Xavier Becerra moves back to California after 24 years

Xavier Becerra moves back to California after 24 years
© Greg Nash

The highest-ranking Latino member in the history of the House of Representatives is about to call it a career.

Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all Biden administration announces federal support for patients, abortion providers in Texas Biden administration releases B in COVID-19 relief for providers MORE (D-Calif.) is retiring from Congress to become California’s attorney general after 24 years in the House.

It’s an abrupt ending to Becerra’s long congressional tenure, though it’s not a surprise that he’s leaving Congress.

Becerra was widely expected to take a Cabinet position in a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE administration. After her shocking loss, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed Becerra as his state’s attorney general.

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“I have no regrets. The closest thing I have is I did not expect to leave at this time,” Becerra told The Hill.

Becerra was term-limited as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and he didn’t have an obvious path up in House leadership given the plans of Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) to keep their posts.

If Brown hadn’t picked him for the attorney general position, Becerra was ready to battle Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) to be ranking member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

As a legislator, Becerra kept a balance between appeasing Democratic leadership and voting his conscience.

In 1996, Becerra filed his first major vote against party lines, as one of the 65 Democrats who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which said that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“I wasn’t in step with most Latino Catholics,” said Becerra.

“I remember that vote very clearly, because I kept saying to myself, 'I didn’t run to be a congressman to legalize discrimination, I ran to end discrimination.' Once that became the precept, it was very simple,” he said.

Becerra also voted against President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, against the Iraq War and against the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, the deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff designed to avoid sequestration.

Although Becerra shunned those bipartisan agreements, he walked across the aisle to try to rescue immigration reform after Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) failed to pass their own proposal.

“I reached out to a good friend who is very, very conservative, [Rep.] Sam JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonDan Bongino to present five-part Fox series on people 'canceled' CEO fired after mocking teen for wearing dress to prom Van Taylor wins reelection to Texas seat held by GOP since 1968 MORE of Texas. I suggested the two of us have conversations on the issue to see how far apart really the two sides were. As I thought, we had more in common than expected,” said Becerra.

The bipartisan group grew and drafted a bill but was ultimately undermined by internal struggles and the 2010 election, which ushered in the Tea Party movement, making bipartisan compromise on immigration all but impossible.

Becerra warned Pelosi at the time that immigration had to be tackled in one fell swoop, because “if you let immigration be broken into small pieces, the easy stuff will get done, the hard stuff will languish.”

But in the 2010 lame-duck session, he went against his own advice, supporting re-introduction of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, with the hope that it would be passed by the outgoing Democratic majority.

The bill passed the House but failed to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate. It did set the precedent for President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action.

As chairman of the Democratic Caucus from 2013 onward, Becerra dealt with a difficult time in American parliamentary politics in which party lines became ever harder to cross.

“For his time in the House of Representatives, Congressman Becerra will be remembered as a resolute and relentless champion for progressive values and hard-working families. From fighting for immigration reform to protecting Social Security, Xavier Becerra's proven and strategic leadership will leave a mark in the House Democratic Caucus,” said Pelosi in a statement.

Becerra was forced to smooth differences between the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and party leadership over the party's approach to Latino voters in the 2016 election. 

In August, Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) railed against Becerra over campaign spending in Texas.

“I see no way in hell that I could support him for Democratic leadership,” said Vela at the time. “I like Xavier Becerra personally. I just think in this particular instance, this is a time for us to stand up.”

Becerra said he doesn't regret his positions, even when they brought on disagreements, because he never voted for or against someone personally but rather based on his ideals.

“When I come home for the last time on this earth, I suspect the only people who will be there will be those who love me. And as long as the people who love me are proud of me, I'm going to be good,” he said.

And Becerra's management of party leadership and tireless national campaigning brought him close to the presidential campaign in 2016.

Becerra was widely rumored to be on Clinton's short list for vice president and was viewed as a near-certainty for a Cabinet post once Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Va.) was selected as her running mate. 

Even after Kaine's pick, Becerra crisscrossed the country helping Democrats at every level, especially supporting a few of his younger Democratic mentees.

“We like to joke around that Xavier Becerra is an honorary Nevadan because he’s spent so much time campaigning here,” said Rep.-elect Ruben Kihuén (D-Nev.). 

Kihuén said he was first inspired by Becerra because they have similar backgrounds: Both men are the first to attend college in their families, are fully bilingual and trace their roots to the western Mexican state of Jalisco. 

Becerra, whose parents were immigrant laborers, got his law degree from Stanford University. His parents helped him choose that path. 

“My parents used to tell me, 'You go to school, you get to do what you want. You don’t go to school, you’ll do what we’re doing,’” said Becerra.

And many have high hopes for Becerra.

With his new role as attorney general, “people can think about Becerra one step beyond V.P. and think about him as a presidential contender in 2020,” said Cristobal Alex, a top Latino organizer in Clinton's presidential campaign.