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Essential Politics: Biden selects Xavier Becerra

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, right, flanked by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, during a 2017 news conference.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, right, flanked by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, during a news conference on Sept. 5, 2017, in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Four years and six days after he agreed to leave Washington and return to his hometown of Sacramento, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra is poised to return to the nation’s capital.

The 62-year old Democrat has been chosen by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services, a somewhat surprising pick that’s expected to be formally announced on Monday.

But beyond what it means for his decision to join the incoming Biden administration, it’s going to provide a big reshuffling of political fortunes in California and gives another plum appointment to be made by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the next few weeks.

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The choice of Secretary-designate Becerra

In tapping Becerra for the job of leading the federal government’s healthcare efforts, Biden is relying on a Democrat with significant Capitol Hill experience and a track record as California’s attorney general defending the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s a great choice,” said Peter Lee, executive director of the state’s healthcare exchange, Covered California. “He is a thoughtful, strategic leader who gets the importance of not only expanding healthcare coverage but also addressing high costs for patients.”

Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants, would be the first Latino to lead the federal agency if confirmed next year by the Senate.

“Having an individual who not only has outstanding qualifications, but also understands the needs of minority communities, is imperative as our country moves forward in its fight against the pandemic,” Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) said in a statement.

Newsom gets two (or more) key picks for big jobs

California’s governor congratulated Becerra once news broke of his selection for a spot in the Biden Cabinet. “You’ve spent your entire career fighting for equality and justice,” Newsom wrote on Twitter. “You’ve spent the last four defending the #ACA. Now, you‘ll help lead our nation toward quality, affordable healthcare for ALL — and continue to make CA proud!”

It took only minutes for California’s political universe to fixate on the question: Whom might Newsom appoint to fill out the remaining two years of Becerra’s term as attorney general? And how many high-profile posts will Newsom get to fill in a matter of weeks?

Becerra had been one of a handful of powerhouse possibilities to fill the Senate seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a decision most watchers have expected will be made before the end of the month. It’s certainly possible the weekend development further boosts the chances of Secretary of State Alex Padilla, especially as advocacy groups have insisted the state is long overdue to be represented by a Latino in the United States Senate — and Padilla is the choice of notable Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Should Newsom select Padilla or any statewide elected official to fill the term of Harris, he will have two vacant jobs that the California Constitution allows him to fill. And they are both high-profile positions — especially attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer and traditionally seen as a strong perch from which to someday run for governor.

And just for the history books, it’s fascinating to think about how all of this began in 2015 when then-Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement, prompting Harris to run for the Senate and avoid a 2018 gubernatorial showdown with Newsom, and leave her post of attorney general, which was filled by Becerra, who now is poised to join Harris back in Washington.

Now to casting those electoral college votes

With Harris on her way to the second-highest office in the nation, it seems appropriate that California’s 55 electors pushed Biden across the threshold of 270 votes needed to ascend to the presidency. (Also, the tally was certified by Padilla, just to tie all of this newsletter’s loose ends together.)

The news has done nothing to dissuade President Trump from refusing to acknowledge that his time in office will end next month. On Saturday, he again leveled false accusations of rampant and systemic voter fraud during a rally in Georgia — an event where he was supposed to be rallying support for the Republicans running in next month’s Senate runoff elections.

Two dates loom large in putting a final stop to Trump’s effort to cast aside the ballots stacked against him in a handful of key states. Tuesday marks the so-called “safe harbor” deadline in federal law for election-related issues to be resolved. And Dec. 14 is when electors will meet in Sacramento and state capitols across the country to cast ballots — in most every state, all votes go to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

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You’ll be home for Christmas

Under action taken over the weekend by the Newsom administration, the vast majority of Californians have been told to stay home until Dec. 28 and could still be there on New Year’s Day.

It’s the most sweeping state government directive since Newsom’s shutdown order on March 19, a response to a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases. And it’s been received with a mixture of fear, frustration and anger.

In particular, the rollout by the governor on Thursday seemed rough. And early reaction suggests it has done little to tamp down criticism of Newsom’s leadership in encouraging Californians to do the right thing.

Most notable was the decision to impose new stay-at-home rules based on ICU capacity in “regions” of California that don’t always conform to conventional wisdom. State health officials placed 11 counties into the sprawling region called “Southern California” whose u-shaped outline stretches from San Luis Obispo down to Calexico and up the eastern Sierra to tiny Bridgeport, just north of Yosemite. Conditions in those communities vary widely and locals lashed out at being lumped together.

Confusion spread, too, on when the shutdown would begin and what activities would (or wouldn’t) be prohibited. A news release sent to reporters Thursday on an embargoed basis said communities would have 48 hours to comply, but when the official public health order was issued hours later, the compliance time had been cut to 24 hours.

As of Monday, the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions both saw commerce and lifestyle activities shuttered. Additional updates should be posted on the state’s COVID-19 website.

National lightning round

— Trump says his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been leading efforts to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 general election, has the coronavirus.

— Biden is trying to help break a months-long deadlock in Congress over a new installment of pandemic relief, testing his aspiration to preside over a new era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, even before he takes office.

— As VP, Harris will have every opportunity for clout. But she faces political minefields, too.

— A judge ordered the Trump administration to accept new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects some young immigrants from deportation.

— Setting the stage for future reforms, the House of Representatives has voted to federally decriminalize and tax marijuana sales.

— A New Jersey restaurant that hosted a political gala, attended by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), was ordered temporarily closed over potential violations of coronavirus guidelines.

Today’s essential California politics

— State investigators have so far identified $400 million paid on some 21,000 unemployment benefit claims improperly filed in the names of California prison inmates. And $1 billion or more in unemployment benefits may have been sent to people out of the state.

Raymond Chan, a former senior aide to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, has been charged with conspiracy, bribery, fraud and lying to FBI agents in the ongoing federal probe into corruption at City Hall, according to court records.

Nathan Ballard, a former political advisor to Newsom and a well-known Democratic strategist, was arrested in October on charges of domestic violence and child abuse.

— Just as the November election is winding down with final vote tallies and concessions, another political battle is brewing in Orange County for an open seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

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