Congressman Tests His Winning Streak

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Xavier Becerra isn't worried that he has less money and fewer endorsements than other candidates running for mayor of Los Angeles. He isn't worried because the lessons he has gleaned from his 11 years in public office are that Things Work Out. Opportunities Arise. The Underdog Surprises People.

If you lived a life shaped by luck and discipline and powerful patrons, a life that propelled you, after one term as a state assemblyman, to become a respected member of Congress, you might feel the same way.

At age 43, driven less by a determined vision than by a strict work ethic and influential allies, Becerra has accumulated a fair share of political success, particularly considering he had no ambition for public office until about a decade ago.

As chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he forged strong relationships with Capitol Hill leaders and President Clinton. He won a plum assignment on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the first Latino so named. Colleagues from both parties regard him as sharp and fair-minded.

This time around, however, happenstance and hard work may not be enough. The mayor's race is testing Becerra's political acumen and his sunny string of luck. The candidate once perceived as the "favorite son" among up-and-coming Latino leaders is jousting for recognition in a crowded field. Even former allies such as County Supervisor Gloria Molina say they are puzzled that he is running.

Becerra has been slow to develop a compelling message for his candidacy. He has infuriated some Latino leaders who fear that he will split community support with fellow candidate and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, preventing either one from winning. He has come under fire for his role in President Clinton's controversial commutation of a drug trafficker's sentence.

Becerra's involvement in the commutation flap was a jarring contrast to the most persistent image of the congressman--that of a clean-cut, above-the-board legislator, a man some colleagues admire as the "Boy Scout" of politics.

Becerra's mother, Maria Teresa, has a favorite story about her son. One Sunday morning when he was about 8 years old, he tired of waiting as she readied his three sisters for Mass at their south Sacramento church.

"Vamos, Mama," he said. "Mass starts in 10 minutes."

"Si, hijo," she responded. "Paciencia."

But Becerra couldn't wait. Not willing to risk being late, he walked out the door and down the seven blocks to church by himself.

The entire truth about that Sunday may be a little less saccharine.

"I probably didn't want to go to a later Mass and miss football," Becerra said recently, laughing.

Hard Work and Good Grades

The only son among four children, Becerra always got good grades. He broke up fights in high school. He helped his father do construction work as a teenager, quick to handle the heavy labor.

Even then, he succeeded with a combination of chance and by-the-books meticulousness.

Take golf.

It was not the obvious sport for the son of a construction worker growing up in a one-bedroom house. But an elementary school friend's father was an avid player, and gave his son a set of golf clubs. The two boys putted around in the friend's backyard after class. When they grew older, they played at a small public course nearby, sharing a single set of clubs.

Finally, Becerra's father scraped together enough money to buy him a cheap set of Kmart clubs. But he didn't have enough to pay for lessons. So Becerra mastered golf much as he would tackle politics: by cramming.

He went to the library and checked out golf books. He cut the weekly golf tips column out of the Sacramento Bee. Finally, by his senior year at C.K. McClatchy High School, he made the varsity golf team.

During high school, Becerra also mastered a very different hobby: poker. He became so good that years later, during a trip to Las Vegas with his parents, a casino offered him a job as a dealer.

While he gained command of some subjects with focus and diligence, chance also set him on his course to college.

One day in high school chemistry class, a friend who had botched an exam tossed aside his application to Stanford University. Becerra picked it up and, on a whim, filled it out. He didn't know where the campus was until he and his mother drove there to enroll him in the fall of 1976.

The son of Mexican immigrants--his mother grew up in Guadalajara and his father, Manuel, was born in Sacramento but raised in Tijuana--Becerra would become the first in his family to graduate from college.

Close friend Arturo Vargas, who met Becerra at Stanford, said he "always had a clean-boy image, almost to a fault."

"On campus, people tended to drink beer and be rowdy," said Vargas, now the executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based in Los Angeles. "The time I knew him, he was more likely to drink milk."

Another college acquaintance said he was "the straightest Chicano I knew. It looked like his short-sleeved shirts were ironed." (They were.)

When his girlfriend--now wife--Carolina Reyes was downstairs in the lounge of the Casa Zapata dorm leading meetings of the Chicano activist organization MEChA, Becerra was more likely to be upstairs studying. Friends encouraged him to take a greater leadership role on campus, but Becerra was intent on getting into law school. (He did, graduating from Stanford Law in 1984.)

"I was the grandiose one who wanted to conquer the world, and he did too, but he wanted to do it step by step," said Reyes, now an obstetrician.

After working for Legal Aid in Massachusetts while his wife attended Harvard Medical School, Becerra came back to Sacramento to work for state Sen. Art Torres, who had been his boss during a post-college fellowship. He moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to run Torres' district office.

