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Rep. Xavier Becerra commits to staying with state attorney general job for foreseeable future

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), shown at a gun violence event in June, was selected by Gov. Jerry Brown to be California's next attorney general. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), shown at a gun violence event in June, was selected by Gov. Jerry Brown to be California's next attorney general. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

After answering questions on the death penalty, marijuana, guns and abortion, Rep. Xavier Becerra moved a step closer Wednesday to becoming California’s next attorney general when the Senate Rules Committee voted 3-1 to recommend his confirmation.

The Democratic congressman from Los Angeles is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate next week, filling a vacancy caused when Attorney Gen. Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Becerra assured senators Wednesday that he intends to stay on the job as attorney general beyond the remaining two years of the current term, which would require running for reelection in 2018, a commitment sought by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the committee’s chairman.

De León said a long-term commitment is required because the state is about to enter into a battle with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to roll back many California policies on issues including the environment and immigration.

“This committee and this body needs a very clear understanding with no ambiguity that you are committed to the position as attorney general of California because there will be multi-year projects that will have to be fulfilled,” De León said during the hearing.

De León said he is not looking for “someone who is just a caretaker for x amount of months.” He said he wants "someone who is dedicated to the position and dedicated the people of California."

He then asked Becerra: "Are you committed to serve in this office for the foreseeable future?”

“Absolutely,” Becerra said.

De León returned to the question later, asking for an explicit "yes or no" as to whether Becerra would run for the office in 2018, but Becerra declined to answer, saying it would require speculation on things beyond his control.

After being pressed a third time, Becerra seemed to satisfy De León's concerns with a more definitive statement.

“It is my full intent to serve in this position for as long as I am able to by statute, by force of law in the state of California, which would be far more than two years," Becerra said, before De León joined the other Democrats on the panel in voting for his confirmation.

Becerra’s confirmation was opposed by state Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), the lone Republican member of the committee present Wednesday. Berryhill worried that Becerra’s record indicates he will not adequately support gun owners’ rights.

“There is concern out there about your lack of criminal justice experience,” Berryhill added, noting that Becerra’s four years in the state Department of Justice were on the civil side.

The congressman said public safety is a priority.

Asked about the death penalty, Becerra said the state needs to put more reforms and resources into implementing it so that it is fairly applied.

“I support the death penalty, but I hate the way it’s being executed,” he said in response to a question.

Becerra indicated he agreed with voters who in November legalized the recreational use of marijuana in California.

“It was wise for us to regulate versus criminalize marijuana, but we do face some challenges,” he said. Becerra said he will play a role as the state works to establish standards for determining when drugged drivers are impaired and a system for licensing and tracking pot sellers.

He promised to whittle away a backlog of those who have guns even though they are disqualified from possessing them because of criminal convictions.

Asked about abortion rights, Becerra noted he is a Catholic who wants to make sure every single being can succeed. “But I will fight as hard as I can for a woman to be able to decide what’s best for her reproductive rights,” he said.

He also said he would vigorously defend California’s law allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.

Becerra promised to defend the state’s policies against any threat of rollback by the incoming Trump administration.

“We are a very forward-leaning state,” Becerra, a 12-term congressman, told the panel. “We are not looking to go back in time.”

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