SACRAMENTO, Calif.—The longtime Democratic congressman slated to become California’s next attorney general immediately took a combative stance against Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration after being named to the post, promising to defend the state’s liberal stances on recreational marijuana, climate change, health care, immigration, and criminal justice.
“If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us,” U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra said Thursday, hours after he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Becerra, 58, said he was “stunned” to be selected by the Democratic governor to succeed newly elected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. But he said he pledged during his telephone interview with the governor to build on some of the issues that Brown hopes to preserve as part of his record when he is termed out of office in two years.
That includes keeping California “the clean energy superpower of the country,” protecting otherwise law-abiding immigrants even if they are in the country illegally, and building on Brown’s changes that reduce mass prison incarceration, Becerra said. He also will seek to protect the state’s broad implementation of President Barack Obama’s health care law that Trump has pledged to unwind.
“We’re always ahead of the rest of the pack and we should be prepared to defend that,” Becerra told reporters on a conference call.
Brown emphasized in appointing Becerra that he expects him to “help our state aggressively combat climate change,” an area where the governor has been critical of Trump and the Republican-led Congress.
Becerra’s selection reshuffles the Latino power structure in the nation’s most populous state and nationally. As Democratic caucus chairman, Becerra is the highest ranking Latino in Congress, where he has served since 1992.
“Becerra might now be the most prominent Latino politician in the country, particularly when it comes to the debate over immigration policy,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics the University of Southern California.
“Jerry Brown has declared war on Washington, D.C. and he’s appointed Xavier Becerra to lead that fight,” Schnur said. But rather than choose a radical bomb-thrower, Schnur said Brown wisely chose a Washington veteran “who’s going to lead a forceful resistance but not an obnoxious one.”
Becerra is a rising star in the party who served as a high-profile Latino surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign this year. He was widely discussed as a potential cabinet appointee if Clinton won.
He now lives in Los Angeles but recalled growing up in Sacramento as a son of poor, hard-working immigrants. He noted he was the first in his family to graduate from college, obtaining both bachelor of arts and law degrees from Stanford University, and said his goal is to offer the same opportunities to others.
But with the election of Trump and a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, his 24-year tenure in the House is no longer as appealing as becoming the state’s chief law enforcement officer. In the attorney general’s position, Becerra could serve through 2018 and then seek another eight years after that.
Law enforcement leaders said they look forward to working with Becerra, who was a deputy attorney general for three years before he began his political career in 1990. But the head of the National Federation of Independent Business in California panned Becerra’s “long, dismal voting record on important small business issues.”
The choice immediately adds Becerra to the long list of California Democrats who could be contenders for governor or the U.S. Senate, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor and political analyst at the University of Southern California.
The list already includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson, state Controller John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and wealthy donor Tom Steyer.
Becerra wouldn’t rule out a bid for higher office, though he told reporters that he wouldn’t have agreed to leave Congress if he didn’t expect to enjoy being attorney general.
Trump’s election upended Becerra’s path to influence in Washington, said Thad Kousser, chairman of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego.
“Washington, D.C., is now red territory, so if he wants to have an impact on policy, California’s the place to do it,” Kousser said.
Kousser noted that going to battle in the courtroom with the Trump administration over climate change and immigration will raise his profile for a possible run for governor or to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when she decides to retire.
Becerra’s replacement in his solidly Democratic district in Los Angeles would be picked via special election, and his expected departure immediately set off speculation. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez quickly announced he would seek the seat representing areas including downtown, Boyle Heights, Chinatown and Highland Park.
Becerra is likely to face easy confirmation in the Democratically controlled Legislature.