Speculation swirls over Becerra’s replacement

The state Capitol in Sacramento. Photo: Feoktistoff, via Shutterstock)

It’s a time-honored habit around the Capitol: Fevered speculation about who may be appointed to fill an empty and important statewide office.

Sometimes, the speculation even extends to who is going to be appointed to fill the vacancy left by the first appointment.

This time around, it’s all about whom Gov. Gavin Newsom will name as California’s attorney general to fill the vacancy to be left by presumably departing Xavier Becerra, who still retains his California position pending his confirmation in the Senate.

Earl Warren, Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown are only a few of the A.G.s who ascended to the top spot.

President Joe Biden named Becerra head of the Department of Health and Human Services on Dec 7, and his Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled tomorrow. Confirmation is likely because Democrats have a razor-thin majority, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote, if needed, in the 50-50 divided Senate. But GOP opposition reportedly was building in the Senate, which cast some uncertainty over his confirmation.

Being California attorney general is a big job. Whomever Newsom appoints to replace Becerra will oversee more than 4,500 lawyers, investigators, sworn peace officers, and other employees of the California Department of Justice.

Moreover, the attorney general is widely seen as the second-most powerful elected state official and automatically becomes mentioned as a possible governor. History backs the notion. Earl Warren, Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown are only a few of the A.G.s who ascended to the top spot.

Here’s a list of those mentioned as possible appointees, bearing in mind that the governor may choose someone not prominently mentioned:

–Assemblyman Rob Bonta, 48, is the assistant Democratic leader, representing parts of the Easy Bay including Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro.

–Rick Zbur, 63, is executive director of Equality California, one of the state’s most powerful LGBTQ civil-rights advocacy groups. He has led the organization since 2014. Last year, Zbur launched a campaign for Los Angeles city attorney, a race on the 2022 ballot.

–Diana Becton, 69, is the Contra Costa County district attorney. She was appointed in 2017 and elected to a full four-year term the following year. She has advocated expanding prevention and treatment programs for people who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or homeless. Becton was a judge in the county for 22 years, including serving as presiding judge.

–Darrell Steinberg, 61, has served as mayor of Sacramento since 2016, easily winning re-election last year. Steinberg’s political career spans three decades. As the former California Senate president pro tem, Steinberg held one of the Legislature’s two highest-ranking posts for about six years.

Additional possibilities:

–Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego

–California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu

–Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont

–Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly is pushing hard for Schiff.

–Rep Ted Lieu of Torrance

–San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera

–Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Newsom faces pressure to appoint a woman, a Black person, a Black woman, a gay person, a Hispanic or an Asian.

Becerra will not be a stranger to Washington. He served in the House of Representatives from California between 1993-2017, and was ranked as the fourth most powerful member of the House.

He has achieved a national reputation for his ferocious opposition to the Trump Administration. Since his appointment in 2017, Becerra has sued the administration more than 100 times. When Becerra was appointed, the state Department of Justice had budgeted $3.6 million for federal-related litigation. Last year, the total was $16 million. By one estimate, California has spent $41 million over four years to finance the lawsuits, most of which dealt with climate change, immigration and federal regulatory rules.

While a governor may enjoy a heady sense of power with appointments, the process is full of land mines. Various groups across the state recognize the job’s power and potential, and Newsom faces pressure to appoint a woman, a Black person, a Black woman, a gay person, a Hispanic or an Asian. Harris, who left the job after Newsom appointed her to the Senate, was the first woman and first Black and Indian American to serve as California attorney general. Becerra was the first Latino.

And in addition to the headaches involved in appointing someone to the top job, if the appointee holds a state office, there is also the selection process to fill the vacancy created by the first appointment. So if Newsom appointed, say, Treasurer Fiona Ma or Controller Betty Yee to the Becerra vacancy, the governor would need to fill yet another statewide vacancy.

Becerra was the first Latino to serve as state attorney general when he was appointed in 2017 to fill a vacancy caused when Kamala Harris left the top law enforcement job after being elected to the U.S. Senate.


Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: