California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has become a prolific litigant against the policies of Republican President Trump, suing the administration 44 times since the Democrat was appointed as the state’s top lawyer nearly two years ago.
Now, in his first statewide contest, Becerra faces a challenge in the Nov. 6 election from Republican Steven C. Bailey, a retired judge.
Becerra, 60, represented a Los Angeles-area district in Congress for 24 years before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him in December 2016 to fill the vacancy in the attorney general’s office created when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. He lives in Sacramento.
The son of immigrant parents, Becerra is the first Latino to serve as state attorney general in California history. One of his major court battles with the Trump administration has been over the president’s attempts to step up enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Bailey, 67, served more than eight years as a Superior Court judge in El Dorado County before retiring from the bench. He currently lives in South Lake Tahoe. He was previously an attorney in private practice handling criminal and administrative law for 19 years, and served as deputy director in charge of legislation for the state Department of Social Services during the administration of Gov. George Deukmejian.
Becerra received 45.8% of the vote in the June primary and Bailey won 24.5% in a field of four candidates.
Though candidates met to debate before the primary, there is no forum planned ahead of the general election. The Times asked the two contenders in separate interviews to talk about their priorities and how they would tackle the various issues facing the state and its Department of Justice.
If elected, what would your top priorities be as state attorney general?
Bailey: My No. 1 priority is focused strictly on California’s public safety. We need to have an attorney general who is focused on ensuring that gangs and traffickers and those elements in the criminal establishment are suppressed in this state.
And as attorney general my focus is going to be on those gangs, those individuals who are preying on Californians generally, who are taking advantage of our neighborhoods and are attacking our kids and our grandkids.
Becerra: We’re going to continue to make public safety No. 1, going after lawbreakers, whether it’s crime on the street or the crime emanating from Washington, D.C.
We’re going to go after those who try to violate the law and prevent California from being No. 1. We’ll continue that.
What is the appropriate role of the state attorney general in responding to the many policy actions taken by the Trump administration? What standard should be used in determining whether to sue the federal government?
Bailey: It’s not the Trump administration necessarily that the attorney general ought to be focused on. What the attorney general needs to be focused on are issues that are critical to California.
The federal government doesn’t do everything right. And there are times when it is appropriate to bring suit on behalf of the people of California. And I will aggressively defend California law in those areas. But there are other issues that have cropped up with this attorney general that what he is looking for is an appropriate soundbite.
They are political lawsuits that have little value to California, such as the lawsuit on the border wall. Congress had previously exempted that wall from the environmental regulations that he is suing on. As such, that lawsuit is borderline frivolous. I don’t intend to waste California taxpayer money on frivolous lawsuits.
Becerra: We work with the federal government when it’s in defense of the people of our state and our country, where the interests of California are being defended. And defend California against federal overreach when the federal government tries to get us to do their job or deny us our taxpayer dollars that we paid into the treasury.
We will continue to work with the federal government on any number of public safety activities. We have been doing gang takedowns together. We have been pursuing the illegal growing of marijuana together. We have continued our work together against those who fraudulently prescribe opioids. We will continue to work together to keep Californians safe.
And we will stand up to the federal government when it tries to take away our healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, when it tries to prevent a woman from accessing birth control, when it tries to keep a transgender young man or woman from serving in the military and when it comes to trying to deport the Dreamers in California and throughout the country. We are going to stop any federal overreach because California under the Constitution has a right to do so.
What do you see your role being in addressing the Trump administration’s efforts to change and scale back environmental laws?
Bailey: The first thing you need to do is sit down with the federal government and attempt to resolve the issue before you file a lawsuit. With this current attorney general it’s, ‘[See] a tweet out of the White house — file a lawsuit.’
My approach to Washington will be to go back, sit down with the appropriate parties and see if we can’t negotiate a solution. For example, I am opposed to offshore drilling here in California. The state of Florida successfully negotiated themselves out of the [federal offshore] leases, and I think California could do the same thing if it didn’t take the stance that we are going to sue the federal government every time there is a proposed policy change. In fact, I think that does harm to California’s environment when the first response is a lawsuit.
