Capitol Journal: When a door opened unexpectedly for Rep. Xavier Becerra, he walked in and impressed

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), shown addressing reporters in Washington in July, is Gov. Jerry Brown's pick to be the next state attorney general.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), shown addressing reporters in Washington in July, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to be the next state attorney general.

(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Success in life often results from being lucky and having the ability to capitalize.

When a door opens unexpectedly, you need to walk in quickly and impress.

The latest prime example of luck and competence is Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), named by Gov. Jerry Brown last week to replace Sen.-elect Kamala Harris as California attorney general.

Becerra, 58, will be a solid addition to the political bench of potential candidates for governor or U.S. Senate, assuming he performs well as California’s top cop. Bet on it.


He’s no screaming radical or egotist. He’s grounded, practical and congenial. Also knowledgeable and smart. And a decent guy.

But beware Republicans: He’s definitely a liberal.

The California Business Roundtable said his “leadership and integrity … have earned him bipartisan respect.” But the National Federation of Business in California denounced his “dismal voting record on important small-business issues.”

Becerra’s selection was not only a surprise, but a very pleasant one for many political observers who are accustomed to high-quality members of Congress being unwilling to walk away from their comfortable House seats and run a risky, very expensive statewide race for higher office.

Becerra won’t have to run right off, of course. He’ll take office the easy way: gubernatorial nomination and confirmation by the Legislature, where he once served briefly.

To put Becerra in perspective, look back 40 years.

A son of Mexican immigrants whose father didn’t go past the sixth grade, Becerra was pulling down good grades at a Sacramento high school. He was accepted to a summer program for promising students of color at UC Davis, where he was encouraged to keep his grades high.

One day he saw a friend toss something into a waste basket. “What’s that?” Becerra asked. The kid replied, “I was going to apply to this college, but now I’m not.” He’d muffed a course exam. “Give it to me,” Becerra said.

It was an application to Stanford University. Becerra didn’t hesitate. He filled it out.

“I got it in the mail at the last moment,” he told me.

Becerra was accepted.

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“I didn’t know where Stanford was until I rode there with my mom,” he says. Stanford was only two hours from Becerra’s modest childhood neighborhood, but light years away in socioeconomic status.

Thanks to scholarships, federal aid, after-school work and parental help, Becerra graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in economics. Then he got a law degree there.

His first political job was as an aide to state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles). Then he became a deputy to Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp for four years, before winning a vacated Assembly seat in 1990.

Two years later, a House vacancy opened. Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles) retired after 30 years. And Becerra again didn’t hesitate. He ran and won.

He also ran for L.A. mayor in 2001, but finished poorly.

This year, Becerra considered running against Harris for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat. But he decided to stay in the House, Becerra told me, because he held the fourth-highest Democratic leadership position as caucus chairman. In the Senate, he would have had to start all over on seniority.

“I wanted to be in a position to make a big difference,” he says.

Unsaid was that he would have had to give up his House seat and run a tough race against Harris.

Like a lot of Democrats, Becerra expected Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election. And there was a possibility that Democrats would recapture the House.

Becerra also could have been considered for a cabinet post in a Clinton presidency. He campaigned in 15 states for the Democratic nominee.

But Donald Trump abruptly ended those dreams.

Democrats became discombobulated in Washington. What’s more, Becerra’s term was expiring as Democratic caucus chairman. He began maneuvering to land the top Democratic spot on the House Ways and Means Committee.

But back up a bit. The weekend before the election, Becerra was in Sacramento campaigning for two congressional candidates. He was invited to a nonpolitical reception attended by many Democrats, including a former Washington acquaintance: Nancy McFadden, the governor’s top aide.

Becerra and McFadden talked awhile — not about the attorney general job, but the thought was clicking in her mind: “What about Xavier?”

After the Trump triumph, McFadden phoned Becerra, according to a Brown insider who asked for anonymity. Yes, Becerra indicated, he might be interested in becoming attorney general. Washington was going to be a pretty dismal place for at least two years.

McFadden suggested Becerra to Brown, who became impressed with the congressman’s resume and political smarts. But the governor didn’t really know Becerra.

Then McFadden got the pair on the phone together and Brown also became impressed with the man.

They talked at length, which tells you something. If Brown considers a conversation boring or unfocused, he’ll cut it off.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” the insider says. “It just made sense.”

Becerra undoubtedly will run for election as attorney general in 2018 unless he bids for governor — seems unlikely — or Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires and her seat opens up. Feinstein is privately indicating she’ll seek another term at age 85.

Becerra is savvy. He hasn’t closed the door on any race. But “I’ve barely opened this [AG] door,” he says. “I want to make sure I get confirmed.”

He will be. Becerra’s lucky there’s an opening. And again he’s capitalizing.

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