State Attorney General Xavier Becerra is leading California’s increasingly tense challenge to the policies of Donald Trump’s administration. It’s a role that gives him high visibility — and headaches.
Becerra, in office just five months, is backed by the person who appointed him attorney general: Gov. Jerry Brown. That support is likely to translate into financial resources, too, with Brown seeking $6.5 million more in the state budget for 19 new attorneys and 12 support staff in Becerra’s office.
“I had my civil rights enforcement section doing immigration law. That meant they had to put aside important things they were doing.” — Xavier Becerra
The Atlantic dubbed Becerra the “Golden State Warrior” — a title that seems to fit.
Becerra’s opposition has ranged from opposing the Trump administration’s travel ban and its dismantling of the Clean Power Plan, to filing actions against delayed energy-efficiency standards and suing the Interior Department for California’s share of oil royalties. These are all good political issues for Becerra in deep-blue California, where he will face voters for election next year.
Immigration is also a major issue for Becerra, who spent 24 years in Congress representing low-income, Latino-majority areas of Los Angeles.
“I had my civil rights enforcement section doing immigration law. That meant they had to put aside important things they were doing,” Becerra recently told the Sacramento Press Club. “Civil rights enforcement investigates local law enforcement authorities when we’re asked to take a look at their practices.”
Reporters asked about health care, emissions, consumer protection and corruption, but all had a common theme for the man who has spent most of his political career in Washington: As a state attorney general, how much power does Becerra really have when it comes to dealing with federal rules?
“Back in 2015, we were making more jobs than the number two, Florida, and number three, Texas, combined.” — Xavier Becerra
Kainoa Lowman of The Prospector newspaper at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School, which Becerra attended, was direct.
“As you know McClatchy has a very large immigrant community. The question I want to ask for them is: You’ve positioned yourself as a shield between unfair Washington policy and the people of California. How effective of a shield are you?” Lowman asked.
Becerra was unruffled.
“Let’s just say I have a few more years under my belt than when my parents hired me as an attorney as a kid,” he said. “That helps a bit. But, let’s be realistic. Sometimes the law isn’t in our favor. We have to take that into account,” he said.
“I think it helps I come from a background of policy and law, so I recognize some of our best fights won’t be won in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion,” he added.
Becerra, 59, said California should lead the country and not turn back to the days when there were signs telling his parents, “No Mexicans allowed.”
“Where will I take the state as the chief law enforcement officer?” he asked.
In answer, he shared where he came from: Growing up on 20th Avenue and Freeport Boulevard, the son of a construction worker employed at Campbell’s Soups. His mother came from Mexico.
Together, his parents sent four kids to college and Becerra said he hopes to bring that ability back to the California working class. “I hope every family has that same opportunity to aspire that mine did,” Becerra said. “Back in 2015, we were making more jobs than the number two, Florida, and number three, Texas, combined.”
What follows is an abbreviated version of Becerra’s Q&A with reporters.
What are your thoughts on U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent edict to more fully prosecute drug-related crimes?
Becerra: I bet my reaction was the same as yours: What? It’s like they’re not learning from history. They’re just planning to build more prisons and create super criminals who then come out of prison or they’re deciding to re-institute three strikes laws that essentially keep you in prison way beyond the time you’re actually a threat to society. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.
“We think facts and history are on our side; it’s a matter of whether federal statutes will be on our side…” — Xavier Becerra.
Perhaps the most offensive part is they seem to be going back in time, rather than focus on young men, mostly of color to have a belief like my parents did in the chance to aspire, you’re telegraphing to them that, “Hey, if you’re just going to be locked up in misery, live a life that you can and throw everything up in the air; roll the dice.”
I think it’s crazy. To the degree that we have anything to do with it, we’ll make sure California is insulated from that type of activity. But again, then you get into line of federal v.s. state authority. I can’t stop them from being stupid.
