SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday named a liberal Democratic member of Congress to be California's next attorney general, an appointment that likely will help preserve the governor's record on climate change and criminal justice changes when he departs in two years.
Brown's selection of U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra to succeed newly elected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris also reshuffles the Latino power structure in the nation's most populous state, while ending speculation about whether the governor would appoint a caretaker or an ambitious fellow Democrat for the second-highest statewide office.
Becerra, 58, is a rising star in the party who served as a high-profile Latino surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign this year. He was widely discussed as a potential cabinet appointee if Clinton won.
But with the election of Trump and a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, his 24-year tenure in the House is no longer as appealing. In the attorney general's position, Becerra could serve through 2018 then seek another eight years after that.
"I'm confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change," the Democratic governor said in a statement.
If confirmed as expected by the state Legislature, Becerra will be the state's chief law enforcement officer and will oversee the legal defense of California's aggressive efforts to control greenhouse gases. He'll also preside over likely skirmishes between the state's liberal lawmakers and the administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump.
He's also likely to defend the governor's dramatic criminal justice changes, including recently approved Proposition 57 that allows for earlier paroles, said Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
"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."
The choice also immediately adds Becerra to the long list of California Democrats who could be contenders for governor or U.S. Senate in the coming years, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor and political analyst at the University of Southern California.
The list already includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson, state Controller John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and wealthy Democratic donor Tom Steyer.
Trump's election upended Becerra's path to influence in Washington, said Thad Kousser, chairman of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego.
"Washington, D.C., is now red territory, so if he wants to have an impact on policy, California's the place to do it," Kousser said.
The Democratic governor noted Becerra's service in Congress, in the state Legislature and as a deputy attorney general.
Becerra said in a statement that Brown had presented him with an opportunity he can't refuse.
"California right now is ahead of the country when it comes to clean energy, commonsense treatment of immigrants, real health security and so much more," Becerra said.
As Democratic caucus chairman, Becerra is the highest ranking Latino in Congress, where he has served since 1992. Brown's announcement noted that he 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 for a possible run for governor or to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when she decides to retire.
Becerra's replacement in his solidly Democratic district in Los Angeles would be picked via special election, and his expected departure immediately set off speculation. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez quickly announced he would seek the seat representing areas including downtown, Boyle Heights, Chinatown and Highland Park.
Becerra is likely to face easy confirmation in the Democratically controlled Legislature. Becerra was a deputy attorney general for three years before he began his political career in 1990.
The experience 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
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Meyer, and Tom Hamburger and Peter Nicholas | Meyer, Hamburger and Nicholas are writers in our Washington
WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's
offer to make Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) the next U.S. trade
representative makes him the second Cabinet-level candidate to have been
involved in President Clinton's controversial 2001 commutation of a Los Angeles
cocaine dealer's prison sentence.
The other is Eric H. Holder Jr., whom Obama has
nominated to be attorney general.
The dealer, Carlos Vignali, was convicted in
1994 for his role in a drug ring that delivered more than 800 pounds of cocaine
-- worth about $5 million at the time -- from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. He
was released after serving less than half of his 14 1/2 -year sentence.
Becerra was one of a number of Southern
California political leaders who urged Clinton to consider commuting Vignali's
prison term in response to a campaign by Vignali's father, Horacio, a Los
Angeles businessman and developer who contributed to Becerra's political
campaigns. The senior Vignali also paid Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Hugh
Rodham, $204,000 to lobby for his son's release.
Holder was Clinton's deputy attorney general at
the time of the clemency order. The Justice Department's pardon attorney
recommended that Clinton not commute the sentence, but Holder did not sign the
letter to the White House.
Holder has denied any wrongdoing. He declined to
comment Thursday night. But a transition official said complaints about the
former judge and prosecutor amounted to partisan sniping by Republicans.
Becerra, a leading California Latino political
figure who has been in Congress since 1993, also declined to comment.
