Becerra the Boy Scout

LOS ANGELES — If you live in Los Angeles and want to impress visitors, you take them for sushi on Sunset Boulevard and hope Leonardo shows up with his posse. But if you live in Los Angeles and want to impress your neighbors, you take them out to a ball game.

In a city of sports fanatics, Dodgers baseball isn’t just entertainment — it’s family, it’s community, it’s an infectious hootenanny of patriotism and pretzels. So for the three young high school students playing center field in Dodger Stadium for a photo-op on a bright blue day in May — all winners of the local congressional art competition — the thrill is truly one for the record books.

As these junior Matisses — Maria, Jasmin and Jennifer — become shy and blush as the cameras turn their way and wave cutely at the crowd from the stadium’s Jumbotron screens, they are joined on the field by their competition sponsor, the perpetually beaming Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).

Becerra, 47, fits the role well. The dashing lawmaker, a father of three young girls, smiles paternally as the girls’ names boom out over the PA system, knowing all too well the importance of such experiences in raising the confidence of talented kids at a vulnerable age. And knowing this is doubly true in a tough urban district like the one Becerra represents — the 31st encompasses much of Central and East Los Angeles and is known as a place where there are plenty of lost chances and dreams deferred.

Hence Becerra’s enthusiasm for the art competition, an event he has passionately boosted since his election to Congress in 1992. This year, Becerra’s office received a record-setting 159 entries from budding artistic geniuses. That fact is a source of tremendous pride to Becerra, as the competition is a rare opportunity for kids, many of whom struggle to find any arts education at all in the Los Angeles school district, to cut loose and unleash their inner Warhols.

Certainly this year’s winner, a spirited ninth-grader named Maria Soto, was channeling powerful muses when she created her painting, a wildly imaginative pastiche of swirling color and meso-American folk patterns titled “Cultures” that will be displayed with the other first-place winners’ work in the Cannon tunnel. Maria is stunned and thrilled by the sudden attention, not to mention the treasure of winning first prize: cash and a trip to Washington, D.C., to soak up the National Gallery of Art and other cultural landmarks.

“I have a lot of kids in my district who haven’t been to the beach, much less Washington, D.C., and that’s 20 miles away,” Becerra laments.

What does he want kids to take away from their time in the nation’s capital? An opportunity to see government in action, and an up-close look at the workings of their democracy. “I think they’ll look around and realize it’s not so tough to be a congressman,” Becerra muses.

The son of immigrants, Becerra has a biography that hits all the classic keynotes of the American success story.

The first in his family to be college-bound, he enrolled at Stanford University with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer. That plan changed, however, when his parents fell victim to a real-estate scam.

Becerra soon found himself devoting time and intellect to assisting them in their efforts to get legal and financial justice. That practical experience of real-world struggle demonstrated to him the importance of advocacy in improving the lives of working people. And from there, his course was set: from policy analyst in the state Senate to assemblyman, and then, after one term in Sacramento, his election to Congress.

If the Republican Party has spent the past four years wooing big government to the strains of the old Marlene Dietrich torcher “Falling in Love Again,” it makes a certain perverse sense that a Democrat like Becerra, a Clintonite political pragmatist, has traveled in exactly the opposite direction. While still progressive on most social issues — he’s an A-grade student as far as liberal advocacy group ratings are concerned — Becerra says that his experience working in a Republican-controlled Congress has made him more conservative when it comes to disciplining the federal budget. Front and center is his stringent opposition to President Bush’s Social Security reforms, which he views as fiscally reckless.

The president’s maneuvering on Social Security might well turn into a tremendous winner for the Democrats, Becerra argues. Having brought up the challenges faced by the trust fund, Becerra says, Bush has given the Democrats an opportunity to sell the public on their more cautious reforms.

“Unwittingly, he may have opened the door to strengthening Social Security for the long term,” Becerra says with a smile.

In 2004, the congressman returned to office with a commanding 81 percent of the vote, which may go some way to explaining his imperturbable, beaming cheeriness. Becerra strikes one as being very comfortable in his congressional skin. He has emerged as a significant player in the Hispanic power elite that increasingly defines California politics. Though he was defeated by Antonio Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral primary, that does not dampen Becerra’s enthusiasm for Villaraigosa’s recent mayoral victory over Jim Hahn or what Villaraigosa’s success promises for the city.

“I trust that the new mayor will take us into a new era,” Becerra declares. “I think Antonio’s going to be tireless in his efforts to do well.”

As enthusiastic as he is about the transformative effects of Villaraigosa’s stunning win, he is equally perplexed by the “governator’s” recent pronouncements on hot-button immigration issues.

While accepting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R-Calif.) now-infamous “close the borders” comments might be explained away as either a misstatement or a sort of “symbolic” call to secure the border between California and Mexico, Becerra decries as truly destructive Schwarzenegger’s enthusiasm for extending the Minuteman border patrols to California.

“What gives someone — a lay person — the right to stop you? Whatever happened to equal treatment?” Becerra exclaims, throwing up his hands. He says he worries about the future for children like Maria Soto if tolerance and fairness are lost as a part of our political discourse.

But does Becerra ever worry that in encouraging the kids’ artistic sensibilities he’s setting them up for a life of impoverished struggle � la Van Gogh?

Becerra laughs. He has more than a little faith in these young achievers. And, of course, politics creeps back into the conversation.

“Who knows? One day Maria’s piece may hang in the Museum of the American Latino,” Becerra says, referring to the institution he hopes to see built on the Mall alongside the other museums of heritage and remembrance. Toward that end, he has introduced legislation exploring the viability of creating a National Museum of the American Latino Community.

Not that Becerra imagines he’ll be exhibiting anything from his own easel. He frankly admits to being all thumbs when it comes to the canvas. “I have problems with my stick men,” Becerra jokes.

For now, the congressman is keeping his day job.