State Watch

Becerra becomes chief antagonist to Trump in California


SACRAMENTO — President Trump entered office with ambitious plans to block immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations, kick millions of immigrants out of the country and build a massive fence along the southern border with Mexico. 

Those plans ran headlong into California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, himself the son of immigrants. 

Becerra, a former member of House Democratic leadership in Congress, has spent his first year at the helm of the California Department of Justice filing lawsuits against the Trump administration. He’s challenged Trump’s travel bans, the border wall, a proposal to ban transgender people from serving in the military and a plan to end cost-sharing payments for health care subsidies, just for starters.

In all, Becerra has filed 26 lawsuits against the Trump administration and joined several led by other states — more than any other state attorney general in America. And while he insisted in a recent interview that he spends less of his time thinking about ways to stymie the Trump administration than an outside observer might think, he is quick to tout his office’s record against the federal government.

“We’re batting a thousand against the Trump administration,” Becerra said. “The Trump administration, with its actions, has compelled us to defend our interests.” 

On Wednesday, a year to the day after he became attorney general, Becerra’s office said it would file a new suit against the administration, challenging a decision to roll back regulations on fracking on federal and Native American tribal lands.

There will almost certainly be more litigation to come. Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it would open millions of acres of offshore territory to oil and gas exploration — then promptly excluded Florida, opening the door to potential legal challenge. And Becerra said the administration’s decision to rescind the Cole memo, which effectively allowed states like California where marijuana is legal to enforce their own laws, has put a strain on state and federal law enforcement relations. 

“What’s dangerous is if we have to break off that working relationship going after illicit activity in cannabis. It’s changed now, a bit. What was illicit in 2017 in California, some of that is no longer illicit,” Becerra said. “This is important stuff that goes beyond the argument about whether we should or shouldn’t have legalized marijuana.” 

The Trump administration added more fuel to the fire Wednesday when it designated California, the cities of Berkeley, Fremont, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Watsonville and Monterey, Sacramento, San Francisco and Sonoma counties as sanctuary jurisdictions, putting at risk federal law enforcement grants if those jurisdictions fail to adhere to federal immigration law. Becerra had already filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s ability to use those grants as leverage.

“We’re 21st century thinkers. We left the 20th century. Donald Trump seems to want to take us back to the 20th century. With his border wall, he seems to want to take us back to medieval times. We’re not going back. We’re just not,” Becerra said.

The torrent of litigation challenging Trump administration actions is not unique to California. Democratic attorneys general in New York, Washington, Massachusetts and Maryland have filed nearly two dozen suits either on their own or in combination. Those attorneys general often discuss their litigation with each other, on conference calls organized by the national Democratic Attorneys General Association.

California’s legal actions have a side benefit: They keep Becerra’s name in the papers, at exactly the time he needs to raise his profile ahead of what may be a difficult bid to keep his job for a full four-year term. And Trump has proven an effective foil. 

“He’s been very aggressive in leading California’s efforts to standing up to Trump,” said Steven Maviglio, a longtime Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “Another day, another lawsuit.” 

Becerra has hired Dana Williamson, a former top adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown (D), to manage his campaign.

Before last year, Becerra was one of 53 California members of Congress, representing a district in the crowded and costly Los Angeles media market. Brown chose him to replace Kamala Harris, who resigned to run for the Senate.

Becerra now faces a challenge from state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones (D), who has won two statewide elections. California Democratic observers say Jones has coveted the attorney general’s office for years, and he is aggressively campaigning for the job. 

“Dave Jones has been running for this job for seven years, and he is tenacious,” Maviglio said. Jones “has groomed that base for the better part of a decade, and the attorney general is late to the game with that. [Becerra] is not used to a hard campaign.” 

Underscoring Becerra’s challenge of building name recognition in a state of 40 million residents, Jones has secured endorsements from the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, a coalition of 20 or so local party clubs, and the Stonewall Democrats, the leading LGBT Democratic club. Observers expect Jones to make a strong showing at next month’s state Democratic convention, though the bar for either candidate to win an endorsement is high. 

“I’m not sure that being acting attorney general is necessarily an advantage over being elected statewide,” said Parke Skelton, Jones’s chief strategist. “Dave has always had a strong relationship with the party.” 

Becerra has spent his first year in office touring the state — “doing the circuit,” he says — and pitching himself to the Democratic faithful.  

“That’s the beauty of being back home, flight segments that are an hour and twenty minutes instead of five and a half hours,” Becerra said. Still, he acknowledged: “I’ve got to do what most get four years to do all in one year.” 

Tags Donald Trump Xavier Becerra
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