Soon, he met Eastside political operative Henry Lozano, chief of staff for the venerable Rep. Edward Roybal, the dean of local Latino politics. One day on the golf course, Lozano asked Becerra, so when are you going to run?

He wasn't.

"I'm a policy guy," Becerra told Lozano.

A few years later, Lozano and other Eastside community leaders invited Becerra--by then a deputy attorney general--to meet. They posed the question again, more specifically: Will you run for the open state Assembly seat in the San Gabriel Valley?

"I guess we were considered kingmakers," said Frank Villalobos, a longtime Eastside activist who was at the meeting. "When we asked someone, it was pretty much considered giving them el dedazo."

El dedazo, literally the fingering from a powerful person: It's your turn.

New Generation of Latino Leaders

Becerra looked stunned. He thought they were kidding, until he realized no one was laughing. He'd have to talk to his wife, he said.

"My vision was I was going to be the right-hand person that an elected official counts on to do the memos, to advise," he said. "You know, the one you always see in the movies whispering in the ear of the official, and then all of a sudden the eloquent question comes out."

But once planted, the idea took root.

A group known as the "macho dogs"--Lozano, Villalobos, future city Councilman Mike Hernandez, future Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Molina's husband, Ron Martinez--put together his campaign.

Torres, Becerra's old boss, loaned staff and helped Becerra raise money. They challenged the candidates being backed by two other powerful Latinos. (Later, Molina, then an assemblywoman, endorsed Becerra and brought on her political team.)

The fresh-faced, Stanford-educated Becerra fit the image voters were seeking, weary as they were of scandal in the wake of state Sen. Joseph Montoya's political corruption conviction.

Becerra's victory kicked off a new era in Latino politics, a rise in young, polished college graduates who offered a different mold of leadership than many of their roughhewn elders.

Two years later, Roybal decided to retire from Congress after 16 terms.

The power brokers, including Molina, approached Becerra again. This time, he had the support of both the powerful county supervisor and Roybal.

Becerra moved into the district, sleeping on his friend Villaraigosa's couch for a few nights before he found an apartment. Fending off criticism that he was a carpetbagger, he won a tough primary against school board member Leticia Quezada and handily beat his Republican opponent that November.

Last fall, he won reelection with 83% of the vote.

Becerra's relationship with Villaraigosa--and their competition on the ballot--has served as a tense undercurrent to the mayor's race. Becerra resisted efforts last year by Molina and Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to broker a compromise so that only one Latino would be in the race.

Becerra has repeatedly told supporters that he refused to cut a deal with Villaraigosa because he doesn't believe in el dedazo.

But isn't that exactly how he got into office?

He laughed at the question.

"Those were tiny dedos," he said. "What they offered wasn't enough to push me over the finish line."

Others disagreed.

"He'd be nowhere if Gloria Molina hadn't put him in office," said one Latino leader and longtime associate who did not want to be identified.

When pressed, Becerra acknowledged he got help.

"I am where I am because of others," he said. "What I'm saying is I've never been part of the establishment."

'Not the Best at Playing the Game'

Whatever the origins of his success, Becerra thrived in Congress. His diligent attention to detail earned praise from members of both parties. A fluent Spanish speaker, he has spent much of his time pressing issues affecting his Latino constituency, such as restoring benefits to legal immigrants and defending bilingual education.

"He's sort of one of the few young dynamic Latino leaders in the House," said Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report. "He's very intelligent and well-respected, even by Republicans I talk to."

Although he has succeeded in climbing the Washington ladder, Becerra has also, on occasion, dramatically demonstrated his political naivete.

"I understand the politics," Becerra said. "I'm not the best at playing the game."

In 1993, the freshman legislator took on Dan Rostenkowski, then the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee--which Becerra was trying to join.

Rostenkowski wanted to cut welfare benefits to legal immigrants, to fund an extension of unemployment benefits. Becerra and other Hispanic Caucus members objected. They negotiated with House leaders to preserve the payments to blind, elderly and disabled legal immigrants.

An amended bill was drafted with Rostenkowski's reluctant approval. But before it went to the floor for a vote, Becerra made a fatal mistake. During a weekly Democratic whip meeting, he rose to thank the leadership for supporting the bill. Rostenkowski, still frustrated at the change, growled at him.

Becerra could have stopped talking at that point. But he didn't.

Breaching House protocol, the young congressman took on the veteran chairman, arguing that legal immigrants had every right to be in the country.

What ensued was an almost unheard of shouting match, as Becerra continued to raise his voice over the chairman's bellows. Later, on the floor, Rostenkowski lambasted the amended bill as damaging to jobless Americans. The compromise failed. The next day, the original plan passed and was signed into law.

"I learned a lot from that," an unrepentant Becerra said recently. "There were people who said to me afterward, 'Xavier, if you just kept your mouth shut, you had it. You had won.' I said, 'Why do we have to win that way?' "

Becerra's actions also backfired in late 1996, when he took a four-day educational trip to Cuba just as he was bidding to become chairman of the Hispanic Caucus.

