California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday nominated U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra as state attorney general to succeed newly elected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, ending speculation about whether he would appoint a caretaker or an ambitious Democrat for the second-highest statewide office.
Becerra, 58, a rising star in the party, served as a high-profile Latino surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton this year. He was widely discussed as a potential cabinet appointee if Clinton won.
But with the election of Donald Trump as president and the Republicans' hold on both houses of Congress, his 24-year tenure in the House proved less appealing. In the attorney general's position, Becerra could serve through 2018 then seek another eight years after that.
Becerra, if confirmed by the state Legislature, would be California's leading advocate in any legal clashes with the Trump administration. A champion of immigration rights, Becerra's appointment was seen as a signal to the incoming federal administration that California intends to staunchly defend its liberal-leaning policies.
On a call with reporters, Becerra said the state is far ahead in several policy areas. He listed as his priorities defending clean energy, protecting the state's interests under the Affordable Care Act, and preserving California's liberal approach to criminal justice reform.
"We have policies in place that probably won’t pass at the federal level for another 5, 10, 15, 20 years," he said.
Asked how he would approach conflicts between California and the Trump administration, Becerra said: "We know the true value of diversity and we fight for what we believe in."
Becerra's nomination, subject to confirmation by the state Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, will be officially submitted after Harris resigns.
"I think Congressman Becerra will receive the support of a lot of folks," said state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. "We’re familiar with him and his work...I think a lot of us are comfortable with his progressive values.”
The congressman's decision to leave the U.S. House and return to California makes political sense given the Republicans' dominance in the Capitol, one political expert observed.
"Washington, D.C., is now red territory. So if he wants to have an impact on policy, California's the place to do it," said Thad Kousser, Political Science Department chair at the University of California, San Diego.
In announcing the nomination, the governor noted Becerra's service in the Congress, state Legislature and attorney general's office, where he served as a deputy. "I'm confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change," Brown said in a statement.
Becerra told reporters that his nomination to be California's attorney general came together quickly.
"I was not expecting to make this call — neither today, and certainly not a week ago — but I'm glad I'm making it. And it's one of those situations where now I have a chance to make it worth everyone's while," Becerra said.
Becerra talked about his record in Congress, remarking that he was one of 67 members of the House who voted against the Defense Of Marriage Act. He also noted that he voted against the war in Iraq and in favor of the Affordable Care Act.
Becerra said in a statement that Brown had presented him with an opportunity he could not refuse.
"As a former deputy attorney general, I relished the chance to be our state's chief law enforcement officer to protect consumers, advance criminal justice reform and, of course, keep our families safe," Becerra said.
He chairs the House Democratic Caucus and is the highest ranking Latino in Congress, where he has served since 1992. Brown's announcement noted that Becerra was the first in his family to graduate from college, obtaining both bachelor of arts and law degrees from Stanford University.
Kousser noted that going to battle in the courtroom with the Trump administration over climate change and immigration will raise his profile both in California and nationally, which would help him if he wants to run for governor in 2018 or to replace Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she decides to retire.
When asked if he would run for Feinstein's seat were she to step down, Becerra declined to answer, telling a reporter to ask him again later.
The nomination also gives him a leg up against other rising Latino officials seeking higher office, including state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Becerra's replacement representing his solidly Democratic district in Los Angeles would be picked in a special election. His expected departure immediately set off speculation about who would run to succeed him. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez quickly announced he would seek the seat representing the district that includes downtown, Boyle Heights, Chinatown and Highland Park.
Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, doesn't expect major changes in criminal justice policy with Becerra heading the state Department of Justice.
"The governor has done a lot of things with regards to criminal justice policy that I suspect he wants to have kept in place," Rushford said. "So I would be surprised if you were going to get an attorney general who was going to look at his policies unfavorably."
Becerra's experience as a deputy attorney general serving for three years before he began his political career in 1990 should help ensure a smooth transition, said Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County's top prosecutor and president of the California District Attorneys Association.
"I look forward to meeting him soon and establishing a relationship with him and the district attorneys," Wagstaffe said in a statement.
Clarification: An earlier version of this post neglected to note that Becerra will need to be confirmed by the state House and Senate. This story has been updated.