Becerra: My job is to protect the people and the values and resources of this state. On the issue of the environment, there is no doubt that California has been the leader in protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and making sure that we leave this place in a condition so that our kids can prosper as well.
We are not interested in backsliding. So when it comes to clean car standards, we’re going to defend those, even though they are nationwide. We will protect our interests on the coast of California from any offshore oil drilling. We will make sure that we continue toward clean power plants and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.
And so far we have had pretty much nothing but victories against the federal government when it comes to the environment. Of our 44 or so lawsuits, more than half have been on the environment and we’ve had a couple of dozen victories so far in rulings.
The attorney general’s office has been active on the issue of immigration, including defending the state’s sanctuary law, which restricts local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents. Should the state attorney general continue that legal posture? Why or why not?
Bailey: Frankly I think the sanctuary state law is unconstitutional. It’s provided a sanctuary for no one but criminals. It doesn’t protect immigrants to this state, legal or illegal.
And in fact, it has had the unintended consequence of creating an environment where ICE and the federal authorities are forced into the neighborhoods picking up people that weren’t intended to be picked up, who were just attempting to function as law-abiding individuals in this state. Obviously, not citizens, but they are trying to be law-abiding individuals.
By virtue of sanctuary state, some of those people are the unintended victims of the policies of Sacramento. And I for one am going to fight to protect the citizens of California. I don’t want our neighborhoods to become more dangerous than they already are, and sanctuary state is putting our citizens at risk.
Becerra: We have proved in federal court that our state laws are constitutional and so we’ll continue to protect them.
We recently won victories against the federal government. Federal courts are now requiring the federal government to send us some $29 million in funds that they were withholding from California because they didn’t like that we weren’t doing their job of federal immigration enforcement for them.
And so we are absolutely going to continue to defend our state laws every opportunity that we have because we have that right under the Constitution to protect the general welfare and the public safety of the people of California.
The state attorney general’s office has faced criticism over the backlog of more than 10,000 Californians who possess guns despite having been disqualified from doing so because of criminal convictions or serious mental health issues. What will you do to eliminate or significantly reduce the backlog?
Bailey: I would make it a priority. This attorney general has not made it a priority. The Legislature appropriated $32 million and he got 300 names off the list. That is a sign of no prioritization of that particular list. It’s going to be a No. 1 priority for me.
Becerra: We are going to continue to work with the Legislature to give us the resources to continue to bring down the number of folks who populate the Armed and Prohibited Persons System database because what we are finding is that when we have the resources, we can equip the teams that it takes to go out there and remove guns from people who don’t have a right to possess them.
When you can say that you have removed 18,000 weapons from people who are dangerous in the last five years, that’s pretty good work, and without one incident where anyone’s been harmed. But we need the resources to get out there and do it throughout the entire state.
Voters legalized growing and selling marijuana for recreational purposes, but industry officials and law enforcement officers have said complex regulations, high taxes and insufficient enforcement against illegal growers and sellers has allowed the black market to prosper. What will you do as state attorney general to reduce the black market?
Bailey: Until the black market is forced out of the state we are not going to have a viable, legal business in this state.
What’s happened is, apparently there are people in Sacramento that can’t figure out human nature. And human nature is if you have been selling dope illegally you are going to continue to sell dope illegally.
All we are doing is making money right now for the cartels, and [that will continue] until the attorney general makes it a priority to go after the drug gangs and force them out of this state. Which means those people bringing in large quantities need to be arrested, need to be prosecuted and need to be, frankly, put in prison. The cartels know they are going to lose a certain number of people. We have got to have as our No. 1 priority an effort to drive those drug gangs out of California.
Becerra: We’ve been working with our federal law enforcement partners — the FBI, the DEA and others — along with our local law enforcement partners, to try to crack down on those who would try to plant and harvest marijuana illegally, often times on national or state land.
We’re going to go after those who are dispensing marijuana or other drugs — as I mentioned, opioids.
Part of what we need to do is make sure enforcement is vigorous so we can have a regulatory framework where people who do it the right way get rewarded, and it doesn’t make it uncompetitive for the people who do it the right way watching those who do it the wrong way make massive profits. We want to make sure we give people incentive to do it the right way.