Xavier Becerra Committee Assignments 1

During a career in Washington that spanned more than two decades, Xavier Becerra became one of the most influential Democrats in the House, serving in several leadership positions as the first Latino in House history to sit on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and as the second Hispanic American to chair the House Democratic Caucus. In 2017 he resigned from the House to accept the job as attorney general of California. “It has been a distinct honor to serve the people of Los Angeles and my country for more than 24 years. I am eternally grateful to my constituents for their tremendous counsel and support over those two decades,” Becerra wrote in his resignation letter to the House. “I leave my work in Congress with mixed emotions. The People’s House has been home to some of America’s greatest patriots and talent. I have learned from them, and been fortunate to have had a chance to add my grains of sand—as we say in Spanish—to build a better America.”1

Xavier Becerra was born in Sacramento, California, on January 26, 1958, the third of four children of working-class parents Maria Teresa and Manuel Becerra. Growing up in a small home near the Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento, the family didn’t have much, “but we always ate well,” Becerra remembered years later. Manuel had been born in Sacramento, but grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. Maria was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. Becerra’s parents, neither of whom had much formal schooling, married at the age of 18 and settled in California. To make ends meet, Becerra’s mother took a job as a secretary and his father built roads in Sacramento after working in the state’s vegetable fields. As a child, Becerra had a keen mind for science, and he excelled at nearby C.K. McClatchy High School. When a friend of his threw away a blank application to Stanford University, Becerra filled it out and got accepted. He majored in economics and, in 1980, became the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. He remained at Stanford to earn a law degree in 1984.2 Becerra and his wife, Dr. Carolina Reyes, met at Stanford. They have three daughters: Clarisa, Olivia, and Natalia.3

Out of law school, Becerra moved to Massachusetts while his wife attended Harvard Medical School. After returning to Sacramento, Becerra worked as an aide to California state senator Art Torres, settling in Los Angeles to direct Torres’ district office in 1986. He later accepted a job as a California deputy attorney general working in the civil division. But in 1990, his state representative, Charles M. Calderon, moved to the state senate, and local leaders quickly encouraged Becerra to run for the open assembly seat.4

At the time he declared his candidacy, Becerra had only lived in the district for a few years. He was young, only 32-years old—the L.A. Times described him as “a quiet man with a boyishly sincere appearance”—and relatively unknown.5 His brief career as deputy attorney general gave him modest name recognition, but political handicappers expected Becerra’s job title to give his campaign a boost among law-and-order voters in areas concerned with “crime and increased gang activity.”6 Democrats had a large numbers advantage in the 59th assembly district which sat just east of downtown Los Angeles and encompassed the neighborhoods of Alhambra and Pico Rivera.7 A win in the Democratic primary virtually guaranteed a victory in the general election. In a city where a small group of families often hand-selected the next generation of community leaders, the race in the 59th district became something of a proxy battle among Los Angeles’ powerful Latino politicians.8

Becerra and his supporters, however, saw his campaign as a way to upset the old order. At the core of Becerra’s team was “a cadre of young Latino political activists,” wrote Rodolfo Acuna, a noted historian and professor of Chicano studies at nearby Cal State Northridge. Like Becerra, many of his backers had gone off to college, landed in L.A., and dove into the nitty-gritty of local issues. Since he grew up in Sacramento, Becerra’s opponents in the primary election called him an outsider, and faulted him for not having paid his dues. But the Becerra campaign canvassed the district and went house-to-house listening to voters. It was this ability to connect “with the Latino middle class in the San Gabriel Valley as well as the poor on the East Side,” wrote Acuna, which gave Becerra momentum.9

On Election Day, Becerra won a 35-percent plurality and captured the Democratic nomination. Marta Maestas and Diane Martinez—his closest rivals—came up short with 28 and 26 percent, respectively. Angelenos reacted in disbelief: Becerra “astounded political opponents and confounded political analysts,” read the L.A. Times’ election recap. But Becerra was quick to deflect credit. “I didn’t win the race,” he told supporters at his victory party. “We won the race.”10 In the overwhelmingly Democratic assembly district, Becerra cruised to victory in the general election later that year (taking 61 percent of the vote). Supporters were so sure he’d win in November that they told him to take a vacation in Hawaii and fly home the day after the election.11

