogate for Clinton, Becerra is not widely known outside his district and the Beltway, but he enjoys a well-earned reputation as an extremely talented politician: Rarely a grandstander, he’s down-to-earth and pragmatic and a master of both policy and process who steadily and smartly ascended the ranks of House leadership.
Among Democrats and fellow Latinos, one frequent knock is that he can be too low-key and cautious, but allies say his personal modesty and political prudence belie a passionate and principled commitment to social and economic justice that traces to his background as the son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to attend college.
As California’s first Latino attorney general, Becerra will be instantly positioned as a national leader of anti-Trump progressive forces, as the 46 percent president and his Star Wars–cantina-scene posse prepare to attack Clinton-country California over its immigration, health care, climate change, abortion rights, and other liberal policies.
As the state’s chief legal officer, his anti-firebrand style could be a valuable and beneficial good-cop counterpoint to Senate President Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, both fellow L.A. Latinos who already have set an aggressive and defiant tone in introducing early anti-Trump policy measures on immigration.
Back in Washington, Brown’s pick was immediately seen as a shot across Trump’s broad-beamed bow, as made clear in this report from NBC News:
“Outside the Beltway, as the state’s lead lawyer and law enforcement official, Becerra will be instantly on offense. Becerra is likely to quickly find himself in a fight with the Trump White House and Republicans in Congress over sanctuary cities, municipalities that refuse to prosecute people here illegally on immigration violations.”
“I don’t think California is looking to pick a fight,” the attorney general-designate said. “We’re just ready to fight… . ”
There’s always a local angle. Another facet of Becerra’s political identity: He’s served as a mentor to Santa Barbara’s newly elected Rep. Salud Carbajal.
Over pastries and coffee at Jeannine’s this week, Carbajal recalled that he and Becerra had been “chatting quite a bit about different issues” in D.C. while Carbajal recently attended freshman orientation activities.
At that time, Becerra was making a play to become the Democrats’ Ranking Member on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, an intraparty bid he suddenly dropped when Brown offered his new gig (the appointment unfolded so swiftly that Becerra has not yet reactivated his law license with the State Bar).
“It was a surprise. … until the very last day, he was advocating for votes” for the Ways and Means slot, Carbajal said.
“I’m thrilled — not only for him, but for us,” he added. “I think it’s great in light of this climate; it’s great for the state of California. He’s someone who knows Washington very well — if anybody knows how to push back to a Trump Administration, it will be him.”