Xavier Becerra: California’s New Attorney General Gears Up

There was more than symbolism in the air at the January 24, 2017, swearing-in ceremony for California’s new attorney general, Xavier Becerra, JD ’84 (BA ’80). After administering the oath of office to Becerra, Governor Jerry Brown delivered a fiery “State of the State,” lauding the contributions of immigrants to the state and taking aim at the new Trump administration. “They have helped create the wealth and dynamism of this state from the very beginning,” Brown told the crowd, which included Becerra’s wife, Dr. Carolina Reyes (BA ’81), their three daughters, and his parents. With the California Assembly chamber serving as an ornate backdrop, Becerra took the baton from Brown, accepting the role and challenge, telling the crowd, “I don’t think California is looking to pick a fight, but we’re ready for one.”

The post-ceremony party, with mariachi band and refreshments, was a brief reprieve from the political battle that began in earnest just a few days later when President trump signed one of the first executive orders of his new presidency—this one on immigration.

The legal challenges facing California today are existential—the list of issues embraced in this, the third largest state in the union, at odds with much of the new administration’s agenda. But Becerra has a deep arsenal of experience to pull from, the benefit of more than 30 years in public service to temper his view, including 24 years representing downtown Los Angeles in the U.S. Congress.

Becerra has seen it all before.

Becerra came to public service in the Reagan years, first working as a lawyer at the Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts before returning to California in 1986 for a position on State Senator Art Torres’ staff and then serving as a deputy attorney general in the California State Department of Justice. When State Assemblyman Charles Calderon decided to seek a seat in the California Senate, Becerra threw his hat in the ring and was elected to the State Assembly, representing California’s 59th District for one term from 1990 to 1992.

“I couldn’t understand why he would want to be a politician. He’s the nicest, most genuine, and honest person I know, which is to say not a lot like most politicians,” says Jim Steyer, JD ’83 (BA ’78), founder of Common Sense Media, who has stayed in touch with Becerra since law school.

Fellow Torres staffer and former California Senate member, Dean Florez, could see that Becerra had a future in politics. “He was kind of the brains behind the Torres office, always a step ahead and with a vision of where we as an office should be going,” says Florez, who counts Becerra as a friend. He recalls Becerra as a workaholic—who lived up to his Boy Scout reputation. “He was always working. If you opened the staff fridge, you’d see Xavier’s milk and brown bag lunch.” But while serious, Becerra has a reputation for humor. “It’s smart humor. If he tells you a joke at eight in the morning, you won’t get it until later that afternoon—after three or four cups of coffee.”

Xavier Becerra: California's New Attorney General Gears Up

Illustration by David Plunkert

Florez credits much of Becerra’s success to his character and early grasp of policy. “Most politicians have to learn the policy when they get elected. For Xavier it was the opposite—he knew the policy but had to learn to become a politician.”

The motivation to represent the people of California was and still is very personal for Becerra, who was the first in his family to graduate from college with a four-year degree and go to law school. He recalls a conversation he had with a constituent while campaigning for the state Assembly, knocking on doors during his very first campaign.

“I remember this one woman who answered said, ‘Oh yes, yes, we got your brochure.’ And then she called over her young son and said, ‘Mi hijo, mi hijo, I want you to meet this man. He went to Stanford University and he is a deputy attorney general and he’s running for office. That’s what you want to do when you grow up,’ ” says Becerra.

The son of immigrant parents, Becerra grew up in Sacramento, where his father worked mostly in construction and money was tight. But Becerra was diligent, excelling in school and teaching himself to play golf—eventually making the high school team. He understands well the challenges facing immigrants.

“I didn’t do any SAT prep. I didn’t know I was supposed to. I only took the PSAT because some friends mentioned they were taking it,” he recalls. Becerra was accepted to Stanford, something he credits with his current success. It was when as an undergrad tutoring Spanish-speaking kids in East Palo Alto that he set his sights on law and government service. “It was about wanting to advocate for people who deserved more than they were getting. And I saw that there were ways to do good faster, with a bigger impact. And policy was the way.”

Those experiences stayed with Becerra and still guide much of his politics—as does the sting of prejudice he heard about from his father.

“There were still signs in stores in Sacramento that said ‘no dogs or Mexicans allowed,’” he recalls.

California was changing when Becerra entered politics. In 1992, Becerra was elected to Congress to represent the downtown Los Angeles district in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the same year that a Democratic presidential candidate won the state–– the first time since 1964. Yet in 1994, the year he won his first re-election bid, Californians passed Proposition 187, better known as the “Save Our State” initiative, establishing a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibiting what the measure called “illegal aliens” from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services in the state.

Xavier Becerra: California's New Attorney General Gears Up 2

Today, California is arguably one of the most liberal states, with a progressive agenda—and a strong economy.