Becerra’s time in the state house was brief. One of his earliest bills to clear the assembly required high school government classes to give 18-year-olds the chance register to vote.12 True to his campaign theme, he shepherded a popular bill into law that lengthened prison terms for gang members caught committing crimes on or near school property (it passed the assembly 72–3, and the state senate 36–0).13 In the first half of 1992, his bill allowing high school girls to try out for boys’ teams cleared the assembly, as did his measure forbidding businesses from requiring their employees to speak English (which passed the senate with amendments). His proposal to allow residents to use their tax refund to donate directly to the California Gang Violence Prevention and Education program also passed the assembly.14 Becerra even had a unique policy of inviting voting-aged constituents to follow him around in the state capital to learn what he did as their representative.15

Only weeks into Becerra’s freshman term in the state assembly, venerable Los Angeles Democrat, Edward R. Roybal, announced his retirement from the U.S. House after a career that had spanned three decades. Despite not living in the district, Becerra quickly announced his candidacy for Congress after Roybal’s preferred successor declined to run. Becerra’s opponents wasted little time attacking him. “He is the so-called community candidate,” one of Becerra’s critics on the L.A. city council said, “but he ain’t from the community.”16

For others in Los Angeles, Becerra seemed like Roybal’s natural political heir. According to Acuna, Becerra’s election to the state assembly was a landmark moment in Latino political activism. Becerra won in 1990, Acuna wrote, “in large part because he attracted the largest contingent of young volunteers since Edward R. Roybal’s successful 1949 run for the City Council.” It placed the up-and-comer in the vanguard of “a new set of political values,” Acuna argued. “Because he listens to what the people—not just his political aides—are saying, he will be better to develop a political program that embodies the interests of the community.” Similarly, David R. Ayon, a political scientist at nearby Occidental College, writing in 1990, called Becerra the kind of “crossover” politician that could win in diverse neighborhoods, and described Becerra’s success at the assembly level as “an important breakthrough.”18

Within weeks of Roybal’s announcement, 10 Democrats had entered the party primary to fill his seat. In the scramble for support, Becerra emerged as an early frontrunner. The district had been redrawn following the 1990 Census, shifting the boundaries to wrap around downtown L.A. The new district encompassed the southern neighborhoods of Koreatown and Pico Union, the eastern neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights, up to Eagle Rock, and west into Hollywood. Much like Becerra’s campaign for the state house, the congressional district voted overwhelmingly Democratic, meaning that whoever won the primary was a shoe-in during the general election.19

In April, campaigning slowed to a crawl as riots broke out in the western part of the district after the controversial not guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating. While some Democrats sent out mailers or paused altogether, Becerra went back into the affected areas to see where he could help, according to the L.A. Times.20

By late spring, Becerra was again rejecting claims he was a “carpetbagger.” He hoped voters would overlook his brief tenure in L.A. and prioritize his work on the issues—“crime, health care and education,” as well as his effort to halt the construction of a new state prison on the edge of Boyle Heights. “I do things a little bit differently from most people,” he said. “You can say pro-active.” Becerra won endorsements from influential Democrats, including Roybal and Los Angeles supervisor Gloria Molina.21 On May 28, just a week away from the primary election, the Los Angeles Times summarized the sense in town that the primary was “the most important race for Latinos in Los Angeles this year.”22

In early June, Becerra won a plurality of the votes (31 percent) and came away with the Democratic nomination.23 He downplayed his endorsements, and turned to the general election.24 “This was not a race between machines,” Becerra told his supporters. He won, he said, “because of the human element.” Becerra touted his ground game—“grass-roots politics, walking precincts rather than relying on heavy dollars”—and easily won the general election in November, taking 58 percent of the vote in a light turnout.25

