If you know one thing about California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s career, it’s that he spent a lot of it suing then-President Donald Trump. For those keeping score (we were), Becerra took the Trump administration to court a whopping 110 times, making him a spear tip of the anti-Trump resistance.
The national spotlight on him is sure to grow even hotter, as the U.S. Senate begins hearings on whether to confirm his nomination by President Joe Biden to head the sprawling Health and Human Services Department. It’s an important job, even when the nation isn’t struggling to overcome a dual pandemic and recession.
So what kind of person will the Senate be considering? Before taking on the role of Trump’s chief legal gadfly, he spent most of his adult life in California politics and policymaking circles as a state prosecutor and a member of the California Assembly and then Congress. Over the course of that decadeslong career, he’s played the role of savvy consensus builder, out of the blue up-and-comer, details-oriented policy wonk, dutiful Democratic team player, stalwart proponent of progressive health care ideas and frequent foe of government transparency.
Here are four versions of the man that California has come to know:
The Partisan Pugilist
As the GOP rushes to derail Becerra’s confirmation, expect to hear a lot about this Xavier Becerra.
“The famously partisan attorney general of California,” is how Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described him late last month. Indiana Sen. Mike Braun opted for “ringleader of the far-left’s resistance movement,” while Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton went with “partisan culture warrior” with a “zeal for lockdowns, radical politics and abuse of power.”
For evidence, Republicans point to Becerra’s courtroom record.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra sued the Trump administration more than twice as many times in four years as Texas sued the Obama White House in eight. That’s saying something. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was the state’s attorney general during the Obama years, he frequently, half-jokingly described his job this way: “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
Becerra’s 110 suits don’t include the flurry of Trump-unfriendly friends-of-court briefs and disapproving comment letters the state’s Department of Justice penned, nor other litigation it filed in opposition to the prior president. All of that has come with an estimated price tag of $41 million.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown tapped Becerra to serve as state attorney general after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. That was the same election that put Trump in the White House and California at odds with Washington. Brown said he was looking for a “champion” in Becerra to defend the state’s liberal policies and “aggressively combat climate change.”
Brown got one. More than half of the lawsuits Becerra’s filed against the Trump administration were about environmental policy.
As a bilingual son of Mexican immigrants and an aggressive, Stanford-educated litigator, Becerra also served as a symbolic response to the new Trump administration. In 2019, it was Becerra whom Democrats picked to give the Spanish-language rejoinder to the president’s State of the Union speech.
Other liberal bonafides: In 1996, he was one of only 67 members to vote against a bill defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and in 2003, he voted against the Iraq War.
But it’s Becerra’s abortion record that most irks the right. As attorney general, he pursued criminal charges — first brought by his predessor, Harris — against anti-abortion activists who secretly recorded discussions with abortion providers.
His office sued the Trump administration for making it easier for doctors to opt out of providing certain medical procedures for reasons of conscience, for cutting funding to providers that offer abortions, and for allowing employers to exclude contraception from health insurance plans.
In that last case, the Catholic women’s institute Little Sisters of the Poor intervened. That put Becerra’s office in the awkward position of suing a bunch of nuns — something Republicans and conservative media outlets are gleefully touting.
The Secretive Top Cop
Becerra may be a hero to many on the left, but not to many police accountability and government transparency advocates.
When the First Amendment Coalition invoked that law in requesting such records about the California Department of Justice’s own law enforcement agents, Becerra’s office refused. The nonprofit sued and was soon joined by KQED. Legal tussling over which documents the department will release and when are ongoing.
And when investigative reporters used a routine public records request to obtain thousands of records detailing the criminal convictions of current and former police officers from across the state, the attorney general’s office threatened the reporters with criminal charges.
Becerra has long argued that his office was simply erring on the side of protecting officers’ privacy until the courts provided clarity on its legal obligation to release them.
Coalition executive director David Snyder said Becerra’s office “has really led the way in resisting police transparency.” Given his progressive reputation “I would have expected the attorney general to set an example of transparency, within the bounds of the law, on an issue as crucial as this,” he said. “To the contrary, the Attorney General’s Office was more resistant than many police agencies around the state.”
Becerra has struggled to balance the demands of progressives with those of law enforcement members whose cooperation on the job — and support on the campaign trail — is valuable.
During his 2018 campaign to keep the job, Becerra refused to say whether his office should investigate police shootings or whether California should make it more difficult for police to justify using lethal force. The Legislature has since passed laws doing both without Becerra’s support.
During that same election, law enforcement unions spent nearly $300,000 supporting his campaign.
But in the wake of the anti-racist protests of 2020, Becerra stepped up his office’s police oversight efforts. He launched an external review of use-of-force guidelines at the long-troubled Vallejo Police Department and a civil rights investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He also supported legislation that would decertify police for certain types of serious, and a ban on chokeholds.
That’s been too little and too late for some critics: The editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News called Becerra “self-serving,” “hypocritical” and the state’s “top coddler of bad cops.”
The Health Care Wonk
Biden made revitalizing and expanding the Affordable Care Act a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. In Becerra — who was part of the House Democratic leadership while Obamacare was being written and who has filed more than half a dozen lawsuits in defense of the law — he has a subject-matter expert.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.