“California is very forward-leaning. You don’t become the sixth largest economy in the world by sitting back,” says Becerra. “That’s my charge: In California, we lead.”

While California has come a long way in the past 30 years, so too has Becerra.

He made his mark in the House of Representatives as an even-tempered stalwart of liberal causes, rising through the ranks of party and House leadership. He was appointed vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, where he worked closely with then speaker Nancy Pelosi to set priorities and drive the legislative decision-making process. Considered a policy wonk with a deep understanding of the budget process, he became a member of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means—the first Latino member—as well as the ranking member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. In 2010, he served on the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and on the Joint Select Committee established in 2011 to reduce the deficit.

“Xavier’s leadership has always been rooted in knowledge, values and vision,” says Congresswoman Pelosi, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. “As California leads the way in pushing back against the Trump administration, we are strengthened by having an attorney general with his deep understanding of the connection between legislation and people’s daily lives. In high-stakes legislative battles, Xavier always brought creativity and moral clarity to the task at hand. Xavier’s decades in Congress have equipped him with sharp insight on the law and the strategic wisdom to effectively defend and advance our values at this critical period.”

“There’s a reason he was so well respected in Congress. He’s genuinely a person of integrity.”

Becerra gained a reputation in D.C. for his no-nonsense, “roll up your sleeves and get it done” approach and his name has come up on several shortlists through the years. He turned down an offer from President Obama for a role in the administration as the ambassador for trade, and he was a serious contender for the vice president spot on the Hillary Clinton ticket. Through the years, he chose instead to stay in the House representing the people of downtown Los Angeles—until he heard from Governor Brown.

“Xavier has been an outstanding public servant—in the State Legislature, the U.S. Congress and as a deputy attorney general,” Governor Brown said when he announced his AG pick in December 2016. “I’m confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change.”

“There’s a reason he was so well respected in Congress. He’s genuinely a person of integrity. He’s smart— a fighter but also calm. He’s exactly what we need as our California AG now, with the state so at odds with the federal government,” says Steyer, who is also a lecturer at the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity.

State Attorney General Becerra serves as the chief law enforcement officer and chief sheriff of the most populous, and possibly the most diverse, state in the union. It’s a big job, with the AG leading a department with more than 4,500 lawyers, investigators, sworn peace officers, and other employees. And Becerra readily digs into the details.

On his 101st day in office, Becerra met with the California Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections, Public Safety, and the Judiciary, which controls the AG’s budget.

“It is our budget that truly determines what work we can and can’t do as a department,” Becerra said. “I’ve said it so many times before in my career— the budget process is where we really know the values of an organization, where the rubber meets the road.”

Becerra then did a deep dive into the numbers, his years in government on display.

“In high-stakes legislative battles, Xavier always brought creativity and moral clarity to the task at hand. Xavier’s decades in Congress have equipped him with sharp insight on the law and the strategic wisdom to effectively defend and advance our values at this critical period.”

“The AG is really the protector and the first line of defense for the state on a lot of very complicated issues. It’s the central nervous system for our government,” says Florez, who was recently appointed to the California Air Resources Board. “There’s a reason it took Governor Brown all of ten minutes to pick Xavier for the job, and a reason that Brown and Kamala Harris and other great Californian politicians came up through that office.”

The scope of the AG job is broad, covering everything from public safety to preserving California’s natural resources to enforcing civil rights laws to consumer protections—such as helping victims of identity theft, mortgage- related fraud, illegal business practices, and other consumer crimes.

Front and center to Becerra’s job, though, is criminal justice—with legal issues at the local, state, and national levels.

“Though sometimes indirect in local criminal justice, the AG can be pretty powerful at the local level,” says Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, Edwin E. Huddleson Jr. Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “He’s in charge of statewide initiatives, like DNA and gun databases. And he can be a kind of exhorter, summoning meetings of county prosecutors. He doesn’t get to decide which cases get prosecuted, but he can exert a lot of influence on them. And while rarely invoked, the AG does have the power to take a case away from a county prosecutor if he determines that there are obstacles to a fair decision being made at the county level.”

Among the many issues on the AG’s desk is a state statute passed two years ago that requires police departments and, indirectly, prosecutors to compile detailed data on police stops to address racial profiling.

“The AG is the officer charged with writing regulations to implement the statute and then implementing the regulations, and that’s exactly what Becerra is doing now,” says Weisberg, who recently met with the AG and a group of criminal justice experts to discuss the statute’s implementation. One issue that put California’s criminal justice system on the national stage is prison overcrowding. As chief lawyer for the state, Becerra will be charged with implementing Proposition 57, which among other things allows parole consideration for nonviolent offenders. He’s also charged with satisfying the Supreme Court’s prison population decision, which orders California to bring its extreme prison overcrowding under control— an order that puts the California prison system under federal oversight.

