Congressman Picked For California Attorney General

By John Celock

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) surprised observers Thursday with his pick for a 12-term congressman to be the new state attorney general.

Brown announced that U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) is his pick to replace U.S. Sen.-elect Kamala Harris (D) as attorney general when Harris leaves for the Senate next month. Becerra, the outgoing chairman of the House Democratic Conference, had not been mentioned as a potential candidate for the remaining two years of Harris’ term as attorney general prior to Brown’s announcement.

“Xavier has been an outstanding public servant – in the State Legislature, the U.S. Congress and as a deputy attorney general,” Brown said in a statement. “I’m confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change.”

Becerra’s nomination will have to be confirmed by both houses of the California state Legislature before he can take the job atop the state Department of Justice.

Brown’s nomination of Becerra will shake-up California politics in 2018, where fields have been shaping up for the state’s constitutional offices, with most officeholders either term-limited or seeking new jobs. Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) and state Controller Betty Yee (D) are the only state officeholders seeking reelection next year.

The powerful attorney general’s office has been an attractive one for up and coming politicians in the state. The job, which oversees criminal justice statewide, has been a launch platform for higher office. Brown, who was governor in the 1970s, was attorney general before his return to the governorship in 2010, and his father, Pat, and former U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren, held the attorney general’s job before becoming governor. Harris had been term-limited in 2018.

Becerra had not been mentioned as a potential candidate for the attorney general’s office in 2018 and many had thought Brown would go with a caretaker appointment for the remainder of Harris’ term. One potential name floated for the job was Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown. Gust Brown serves as a top advisor to her husband.

“Governor Brown and our state leaders lean forward when it comes to advancing and protecting the rights and interests of the more than 38 million people in California,” Becerra said in a statement issued by Brown’s office. “I’m deeply honored by Governor Brown’s confidence in me to serve as our state’s next chief law enforcement officer. It has been an extraordinary privilege to serve my fellow Californians in Congress for the past 24 years, fighting for working families like my parents, and I look forward to continuing that battle as California’s attorney general.”

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones (D), who is term-limited, former Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D) and San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos (R) have launched bids for attorney general in 2018, while former state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D) and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley (D) are potential candidates.

Under California law, the top two finishers in the June primary, regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

Becerra’s decision to accept the attorney general shakes up a career path that had been rising in Washington for decades. A deputy state attorney general in the 1980s, Becerra won a state Assembly seat in Los Angeles County in 1990. Following one term as a state legislator, Becerra was elected to Congress in 1992, starting an almost quarter century run in Washington. Becerra was easily reelected last month to a 13th term.

Becerra, a long time member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has served for the last four years as Democratic conference chairman in the House, the number four Democratic leadership post. He is term limited out of the office. Prior to holding the conference chairmanship, he was conference vice chairman and he spent two years as assistant to the Speaker.

Becerra had been mentioned as a potential U.S. trade representative in President Barack Obama’s cabinet in 2008, but took himself out of the running for the post. He unsuccessfully sought the Los Angeles mayoralty in 2001, finishing fifth in the nonpartisan election with six percent of the vote. He had been mentioned as a potential vice presidential or Cabinet pick for unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton this year.

Becerra’s decision to leave Congress for a down ballot statewide office is not uncommon in California where members of Congress struggle to seek statewide office in the most populous state. Former Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) left a congressional seat in 1988 to run for the office in 1990, after the state Legislature rejected his nomination for state treasurer. Lungren later returned to Congress. In 1978, then U.S. Rep. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke (D) did not seek a fourth term in Congress to unsuccessfully run for state attorney general. Braithwaite Burke later served as a Los Angeles County supervisor.

County offices have also been sought after by California members of Congress. U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D) is leaving Congress next week after being elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She’ll join LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis (D), who sought the county office in 2014 after serving in Congress and as U.S. Secretary of Labor. The LA County Board is considered one of the most powerful county government offices in the county. In 2014, then U.S. Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D) did not seek a second term in Congress to unsuccessfully seek a seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

The Congress to county government trend is not limited to California. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) did not seek reelection this year to successfully seek the public works commissioner’s office in Macomb County.

If confirmed, Becerra will become the third state attorney general and sixth down ballot state constitutional officer in the country to be a former member of Congress. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) has served in Congress and the U.S. Senate, while Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) was a congressman in the 1980s. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (R), New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Griffin (R) are also former members of Congress.