But in the past, he has said that his
communications with the White House were not meant as an explicit request for
clemency but rather as a request that the case be reviewed.
On Thursday, Becerra met privately with Obama to
discuss an offer to become the nation's chief trade negotiator, but he is not
certain whether he wants the job, according to a Democrat familiar with the
A third official whose name surfaced in
Vignali's clemency case, Alejandro Mayorkas, now serves on the Obama Justice
Department transition team.
At the time of the clemency grant, Mayorkas was
the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and was one of the Southern California
officials who contacted the White House to urge consideration of Vignali's
This and other controversial pardons and
commutations occurred while Holder was in charge of the department's Office of
the Pardon Attorney, which reviews requests for pardons and commutations and
passes along recommendations to the White House.
Pardon Attorney Roger Adams felt strongly that
the department should be on record as opposing a commutation for Vignali, in
concurrence with the prosecutors who had convicted him. Holder's failure to
sign the Pardon Office's recommendation against clemency meant it went to the
White House with the signature of a civil servant, giving the rejection
recommendation less weight.
A 2002 congressional report by a Republican-led
committee described Holder's handling of the matter -- including his failure to
follow the Justice Department's usual process by signing the recommendation --
It criticized Holder for "refusing to go on
the record against a commutation the president apparently wanted to grant and
the president's own brother-in-law supported."
The report suggested that Holder did so to
please his superiors in the White House while trying to maintain his
credibility as a prosecutor serious about law and order.
"Carlos Vignali satisfies none of the
appropriate grounds for commutation identified in Justice Department
regulations," according to the report.
Holder's signature on the recommendation was not
required, the report noted. But the referral came at a time when the White
House was complaining to Justice Department officials about receiving too many
clemency applications with recommendations that they be denied.
"Apparently, he didn't want to sign any
more pardon denials," Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the chairman of the House
investigative committee, said at the time. "He was the deputy attorney general,
and he didn't want to sign a memo opposing a pardon of a major drug dealer.
An Obama transition official, Stephanie Cutter,
said Thursday: "Dan Burton's allegations are false. In his distinguished
career in public service, Eric Holder has earned the support of prosecutors,
law enforcement officials, and leaders of both parties because of his record of
A second official with the Obama transition team
said that Holder "doesn't have any great recollection of this. It's one of
a million documents that went past his desk. We would love to give a detailed
response, but this is an 8-year-old case and we are trying to put together the
The House committee report concluded that the
Vignali commutation "mocked law enforcement" and "sent a message
that there is a double standard of justice between the rich and the poor."
The report noted that 28 others in the same case who received equally stiff or
stiffer sentences received no clemency, because their relatives did not have
the political and economic pull to hire the president's brother-in-law and make
large campaign donations.
The federal judge who sentenced Vignali later
complained that the commutation was inappropriate.
"Vignali was not a low-level operator in
the conspiracy," said U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in a statement
reported by the Associated Press. "He played a major role in the
financing, transport and procurement of the drugs."
Horacio Vignali gave more than $160,000 in
political donations, according to the House Committee report. Included in that
total was more than $14,000 to Becerra's congressional and mayoral campaign
Despite public attention to Becerra's role in
the Vignali case, the congressman has risen in power and influence in the House
and in California.
As the White House was weighing what do about
the Vignali petition in 2001, Mayorkas was among the most influential advocates
According to the committee report -- which
Democrats have decried as biased -- Los Angeles' then-U.S. attorney spoke with
several White House staffers to argue for Vignali's release. One, Eric Angel,
recalled Mayorkas saying that Vignali's sentence was too long.
Another White House staffer said that Mayorkas'
advocacy was significant because it was unusual to receive a recommendation for
clemency from a prosecutor.
Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey testified that the
calls and letters from California leaders turned around his initial opposition
to the clemency "given the community support."
Mayorkas could not be reached for comment for
this article. In the past, however, he has acknowledged making an error.
"It is reasonable to expect that someone in
my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information,"
he told the Los Angeles Times in
2001. "I made a mistake."
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