“The AG is the one who’s going to have to defend the constitutionality of practices in the state and help make the arguments to the federal courts in key cases,” says Weisberg.

“When it comes to the environment, no state has come as far
as California. We’re creating jobs in clean energy,
particularly solar. And we have high fuel standards because
we know we need to protect our citizens.”

While California’s innovative policy of realignment, enacted in 2011 to move non-violent prisoners from state prisons to county jails, has gone a long way to alleviating overcrowding, the Supreme Court order is still in place.

But seeing Proposition 57 through may put Becerra at odds with one of his primary mandates—dealing with local county criminal justice issues.

“The question up front and center is how is he going to keep the crime rate down in local communities, while implementing Prop. 57,” says Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “He’ll need to maintain the support of the state’s district attorneys, many of whom are increasingly vocal in their opposition to Prop. 57,” she adds.

Petersilia explains that, as with realignment, Proposition 57 directly affects district attorneys, who are largely responsible for handling the overflow of prisoners from state prisons to county jails.

“I think there will be some tension between the state prison litigation and the county justice system—and continuing pressure to keep crime rates down in California,” says Petersilia.

Becerra is very familiar with California’s innovative criminal justice initiatives—and its challenges—and intends to maintain the momentum.

“We know that community policing is working. We aim to be the state that can stop and deter criminal behavior, not stop and frisk young men based on preconceived notions of who they are,” Becerra says. He points to gun safety laws in the state that he believes have helped law enforcement— particularly universal background check laws. “We’re ahead of the curve on gun safety—and light years ahead of the federal government.”

Another area in which California has shown both innovation and leadership is the environment. Becerra sees it as key to the state’s overall success, tied directly to its economic strength.

“When it comes to the environment, no state has come as far as California. We’re creating jobs in clean energy, particularly solar. And we have high fuel standards because we know we need to protect our citizens. We have a productive way of doing business that aims to minimize health and environmental impact. All this has helped our economy, not hurt it,” he says.

The Trump administration’s March executive order threatens to roll back many recent environment initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan, a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s strategy to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and begin bringing down greenhouse emissions from the electric power sector.

“California has the most viable market-based ‘cap-and-trade’ program that applies to the electric generating sector as well as to some other industrial polluters,” says Deborah Sivas, Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program, director of the Environmental Law Clinic, and senior fellow for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “California has linked that program with Quebec and is looking at a similar linkage with Ontario. And there’s talk of a Western-states cap-and-trade block.”

Sivas says that the Clean Power Plan should be an incentive to push more states to join California moving standards forward, instead of rolling them back. ‘“The state AGs are talking about joining forces, and I know Becerra is leading here,” says Sivas.

In the last week of April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to “sanctuary cities” warning them to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, or risk losing federal money—sums that could easily add up to multiple billions of dollars for California.

Session’s letter also went to the state of California, presumably because the state Senate had recently approved legislation designating it a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants. While not yet a law, the state bill sent a clear message to Washington.

“We’re in the business of public safety. We’re not in the business of deportation,” Becerra told George Stephanopoulos in a This Week interview aired on April 23, pointing to constitutionally protected states’ rights.

In a state with an estimated population of more than 39 million, almost 40 percent of them of Hispanic descent, immigration is seen as fuel for a growing economy where workers are often in short supply.

“We’re hearing stories from citizens across the state, people who are afraid. It’s a story I’ve been hearing my whole career,” says Becerra, who pushed hard for immigration reform while he was in the House. “We’re trying to do things to help the families who are frightened. We’re working with state agencies and our schools and community police and businesses to prove to people who work every day, who punch the clock and work hard contributing to our economy, that there is a place for them in California.”

Since taking office, Becerra has filed or joined dozens of briefs, many having to do with Trump administration executive orders on travel and immigration.

And while the threat to cut off key federal funding is tied up in the courts, Becerra is busy, working hard on behalf of the state. (He filed an amicus brief on March 22 in County of Santa Clara v. Trump, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s sanctuary jurisdictions executive order.)

“We’ve seen such a huge interest from Sacramento in taking steps to protect immigrant communities. I think our legislators in California recognize that this is a mixed status state. It’s not just a case of mixed status families—all of our lives are intertwined with those of the immigrants in our state.” says Jayashiri Srikantiah, professor of law and director, Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. “Attorney General Becerra is a leader in California and other states’ resistance to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. He brings an incredible depth of experience on immigrants’ rights policy from his years in Congress.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Attorney General Becerra is California’s first Hispanic to hold the office.

“I’m the 33rd AG and it took until the 33rd to appoint me,” he says. “I know the pride that runs through families that never had opportunities, like my own parents, and how they look at those who have had the good fortune to succeed. They pin so much of their hopes and aspirations on us. I just hope we’re able to work hard and open doors for many others, so they can have opportunities too.”