That first election was a bellwether. Over the course of what became a 24-year career in the House, Becerra won every race by overwhelming majorities.26 On at least one occasion in his long tenure in DC, Becerra countenanced returning to local politics: In 2001, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles but lost in a crowded primary. Much of his House career was spent in the minority. When Becerra entered the House in 1993, Democrats held an 82-seat majority, but just two years later his party hemorrhaged seats and plunged into the minority. A strong performance in the 2006 elections put Democrats back into power, but from 2011 until he left the House in 2017, Becerra again served in the minority.28

In the House, Becerra championed the causes of underprivileged communities. Aided by powerful committee assignments, he used his family history to shape his legislative agenda. Reflecting on his time in the House, Becerra told the L.A. Times that “my parents inform everything I do in Congress, whether it’s because of their immigrant background or just their hardworking nature or the fact that education was not open to them.” In a gesture laden with meaning, Becerra wore his father’s wedding ring which no longer fit the elder Manuel after a lifetime of hard manual labor.30

Early in his House tenure, Becerra served on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (103rd Congress, 1993–1995), the Committee on Education and Labor (103rd–104th Congresses, 1993–1997), and the Committee on the Judiciary (103rd–104th Congresses). In 1997, at the start of the 105th Congress (1997–1999), House leaders placed Becerra on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee which handles America’s tax and revenue policy. Ways and Means was an exclusive committee meaning Becerra had to step down from his other assignments. He remained on that panel until he retired at the conclusion of the 114th Congress (2015–2017).32

At the start of his House career a seat on Ways and Means seemed unlikely at best. As a freshman, Becerra found himself in a very public fight with the powerful chairman of Ways and Means, Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. Rostenkowski had tried to slash benefits for immigrants, but Becerra and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) managed to work out a deal to protect them. During a regular caucus meeting, however, Becerra and Rostenkowski argued over the issue. “I still had the floor and said it was unfair to deny welfare benefits to one particular group,” Becerra said in his description of the incident. “At one point I might have said it was inhumane . . . and as a freshman I was expected to shut up, but I thought it was an important issue and I didn’t stop talking.” A furious Rostenkowski managed to kill the deal on the floor, and Becerra later told the L.A. Times that he learned an important rule about the personal side of politics. Many assumed the blowup had cost Becerra a potential seat on the Ways and Means Committee but Rostenkowski lost reelection in 1994 and three years later Becerra became the first Hispanic American to sit on the tax writing panel.33

From the 112th to 114th Congress (2011–2017), Becerra was the Ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. He joined the Committee on the Budget in the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), and in the 112th Congress (2011–2013) Becerra was appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Much of Becerra’s early work took place in committee. For his first three terms, he shied away from introducing bills on the floor, but used his seats on both the Education and Labor and the Judiciary Committees to push his agenda. During consideration of President William J. Clinton’s competitiveness bill in 1993, for instance, Becerra cleared amendments to have both the National Science Foundation and the Commerce Department direct funding to disadvantaged communities.34 And as the House debated a health care overhaul in 1994, Becerra convinced the Education and Labor Committee to approve amendments to increase hospital reimbursements, and to reclassify certain centers conducting cancer research as teaching hospitals.35

In the minority in 1995, Becerra’s work on the Judiciary Committee sought to blunt the effects of proposals to limit immigration.36 Of all the national issues Becerra worked on during his career, immigration took center stage.37 In fact, the first bill he ever submitted was the 1993 Immigration Enforcement Review Commission Act (H.R. 2119), which sought to address claims of civil rights violations by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents along America’s southern border. At the subcommittee hearing for the bill on September 29, 1993, Becerra acknowledged the Border Patrol’s difficult task. “I think there is agreement overall that there is a need for more resources, more personnel, more equipment, better technology, but I also believe that there is a need to take a closer look at the agency and see how it has performed within its own confines.” For Becerra, immigration didn’t end at the border. It was also about making sure people moving to the U.S. felt at home once they arrived. In 1996, for instance, he fought a proposal to make English the official language of the federal government, arguing that it would effectively prevent people like his parents—who spoke mostly Spanish—from participating in civic society.39

