As his Senate confirmation hearings begin, a look at four different labels friends and foes apply to Becerra, the California attorney general nominated to head the nation’s sprawling network of public health and welfare agencies.
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If you know one thing about California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s career, it’s that he spent a lot of it suing then-President Donald Trump. For those keeping score (we were), Becerra took the Trump administration to court a whopping 110 times, making him a speartip of the anti-Trump resistance.
Tomorrow the national spotlight on him is sure to grow even hotter, as the U.S. Senate begins hearings on whether to confirm his nomination by President Joe Biden to head the sprawling Health and Human Services Department. It’s an important job, even when the nation isn’t struggling to overcome a dual pandemic and recession.
So what kind of person will the Senate be considering? Before taking on the role of Trump’s chief legal gadfly, he spent most of his adult life in California politics and policymaking circles as a state prosecutor and a member of the California Assembly and then Congress. Over the course of that decades-long career, he’s played the role of savvy consensus builder, out of the blue up-and-comer, details-oriented policy wonk, dutiful Democratic team player, stalwart proponent of progressive health care ideas and frequent foe of government transparency.
Here are four versions of the man that California has come to know:
The Partisan Pugilist
As the GOP rushes to derail Becerra’s confirmation, expect to hear a lot about this Xavier Becerra.
“The famously partisan attorney general of California,” is how Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell described him late last month. Indiana Sen. Mike Braun opted for “ringleader of the far-left’s resistance movement,” while Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton went with “partisan culture warrior” with a “zeal for lockdowns, radical politics and abuse of power.”
For evidence, Republicans point to Becerra’s courtroom record.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra sued the Trump administration more than twice as many times in four years as Texas sued the Obama White House in eight. That’s saying something. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was the state’s attorney general during the Obama years, he frequently, half-jokingly described his job this way: “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
Becerra’s 110 suits don’t include the flurry of Trump-unfriendly friends-of-court briefs and disapproving comment letters the state’s Department of Justice penned, nor other litigation it filed in opposition to the prior president. All of that has come with an estimated price tag of $41 million.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown tapped Becerra to serve as state attorney general after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. That was the same election that put Trump in the White House and California at odds with Washington. Brown said he was looking for a “champion” in Becerra to defend the state’s liberal policies and “aggressively combat climate change.”
Brown got one. More than half of the lawsuits Becerra’s filed against the Trump administration were about environmental policy.
As a bilingual son of Mexican immigrants and an aggressive, Stanford-educated litigator, Becerra also served as a symbolic response to the new Trump administration. In 2019, it was Becerra whom Democrats picked to give the Spanish-language rejoinder to the president’s State of the Union speech.
Other liberal bonafides: In 1996, he was one of only 67 members to vote against a bill defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and in 2003, he voted against the Iraq War.
But it’s Becerra’s abortion record that most irks the right. As attorney general, he pursued criminal charges — first brought by his predessor, Harris — against anti-abortion activists who secretly recorded discussions with abortion providers.
His office sued the Trump administration for making it easier for doctors to opt out of providing certain medical procedures for reasons of conscience, for cutting funding to providers that offer abortions, and for allowing employers to exclude contraception from health insurance plans.
In that last case, the Catholic women’s institute Little Sisters of the Poor intervened. That put Becerra’s office in the awkward position of suing a bunch of nuns — something Republicans and conservative media outlets are gleefully touting.
The Secretive Top Cop
Becerra may be a hero to many on the left, but not to many police accountability and government transparency advocates.
When the First Amendment Coalition invoked that law in requesting such records about the California Department of Justice’s own law enforcement agents, Becerra’s office refused. The nonprofit sued and was soon joined by KQED. Legal tussling over which documents the department will release and when are ongoing.
And when investigative reporters used a routine public records request to obtain thousands of records detailing the criminal convictions of current and former police officers from across the state, the attorney general’s office threatened the reporters with criminal charges.
Becerra has long argued that his office was simply erring on the side of protecting officers’ privacy until the courts provided clarity on its legal obligation to release them.
Coalition executive director David Snyder said Becerra’s office “has really led the way in resisting police transparency.” Given his progressive reputation “I would have expected the Attorney General to set an example of transparency, within the bounds of the law, on an issue as crucial as this,” he said. “To the contrary, the attorney general’s office was more resistant than many police agencies around the state.”
Becerra has struggled to balance the demands of progressives with those of law enforcement members whose cooperation on the job — and support on the campaign trail — is valuable.
During his 2018 campaign to keep the job, Becerra refused to say whether his office should investigate police shootings or whether California should make it more difficult for police to justify using lethal force. The Legislature has since passed laws doing both without Becerra’s support.