The U.S. Interior Department announced plans to roll back regulations preventing methane leaks or flares on public lands after a failed Senate vote to repeal them. Does your office have a role in fighting that?
Becerra: We’re going to challenge every action where it seems like they’re trying to walk back what they’ve done or trying to violate laws that do certain things, whether it’s on methane or on energy efficient light bulbs. We think facts and history are on our side; it’s a matter of whether federal statutes will be on our side, allowing us to pursue this given the discretion the fed gov has.
What are your thoughts on proposals to overhaul the bail system in California? Do you agree the current system penalizes poor for being poor?
Becerra: The current system penalizes the poor – yes it does. What’s the alternative? I don’t know if anyone’s found it yet.
While I do believe the system we have is unfair to a lot of folks who don’t have a lot of money – you can essentially buy your justice – I haven’t yet seen the system that solves the issue. We have to be careful how we do this because you want to make sure people aren’t a flight risk or a danger to leave the system. I am more than interested in working on coming up with a different solution. I think it will focus less on funding and the bonding system.
“We’re engaged in trying to do everything we can for this state because we are so far ahead of others.” — Xavier Becerra
The governor asked you to investigate the Board of Equalization. Can you tell me what you’re looking at and any findings or major concerns that have come up for you?
Becerra: I cannot tell you to the degree that there’s any investigation — that’s not something I should be commenting on. But I do believe that the governor’s call we should take very seriously. The Board of Equalization is all money, all numbers, and there’s nothing more important than protecting our financial security … . How or when we will release findings though, I cannot tell you.
Can you speak to the positions added to your office in the May revise and what they’ll be prioritizing?
Becerra: My comment? Hallelujah! Earlier I said I had my civil rights enforcement section doing immigration law. That meant they had to put aside important work they were doing. Civil rights enforcement investigates local law enforcement authorities when we’re asked to take a look at their practices. They’re the folks who make sure people aren’t being discriminated against in every aspect of life in California.
We went after one of the oil companies, Golden State Petroleum, for civil penalties for underground fuel tank violations on March 14. On March 15, we went after the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which was trying to eviscerate California emission laws. On March 28, we went after the federal government trying to abandon America’s Clean Power Plan. On March 31 we filed an action against the Department of Energy for delaying issuance of energy conservation standards for ceiling fans. On April 3, we filed another action against the Department of Energy for unlawful delay of energy efficiency standards for things like air compressors, freezers and walk-in coolers.
They were already busy. These were just the actions we had to take because of the Trump administration. They’re little things – simple stuff – then there’s the big stuff, actions against largest oil companies whether or not they were conducting business properly. It takes time. We’re engaged in trying to do everything we can for this state because we are so far ahead of others. We’ve been successful in almost every turn so far.
We’ve made a FOIA request to the EPA on Administrator Pruitt’s activities and his personal information filed before his confirmation, because we want to make sure he disclosed everything. He used to be the AG of the State of Oklahoma where he challenged actions he is now overseeing.
We’re going to dive deep but it takes time and money.
With a big issue like immigration, the state has joined other states in lawsuits. What issues should California be the lead actor in though?
Becerra: I have no right of ownership over any of these issues. We will do whatever it takes for the State of California. I think it’s a good thing to have teammates in all of these issues. I often mention Virginia – they have a fantastic attorney general, Mark Herring. He nearly lost his election, but he’s been involved in most of these lawsuits that impact the people of Virginia. There’s probably people there who are unhappy with what he’s doing.
Whether we’re leading the charge or on the team, I just want to be on the field. I’ll walk, I’ll catch, I’ll throw. I’ll tell you this: There’s not a state in the nation that doesn’t want California in an action they’re filing. We’ll be there. But we don’t need to lead on everything – and If we did I’d be asking for a lot more money which I knew we wouldn’t get. It’s important to win because the consequences are great. I will have the back of the people of California; I don’t necessarily have to be number one to do that.
Ed’s Note: The Q&A portion of this article was edited for clarity and length.