More than a decade later, Becerra reached out to a Republican colleague on the Ways and Means Committee and together they created a secretive working group in the House intent on overhauling America’s immigration system. Although new legislative priorities and shifting political winds knocked their effort off course (especially following the majority change in 2011), the group reconstituted itself with new members after President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 but was again unable to reach a deal.40 

On Ways and Means, Becerra merged his work on behalf of immigrants with advocacy for underprivileged communities. Paired with his chairmanship of the CHC (to which he was elected in 1997) and safely ensconced in a Democratic district, Becerra’s seat on Ways and Means helped him solidify his reputation “as one of L.A.’s, and the nation’s, most tenacious apostles of Latino causes,” according to the political commentator Harold Meyerson in 1997.41 But Becerra was also quick to remind his constituents that he represented them all. “It’s important for people to know I’m not just a leader for Latinos,” he said in an interview a few weeks later. “I want folks to know I can be influential and not just on immigration policy,” he continued. “If someone’s got a tax concern, they should come to me.If someone’s got a health concern, they should come to me.”42

Tax concerns became a major part of Becerra’s legislative program on the committee, and his staunch support for America’s social security system stemmed from his family history. The first time his parents invested money, they lost thousands of dollars in a real estate deal gone bad. Their exhausted savings account became something of a parable: amid discussions about whether to begin privatizing social security, Becerra fought to keep it public. “A lot of folks like my parents could suffer the same consequences” if they were simply given money to invest privately, he said. “I like the stability and security of the current system.”43 In 1997, he worked to extend supplemental security income to visa holders who could no longer work because of disability, and in 2002 he attempted to reopen access for legal immigrants to welfare benefits. In both instances Republicans voted down his amendment in committee.44 Becerra also worked to expand tax credits, sought ways to use the tax code to incentivize new construction in blighted areas, and proposed simplifying the way Americans filed taxes in order to steer people away from using the promise of their tax return to take out high-interest loans.45

As CHC chairman in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Becerra tried to build unity on the issues.46 “For me, what’s important is that the Hispanic Caucus have a cohesion about it. When House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and House Speaker Newt Gingrich look at the Hispanic Caucus, and they’re looking at a bill that is going to come down to the wire, with just a few votes making the difference, I want them to fret about where the Hispanic Caucus is. Because then our 15 to 20 votes can make a difference.”47 For a number of Congresses, Becerra worked to add a national museum for the American Latino to the Smithsonian Institution.48 But it was also under his leadership that the CHC lost its bipartisan makeup. In December 1996, Becerra traveled to Cuba and visited with Fidel Castro, enraging the Republican Members of Cuban descent in the CHC who formally left the caucus in protest after he was elected chairman a month later.49

In high school, Becerra became a skilled poker player, and years later that ability to read people seemed to propel him into party leadership in the House.50 Elected freshman whip in 1993, Becerra was active in the Democratic Caucus throughout his career. In 2006, the caucus approved his appointment as Assistant to the Speaker, a position that involved working closely with party leadership to craft policy. Becerra was elected Vice Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in November 2008 and was re-elected for a second term in November 2010. For the 113th and 114th Congresses (2013–2017), Becerra served as Caucus Chairman, putting him in the driver seat of the party’s agenda in the House.51 Additionally, Becerra sat on the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which manages the institution’s collection of art and artifacts.52

In 2008 then-President-elect Barack Obama considered Becerra for the Cabinet office of U.S. Trade Representative to advise him on international trade issues, but Becerra turned the offer down.53 In early 2017, Becerra accepted California Governor Jerry Brown’s appointment to serve as the state’s attorney general, returning to the lead the office that had effectively launched his political career more than two decades earlier. He retired from the House on January 24, 2017.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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