The Slatest

What California’s New Attorney General Pick Says About Democratic Power in 2017

Rep. Xavier Becerra.

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Rep. Xavier Becerra, an ambitious, longtime member of Congress, has accepted California Gov. Jerry Brown’s offer to serve as the state’s next attorney general, replacing Sen.-elect Kamala Harris. It is, on one level, the story of a guy getting a pretty good job offer and taking it. It also shows, though, where the locus of Democratic power will be under the Trump administration.

It will not be in the Democratic caucus of the United States House of Representatives. Becerra, 58 years old, was reaching the “old bull” stage of his legislative career without having any clear position from which to cash that in. His tenure as chairman of the House Democratic caucus, the No. 4 position, was ending, and with the top three in the caucus locked in place apparently forever, it was unclear where he would go next. That changed on Tuesday night, though, when Rep. Sandy Levin announced he was stepping down as ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, setting up a race between Becerra and Rep. Richard Neal to replace him. Now that we know he was being considered for the California job, the opening atop Ways and Means Committee seems more like a job retention counteroffer. (On a conference call Thursday afternoon, Becerra would not say when his talks with Brown began, only that they were very recent and went fast once they’d begun.) Even were he to win the ranking member position, though, it’s unclear when that ranking member position would ever conceivably turn into a chairmanship. So Becerra returned home to state government.

A sub-gubernatorial state government position, in this case, is not a demotion. He will be attorney general of the largest state in the country—and, under Trump, a leader of the resistance to his administration.

I think of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s rousing proclamation from his tenure as that state’s attorney general under the Obama administration: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” Abbott’s lawsuit against Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), the Obama administration program to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, successfully blocked the program from going through. Becerra has the opportunity—some would say the obligation—to play almost the opposite role: to protect undocumented immigrants from whatever expansive deportation efforts a Trump administration initiates.

“California will have an attorney general who will protect the safety of all of its residents,” Becerra said on the conference call, when asked about his message for the undocumented community under Donald Trump. “I will do everything I can to make sure that our people, our families, can live in a way that lets them work and feed their families and feel secure at home. And so no one who goes to a grocery store to shop is going to do anything to keep them from going home, to see their kids, if they’re just being regular, hard-working individuals.” Other progressive policies he said he will prioritize defending are clean energy, the Affordable Care Act, and criminal justice reform.

This matters a great deal. Consider how Democratic power will be spaced out in 2017: thinly. There will be none of it in the executive branch. There will be important minority roles in Congress, but they will still be minority roles. Republicans will have unified control of the government in 25 states, while Democrats will have it in a handful: three small Northeastern states, Oregon, and California. Becerra won’t just have a friendly governor and legislature. He’ll have a friendly governor and legislature with a supermajority in both chambers. The power dynamic of the next couple of years will be California versus Trump, and the state will be fully on his side. Becerra just accepted one of the most important Democratic jobs in the country.

“If you want to take on a forward-looking state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests,” Becerra said of the Trump administration, “then come at it.”

He’ll be defending more than just California. He’ll be defending a set of values that soon will have little defense elsewhere. It beats sitting around on a committee.