In the 1970s, an ethnically diverse high school in Sacramento sought to quell tensions by training a mix of specially selected students how to resolve conflicts. Among the chosen was a son of Mexican immigrants named Xavier Becerra—a teenager who excelled academically, spent lunch hours playing poker, and seemed to possess a knack for defusing fights.
Forty years later, an ethnically diverse state—anticipating a new wave of conflict with the federal government—has turned to Becerra as well. This time, the goal isn’t so much to avoid conflicts as to make sure they are resolved in California’s favor.
On Tuesday Becerra, who had become a high-ranking Democrat in Congress, was sworn in as California’s new attorney general. He becomes the state’s top lawyer just as California appears on a collision course with Washington D.C. The election of Republican President Donald Trump and a GOP majority in both houses of Congress threaten a host of liberal state policies enshrined by California’s Democratic leaders.
It will be up to Becerra, 59, to defend the state’s progressive stance on immigration, health care and the environment.
“I don’t think California is looking to pick a fight,” he said the day he was sworn in. “But we’re ready for one.”
Those who’ve known him for a long time say that approach is vintage Becerra. And a clue to how he may handle his new job lies in the mark he made in his formative years—back when he wore feathered hair and bell bottoms, and was known for his ability to talk through a situation in which others might throw a punch.
It’s one of the first things his old buddy Steve Franco recalls about Becerra (along with his skill for golf). They played trumpet together as teenagers and performed traditional Mexican music at weddings and quinceaneras, which made them popular with the ladies but, Franco recalled, sometimes aroused the jealous ire of the girls’ dates. Becerra “would look for the best solution to the situation,” Franco said. “He could always resolve something through words, instead of physically.”
Janice Stain (nee O’Neil) was a year behind Becerra in school and got to know him through the conflict resolution group. When he got into Stanford, it bolstered her resolve to go there too.
“He was a Hispanic guy that I knew was smart and was going somewhere. I was a young black woman and I was planning on going somewhere,” said Stain, who is now a doctor and gospel singer in Fresno. “I admired him.”
In nominating Becerra (after previous attorney general Kamala Harris, was elected to the U.S. Senate) Gov. Jerry Brown highlighted both his experience in Washington and his life story as the Stanford-educated son of Mexican immigrants. Becerra drew on that narrative throughout his confirmation process, describing himself to Spanish-language media as the “hijo de inmigrantes” and telling legislators that his father, a construction laborer who never made it to middle school, had instilled the value of hard work.
Now clean-cut but still cool under pressure, Becerra continues to draw on those conflict-resolution skills shaped, in part, by his days at Sacramento’s C.K. McClatchy High School. The campus has produced a surprising lot of high-profile lawyers and judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Sharing the dais with Becerra at his Capitol swearing-in ceremony was California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the daughter of Filipino immigrants who graduated from McClatchy a year behind him.
“McClatchy at that time was so incredibly diverse,” said Karen Skelton, a Democratic political strategist who was in the conflict resolution club with Becerra. Following new waves of immigration and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, communities around California were working to desegregate their schools in the 1970s.
The idea behind the club, Skelton said, was to “figure out how all people can get along. And it’s pretty relevant to what’s happening today in American politics.”
She and Becerra remained friendly after high school as both of their careers took them to Washington. Their paths crossed again last year on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Becerra stumped for Clinton in several states, using his bilingual skills to talk her up in Latino communities and his family’s blue-collar success story to connect with voters in union halls.
At that point Becerra, who specialized in fiscal policy and had pushed in vain for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration, was being viewed as a possible pick for VP or a key role in a Clinton Cabinet.
All that changed when Trump was elected in November. A month later, Becerra was back in Sacramento, telling reporters gathered in the governor’s office that he had just enjoyed his mother’s homemade breakfast.
Becerra’s confirmation as attorney general was partisan—only one Republican voted for him—yet it was extremely cordial. Even as Republicans grilled him with questions reflecting major disagreements on abortion, gun rights and criminal justice, an unflappable Becerra lightened the mood with some jokes. And when Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher of Yuba City bore down on their clashing interpretations of the First and Second Amendments, Becerra shot him a smile and suggested continuing the dialogue over beers.
“As long as you can drink them, I’ll buy them,” Becerra said, “and we can have that conversation. We may never get to the point where we fully agree. But I think the important part is talking, because the way you get things done is to talk to those with whom you don’t always agree.”
Gallagher agreed to meet for drinks; nonetheless he voted against Becerra—saying Becerra’s support for abortion rights threatened the religious freedom of some faith-based organizations, and that Becerra refused to commit to abiding by a proposed federal law to stiffen penalties on undocumented immigrants who re-enter the country illegally after being deported.
“The issue is not about whether someone is a nice guy,” Gallagher said. “It’s about whether or not they have the capability to do this job effectively and keep our communities safe.”
The attorney general is not only the state’s top lawyer but also its top cop, and many Republicans say Becerra isn’t sufficiently tough on crime. During another confirmation hearing, Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill criticized Becerra for not reaching out to law enforcement officials in his Central Valley district. A week later, upon being sworn in, Becerra announced that his first visit as Attorney General would be to sheriffs in the Central Valley.
Becerra is “probably the best listener I have ever known in politics,” said his friend, former state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter. But he also cautioned against dismissing Becerra as too much of a nice guy.
When he sees injustice, Florez said “there is no doubt that he is pretty ferocious. He has this very charming nature, but he has an edge.”
The two met when both worked for state Sen. Art Torres in Los Angeles. Torres helped Becerra land his first elected office, representing downtown L.A. in the state Assembly. Two years later, he won the seat in Congress that he went on to hold for more than two decades.
Long before he stepped foot on Capitol Hill, Becerra spent summers in Sacramento working for the same construction company where his father toiled. “That’s how he learned how hard his father was working,” said his mother, Maria.
The proud parents sat with their grandchildren in the ornate Assembly chamber on Tuesday, watching as Gov. Brown administered the oath of office to their son. Then the governor gave a fiery “State of the State” speech positioning California as the opposite of the Trump administration. Where Trump calls for a border wall and deportations, Brown welcomed immigrants and praised their contributions.
“They have helped create the wealth and dynamism of this state from the very beginning,” Brown said, eliciting whoops and cheers as he vowed to defend immigrants against new threats from the federal government.
Afterward, Brown hosted a reception for Becerra in the courtyard outside his office. Music flowed from a three-piece mariachi band. White orchids decorated the tables. Becerra posed for pictures and extended endless hugs and handshakes to his guests.
The fight had not yet begun.