Predictably, his trip set off a firestorm of criticism in the Cuban exile community. The three Cuban American legislators were furious he had visited the island and not denounced Fidel Castro's regime.

Becerra was eventually elected chairman of the caucus, but its two Cuban American Republicans resigned from the group, ending its bipartisan clout.

Over time, Becerra did develop some political prowess: Under his guidance, the caucus successfully lobbied to win back some of the benefits for legal immigrants cut in 1994, and pushed Clinton to include more Latinos in his administration.

But questions about his political judgment persist, most recently centering on the case of convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali. Becerra, who has received nearly $14,000 in political donations from Vignali's father, Horacio, wrote a letter to Clinton in November asking for a review of Vignali's conviction. He also called a White House counsel--on Clinton's last night in office--to inquire about the status of the case. Vignali's sentence was commuted the next day.

His involvement, along with that of other Los Angeles leaders, contributed to the firestorm of controversy that flared over the pardons and commutations granted by Clinton.

Surprised by the criticism, Becerra said that it did not occur to him that he might be seen as using his political leverage on behalf of a donor. He was merely trying to get information, he said. He insists that he never asked Clinton outright to give Vignali clemency--merely to see if his 15-year sentence was too harsh.

Becerra entered the Los Angeles mayor's race with a few advantages, some shrewdly obtained. He has won convincingly in a district that ranges from Boyle Heights west to Hollywood. Facing minimal competition in his last reelection campaign, he spent almost $860,000--including almost $400,000 on television ads--to boost his name recognition citywide just as the mayoral election approached. It may have paid off: A recent Los Angeles Times poll put Becerra in the thick of a many-candidate tussle for second place behind the front-runner, City Atty. James K. Hahn.

But Becerra's campaign has suffered from a central disadvantage. Having been fingered by fate for so long, Becerra has found it difficult to answer the most basic of questions: Why is he running?

As recently as December, almost a year after he entered the race, he told Times reporters that he had not yet come up with a message for his candidacy. "I have to figure that out," he said.

More recently, he said his interest in becoming mayor grew after he battled with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Los Angeles Unified School District over their federal funding.

"It was real frustrating and I thought, we have to do better than this," he said. "The more it became clear that no one was stepping forward who I felt inspired by, the more I started thinking about it. It's worth a shot."

(Friends also confirm that his wife, an obstetrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, wanted him to return to Los Angeles so he could spend more time with their three young daughters.)

Not the Only Golden Boy

After casting about for a campaign theme, Becerra eventually sought to tie his disparate proposals together under the rubric of "neighborhoods first." But his specific ideas tend to resemble mom-and-apple-pie bromides.

He talks about getting every child a library card, about making the Los Angeles Zoo the best in the nation, about making sure everyone has a good school, grocery store, fire station and place to worship near home.

During mayoral forums, while the other candidates draw specific rationales for their candidacies, Becerra repeats his neighborhoods theme religiously, often redundantly.

"We have to do the little things right," he tells audiences. "Some people say, that's small thinking. But there's no way I can think about these big things until we start to get the little things right."

Some wonder aloud why Becerra is running. He has raised the least money of the top six candidates in the April 10 primary election, and had only about $600,000 on hand at the end of February, compared to Hahn's $2.2 million. Villaraigosa's presence on the ballot further complicates Becerra's chances.

"At one time, he was the golden boy of Hispanic politics in Los Angeles, and now he's finding out there's others who have a claim to that title," said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based political analyst and pollster who has experience in California campaigns.

While some say his political path has been made easier by influential champions, Becerra insists that his lack of sheer ambition means he is not overly enticed by the power that accompanies elected office.

"I don't covet it," he said. "I fear people who must have it, whatever it takes."

He brushes aside criticism that he is ill-positioned for victory. People had the same doubts about his prospects when he first ran for office, he said.

His sunny analysis of the toughest race of his career: "We have nowhere to go but up."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Xavier Becerra

* Born: Jan. 26, 1958, in Sacramento.

* Education: Stanford University, bachelor's degree in economics (1980); Stanford University Law School (1984).

* Personal: Married to Carolina Reyes, obstetrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Three daughters: Clarisa, 7, Olivia, 5, and Natalia, 3.

* Party: Democrat

* Career: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1993-present; state assemblyman, 1990-1992; deputy attorney general, 1987-1990.

* Strategy: Becerra is counting on the support of nearly 78,000 people who voted for him in his congressional bid in November. His campaign hopes to win more votes by pushing his "Neighborhoods First" theme in small community meetings. He is also working to shore up Latino support with frequent appearances in Spanish-language media.

*

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this story.

About This Series

The Times today presents the first of six profiles of the major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles. The articles will appear in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.

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