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As state attorney general, Xavier Becerra gets to battle Trump — and discourage rivals in 2018

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, seen during a confirmation hearing in January, has emerged as the leading candidate for the post in the 2018 election.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The race for California attorney general in 2018 has been shaken up by the so-called “Trump factor,” with the state’s newly appointed top lawyer, Xavier Becerra, seeing his profile boosted to the national stage by legal challenges to the Republican president.

What was shaping up to be a free-for-all with several strong candidates before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra last month is now looking to be a much narrower race, with some candidates signaling they may drop out.

Becerra, 59, was a Democratic congressman from Los Angeles when he was picked to fill out the remaining two years of the term of Kamala Harris, who resigned the post after she won election to the U.S. Senate last year.

Because California supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for president by a wide margin over Trump, most voters are likely to see Becerra as heroic if he continues to stand up to the new president, said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State.

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“In Becerra’s case, his appointment instantly made him the favorite to gain election to a full term in 2018 anyway,” Gerston said. “His anti-Trump stance can only help that election effort, particularly in terms of discouraging any potentially noteworthy opponents.”

Reflecting his role as a leading national figure opposing Trump policies, Becerra gave the keynote speech Friday at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Atlanta, where hundreds of party activists from all over the country cheered his biting verbal attacks on Trump, whom he called an “imposter.”

Politicians that have campaign committees to raise money for the attorney general’s race include three Democrats: state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, former Assemblyman Dario Frommer and former state Sen. Ellen Corbett.

Campaign committees have also been formed by Republicans including San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos.

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Ramos, 59, said the governor’s decision to appoint Becerra means the attorney general will benefit from being the incumbent in the contest.

“It’s a huge advantage,” said Ramos, who is reconsidering a run for attorney general because of Becerra’s appointment.

Ramos said he hopes to meet with Becerra. He also is watching what Becerra does in the next month and may drop out of the race if the new attorney general demonstrates support for victims’ rights, public safety and the continued use of the death penalty.

“If he is going to be that attorney general, then — because I love what I’m doing now — I would continue to be the district attorney of San Bernardino County,” Ramos said.

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During confirmation hearings, Becerra said he supports the death penalty but wants more reforms and resources to make sure it is fairly applied.

Frommer, a Democrat from Glendale, is also weighing whether to fold his campaign committee for attorney general — which holds $650,000 — now that his friend holds the job.

“He’s on the right side of the issues that I care about,” Frommer said of Becerra. “Even though he has not run statewide before, when your title on the ballot is attorney general for the state of California, it’s going to be very hard for someone else to prevail.”

Among others who pundits say would make competitive candidates, those who have indicated they do not plan to run for attorney general in 2018 include Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley.

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Jones, 55, said Becerra’s announcement has not affected his long-standing plans. He has $800,000 in his campaign account.

“I announced in October 2015, and I am continuing ahead with our campaign and seeking the office of attorney general,” Jones said.

Updates from Sacramento »

As state insurance commissioner, Jones said he has eight years of experience running a consumer protection and law enforcement organization. He also cited his work as a special assistant to then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and service in the state Assembly.

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“I’m running to make our streets and communities safer, to continue the work that’s been done on criminal justice reform, to go after the underground economy, protect our environment and fight public and private corruption,” he said.

Jones declined to offer any judgement of the work Becerra has done so far as attorney general, including his filing of multiple friend-of-the-court briefs challenging Trump’s travel ban and immigration crackdown.

However, Jones said he himself would be a strong force against Trump directives that erode the rights and policies of Californians.

“There’s going to be ample time after the March [candidate] filing to draw distinctions in approach and emphasis,” Jones said. “Right now, I believe all of California’s statewide officers are united in our efforts to try to protect immigrants in California, to protect our implementation of healthcare reform, to block the president’s Muslim ban and any number of things [Trump] is doing.”

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Becerra has been traveling throughout California to introduce himself and assure residents that he will be aggressive in defending the state and its policies from encroachment by the Trump administration. Last week, he spent one day addressing the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and the 5th Annual California Business Roundtable’s Business Leaders Luncheon.

“What I hope is I can work hard to demonstrate to the people of California that I will be an attorney general who represents everyone in the state and protects the interests of the state so we can continue to move forward as the top economy in the nation and the sixth top economy in the world,” Becerra told reporters outside the luncheon.

He has not reported raising any money yet for his state campaign, but his congressional campaign account has $1.4 million in it. Becerra can transfer that money to a state campaign as long as no individual contributor to his congressional fund gives more than $7,300 to his state fund.

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Asked about Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities that provide sanctuary to immigrants in the country illegally, Becerra said that he would not allow that to happen.

“I will be darned if we’re going to let someone take money away from us because they don’t like that California is doing things that make us the most successful state in the nation,” Becerra said. “We are going to fight for what is ours, but we are going to work with our partners in Washington, D.C., so we can have a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Using fighting words against Trump will particularly resonate with the state’s large bloc of progressive voters, according to John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“Anybody who makes an effective fight against Trump will gain political and financial support from the progressive community,” Pitney said.

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There is only one thing that could help more, he added.

“Mr. Becerra would benefit if Trump attacked him,” Pitney quipped.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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Updates on California politics

Updates from Sacramento

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