During that same election, law enforcement unions spent nearly $300,000 supporting his campaign.
But in the wake of the anti-racist protests of 2020, Becerra stepped up his office’s police oversight efforts. He launched an external review of use-of-force guidelines at the long-troubled Vallejo Police Department and a civil rights investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. He also supported legislation that would decertify police for certain types of serious, and a ban on chokeholds.
That’s been too little and too late for some critics: The editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News called Becerra “self-serving,” “hypocritical” and the state’s “top coddler of bad cops.”
The Health Care Wonk
Biden made revitalizing and expanding the Affordable Care Act a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. In Becerra — who was part of the House Democratic leadership while Obamacare was being written and who has filed more than half a dozen lawsuits in defense of the law — he has a subject-matter expert.
As a freshman member of Congress in 1993, Becerra cosponsored a bill to create a federally-funded health insurance program for all Americans. “I’ve been a single-payer advocate all of my life,” he told Kaiser Health News in 2019.
That history makes Becerra a notable choice for Biden, whose opposition to a government-funded health insurance program for all Americans was the clearest divide between him and his more progressive Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary.
California’s single-payer advocates say they look forward to having an ally guiding national health policy.
“In his attorney general post, he was a fighter for the working class — for labor, for Dreamers,” said Stephanie Roberson, a lobbyist with the California Nurses Association, one of the most vocal supporters of implementing a single-payer health insurance system in California. “I imagine that he will take that fighting spirit to the federal level and to fight for all the things that he believes in, which includes health care.”
But some legal experts say Becerra’s most lasting impact on California health policy will be his use of antitrust laws to go after big hospital chains and pharmaceutical giants.
California law gives the state Department of Justice wide-ranging authority to block mergers between non-profit hospitals and to sue to ensure that providers aren’t abusing their market power to jack up prices.
One of Becerra’s first moves as attorney general was to consolidate the state Justice Department’s health care antitrust work. In 2018, the new unit sued Sutter Health, securing a $575 million settlement and an agreement from the Sacramento-based hospital chain to end “all-or-nothing” contracting practices that would force insurers to purchase coverage at all of the chain’s hospitals and clinics, even if they aren’t needed or if cheaper local alternatives exist. Becerra’s office also blocked the consolidation of two other northern California hospital groups and imposed strict conditions on a Southern California deal.
Said Glenn Melnick, a health economist at the University of Southern California: “He’s developed a good understanding of health care markets and the role of competition and so I’m hopeful he’ll get a chance to apply that on a national basis.”
Becerra also sponsored legislation to expand the state Justice Department’s power to police health industry mergers and to ban pharmaceutical companies from paying other drugmakers to delay producing generic versions of patented medication. The merger bill, fiercely opposed by lobbyists representing doctors and hospitals, died. But the anti-“pay-for-delay” legislation became law in 2019.
“What I really appreciated was he stuck to his guns and to his principles — in this political environment, that doesn’t always happen,” said Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat who co-wrote the bill with Becerra’s office.
The Rising Star
When Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin stepped down as top Democrat on the influential Ways and Means Committee in 2016, he knew which up-and-coming congressman he wanted to take his spot.
“I was worried about Xavier not having a role,” said Levin, who retired from Congress in 2019. “Xavier needed to have a role…that’s how much I admired him.”
People have been predicting bigger things for Becerra much of his life. At McClatchy High School in Sacramento, a fellow student recalled a kid — the first in his family to go to college then on his way to Stanford — who was clearly “going somewhere.” After law school, Becerra worked in the east Los Angeles office of Demoratic state Sen. Art Torres before becoming a state deputy attorney general, legislator and then a member of Congress for a quarter-century.
When “The Hill” publication rated him the 13th hardest working member of Congress, Becerra humble-bragged his familiarity with the janitorial staff — so frequent were his late nights at work. “I have nothing to go back to at my condo, so I stay and work,” he said.
But with a gerontocracy holding on to top Demoratic leadership positions, Becerra was widely expected to be a cabinet pick in a Hillary Clinton White House. Alas.
Becerra returned to California to become the attorney general where he developed his reputation as a partisan brawler. But Levin, who calls Becerra a friend, said he does not remember him that way in Congress.
“He was a thoughtful activist. He didn’t thump the table, but he thought through issues and then he acted,” qualities were well suited to getting work done in Congress, he said. And if Becerra was a particularly aggressive partisan in Sacramento, it’s because those qualities suited that “different role as attorney general.”
“You have to put the two together,” said Levin. “That’s who Xavier is.”
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