Gov. Jerry Brown’s nomination of Democratic U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles to become the state’s first Latino Attorney General, replacing Senator-elect Kamala Harris, is a shrewd and surprising political move and a superb pick.
It not only instantly positions one of California’s most talented politicians as a national leader of anti-Trump progressive forces, but also prepares the state for looming bitter legal battles against the president-elect’s reactionary policies on immigration, health care and climate change.
Becerra is keenly aware of the challenges.
“Right now, when California continues to lean forward on so many issues: environment, clean energy, immigration, criminal justice and consumer protection, we’re going to need a chief law enforcement office to advance those positions and protect them,” he told the Sacramento Bee.
All in all, it’s the first bit of good news we’ve had since election night. (even though we were poised to endorse furniture breaker and populist legal bruiser Joe Cotchett for the job).
Political gamers impressed. Becerra, 58, is the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Sacramento, earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford and has served as a leader of the House Democratic and Congressional Hispanic Caucuses. He also has served in the California Assembly and as deputy attorney general under John Van de Kamp.
“Once again, Brown surprises,” said Democratic consultant Garry South, noting that Becerra’s name was not on anyone’s speculation list of potential appointments to fill the last two years of Harris’s term.
“This is not a Rose Bird kind of appointment,” South added, referring to the controversial former chief justice of the California Supreme Court whom Brown appointed in 1977. “He has the experience, character and background to be a credible attorney general.”
“It’s a shrewd pick,” drawled graybeard California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, describing Becerra as “really smart, politically savvy and somebody who can manage that office.”
The political implications of Becerra’s nomination – his confirmation by the Democratically controlled California Assembly and Senate is all but assured – are myriad.
No sooner was the ink dry on Brown announcement of Becerra’s nomination when former Assembly Speaker John Perez declared he would run to fill Becerra’s seat in Congress, which is liable to be hotly contested. Speculation about other political impacts came fast and furious. Asked Thursday by NBC’s Chuck Todd whether he would rule out running for governor or U.S. Senate in 2018, Becerra artfully sidestepped and said only he will be grateful to be confirmed as attorney general.
Which leaves speculation running rampant about:
— Attorney General: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones – who has tangled with Gov. Brown over regulation of insurance rates in the past — had already announced his intention to seek the AG’s job in 2018; with Becerra holding the office with the ability to seek two full terms, the likelihood of an internal party contest for the post arose immediately. As the first Latino AG with a wide national network, however, Becerra would be in a prohibitively strong position to seek election to the post. Jerry serves his revenge cold.
— Governor: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Treasurer John Chiang all have announced bids for governor in 2018, as has Delaine Eastin, former Superintendent of Public Instruction. Other possible contenders include billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former State Controller Steve Westly, to name a few.
While Becerra would make another top-tier potential candidate for governor, Calbuzz insiders on Thursday suggested he is unlikely to jump into the 2018 race for governor. In part, it’s expected that during Legislative confirmation hearings he’ll have to say he intends to serve as attorney general, and in order to run for governor he would have to pivot almost immediately to planning a campaign or 2018. The timing and optics would be ugly. (Prince Gavin and Tony V especially can likely breathe a sigh of relief.)
— U.S. Senate: What remains less clear is what would happen in 2018 if, at the last minute – her preferred timeline – 83-year-old U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who will then be 85) decides to retire and the Democrats are scrambling for a first-rate replacement who could step into the job seamlessly. Although California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is said to be eager to seek Feinstein’s job, Becerra might look to many Democrats as a stronger choice. (Difi, showing no signs of slowing down, has staked out a high-profile position to scrap with Trump in Washington, as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and close ally of Democratic Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York).
In the meantime, Becerra has an opportunity to play a crucial role as the chief law enforcement officer of the largest state – one where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than four million (!) votes – which is also a leader on climate change, immigration, health care, civil rights, women’s rights and so much more.
Bottom line. We’ve met with and interviewed Becerra several times and came away extremely impressed. Jerry Brown has made an inspired choice and allied himself with a forceful, intelligent Latino politician who we expect to carry the banner against Trumpism and all its despicable effects, while competently carrying out the duties of California’s Attorney General.
Nice work, Gandalf.