By Alberto Garcia
President-Elect Joe Biden will name Xavier Becerra to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the pick could give Governor Gavin Newsom two statewide appointments to fill; Becerra’s post, and the US Senate seat to be vacated by Kamala Harris when she is sworn-in as the next Vice President of the United States.
If confirmed by the US Senate, Xavier Becerra would become the first Latinx to ever lead the Department of Health and Human Services, a $1.3 trillion annual budget Cabinet-level department charged with protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services throughout the country.
Becerra was appointed California Attorney General in 2017 by then-Governor Jerry Brown to fill the vacancy left by Attorney General Kamala Harris when she was elected to the US Senate in November 2016. Becerra then had to run in 2018 to win a full four year term. He was elected with 63.5% of the vote.
As California Attorney General, Becerra has been an outspoken critic of President Trump, and has filed 100 lawsuits against the administration to challenge federal actions on the border wall, climate change, and the Affordable Care Act. He has also fought Trump’s efforts to end the DACA program for undocumented residents brought to the US as minors, a program that just last week was reinstated by a federal judge.
As Secretary of HHS, Becerra would be in charge of department that oversees other important federal departments, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and both Medicare & Medicaid Services. During this time of COVID-19, most of the federal government’s interaction with issues related to the pandemic are administered by HHS.
Additionally, it has been HHS that monitored and administered a programs that housed and cared for unaccompanied undocumented minors as well as children separated from their undocumented parents after being detained at the border.
“Attorney General Becerra is a towering champion of health care, whose strategic leadership, keen intellect and outstanding policy expertise were essential in the defense of the Affordable Care Act in the courts,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “As secretary of the department of health and human services, he will be a vital force for progress.”
Previously, Becerra was elected 13 times to Congress between 1992 and 2016 to represent districts in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. Before that, Becerra served one term on the California State Assembly from 1990 to 1992. A native of Sacramento, Becerra earned both Bachelor’s and Law Degrees from Stanford University.
Becerra’s appointment, if confirmed, will again leave a vacancy as Attorney General. Governor Newsom has the authority to appoint someone to serve the remained of the term until the 2022 election. A person must be a lawyer and member of the California Bar Association to qualify to serve as Attorney General.
Immediately after the announcement of Becerra as a Cabinet nominee, names began circulating as possible appointees to fill his position. One local San Diego politician whose name surfaced quickly is Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher. Gonzalez-Fletcher, a three term Assembly member who was re-elected to a fourth term last month, earned her law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is a current member of the Bar.
Gonzalez-Fletcher did not return a request for comment on this story.
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will also leave a vacancy in one of California’s two US Senate seats. Kamala Harris was elected in 2016 and her term will expire in 2022. Governor Newsom can appoint someone to fill the remainder of the US Senate seat and have the advantage of running as the incumbent in 2022.
Even before Becerra’s appointment was announced, Newsom had already received considerable pressure to nominate a Latinx to fill the vacancy due to the growing importance of the community in elections but the lack of representation in previous senators. No Latinx has ever represented California in the US Senate. Harris, of Jamaican and Indian descent, was the first minority senator from California.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was rumored to be the frontrunner to fill the Senate vacancy. Other names that have surfaced include Congresswoman Karen Bass, who was also considered as a possible running mate with Biden before Harris was selected, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, both of which are African-Americans. Xavier Becerra was also a name that was considered a possibility.
But now with the possible Becerra appointment, Newsom could come under heavy lobbying to appoint both someone from the Latino community as well as someone from the Black community to fill the two positions.
The vacancies will not happen until January 20th when Kamala Harris is sworn-in as Vice-President, and if and when Becerra is officially nominated and confirmed by the US Senate which could be weeks or months after the Joe Biden’s inauguration.