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Rep Xavier Becerra Nominated For California Attorney General

Andrew Harnik / AP

Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., moves away from the podium after speaking at a news conference with other House Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

Andrew Harnik / AP

A simple announcement from California Governor Jerry Brown has unleashed political pandemonium. Brown nominated Los Angeles Congressman Xavier Becerra as the state’s next Attorney General Thursday, an unexpected pick that opens an appealing House seat and complicates several political futures.

He would replace Senator-elect Kamala Harris as she heads to Washington. The choice came as a surprise, including--apparently--to Becerra.

"I was as stunned as you probably were, and others were," he said on a conference call.

Before the election, the 12-term Congressman was widely-discussed as a possible vice-presidential pick and then a Cabinet-member for Hillary Clinton.

Without a Democratic president, USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says the move now makes sense.

Becerra has few avenues to move up nationally. He will also term out as chair of the Democratic caucus--the fourth highest position in the party's House leadership.

Becerra can build statewide name recognition. Then, Bebitch Jeffe says, he can run for a full-term in 2018 or set his sights higher.

"It will position him well for a possible run for governor, it might position him for a run for the US Senate, if Dianne Feinstein decides to retire," says Bebitch Jeffe.

That means Becerra could go from dark horse to a frontrunner for the state’s most prominent political offices, with a leg up on current contenders, especially other Los Angeles Latino Democrats. That includes state Senate leader Kevin de León, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Becerra didn’t confirm higher ambitions, nor did he deny them.

"I’m focused right now on doing everything I can to make my confirmation possible, and what I would simply say is, ask me that later," says Becerra.

California legislative leaders, who will have to confirm the appointment, quickly praised Becerra's nomination.

With Harris taking over in the Senate and Becerra moving into her role her job, another long-held elected office opens up--Becerra's Los Angeles Congressional seat, which he’s occupied for more than two decades.

Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez almost immediately announced his candidacy in what could be another competitive race to watch.

"It could provide some interesting and very bumpy rides in California politics, in national politics, and in Latino politics over the next couple of years," says Bebitch Jeffe.

BECERRA V. TRUMP

Harris made her name as Attorney General suing banks and mortgage companies after the financial crisis. Becerra suggested he may look to make his name opposing Donald Trump.

"If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us," Becerra said, in reference to possible challenges to state policies on health care, climate change and immigration.

The sentiment has been common among California Democrats, but if confirmed as the state’s top lawyer, Becerra will have wide latitude to pick those battles.
He’ll decide how to defend state policies and whether to challenge new federal rules.

"A lot of litigation that involves the state of California beyond the garden-variety criminal law enforcement is done by the Attorney General of the state," says University of Illinois College of Law dean Vikram Amar, a former consultant to the California Attorney General’s Office.
"Think back to all the litigation over Proposition 8, California’s initiative that banned same-sex marriage," says Amar. "All of that decision about whether to defend Proposition 8 and how was done by the California Attorney General’s Office."

Ben Bradford

State Government Reporter

As the State Government Reporter, Ben covers California politics, policy and the interaction between the two. He previously reported on local and state politics, business, energy, and environment for WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Read Full Bio