(TNS) — President-elect Joe Biden's nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as the next U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services could give Gov. Gavin Newsom the chance to fill not just one but two powerful political offices in the coming weeks.
News of Becerra's nomination comes as the governor is already under pressure to choose Kamala Harris' successor in the U.S. Senate. The list of potential Senate picks has now been shortened, with Secretary of State Alex Padilla among the leading contenders.
If Becerra is confirmed by the U.S. Senate and Padilla is appointed to the Senate seat, Newsom would be in the rare position of filling three statewide offices in a short period of time.
"This is just extraordinary for Gavin Newsom in terms of the power that he's going to have to reshape California," said Jessica Levinson, law professor and Director of Loyola Law School's Public Service Institute. "This goes far beyond anything we've seen in recent history: getting to pick a senator, probably a secretary of state, and the attorney general." California law requires the attorney general to be a licensed lawyer in the state for at least five years prior to appointment or election.
According to the State Bar of California, lawyers whose licenses are in "inactive" status may still be eligible for the office.
Aside from technical requirements, Newsom will be looking for someone with a notable legal career, political watchers say.
"It has to be somebody with a large range of experience in the law and in policy, because our Attorney General's Office is in a really powerful position," said Bill Carrick, a veteran California Democratic consultant. "It's also very varied: you're obviously the state's chief lawyer, but there's also the importance of it in terms of the initiative process... in terms of all issues, criminal justice, civil rights, business issues...It's an amazingly complex job."
Newsom will face pressure to pick someone from an underrepresented demographic group in California, namely a women and/or person of color. Various advocacy groups are already calling on Newsom to name a woman, a Black person and a Latino person for the Senate seat.
Having two or three potential appointments instead of just one would give Newsom an opportunity to please multiple constituencies with his picks, said Garry South, a veteran Democratic political consultant who has served as an adviser to Newsom.
"You have to sort of envision this not as a standalone appointment, but as part of a package of appointments," South said. "It's sort of like playing three-level chess, trying to use these appointments to pacify and assuage these constituent groups that are pushing him heavily to appoint various types of people."
Elizabeth Ashford, who serves on the board of California Women Lead, said she thinks Newsom should pick a woman if he has an opportunity to appoint an attorney general. But Ashford, who previously worked for former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that Newsom also needs to consider who will be willing to advocate for California's best interests in the job.
"You want folks who are going to go in and really fight for the state," Ashford said. "There's been a lot of discussion about who checks the right boxes, which is good, but you can't lose sight of the fact that you want a real operator."
Becerra's confirmation isn't guaranteed, South said. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, he said, they'll likely pick at least two of Biden's cabinet choices to block and Becerra could be one of them. South noted that Republican senators have targeted Biden's pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, for tweets she posted bashing Republicans. In comparison, Becerra's lawsuits against the Trump administration as California attorney general have been much more consequential.
"There's no doubt in my mind he could do the job, but if you're a Republican looking for trouble in the Senate, if you're going to go after Neera Tanden and mow her down for some tweets, what are you going to do with a guy who sued Trump 100 times?" South said. " Republicans are in no mood to roll over and play dead for Biden."
If the job does open up, here are some candidates Newsom could consider:
The California Legislature has a deep bench of qualified people who could fill the attorney general role. With a Democratic supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, Newsom would have his pick of allies from within the Capitol building.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta
When Bonta, D- Alameda, was elected to the California Assembly in 2012, he made history as the state's first Filipino American state legislator. Now, Bonta serves as Assistant Majority Leader and on the Appropriations, Communications and Conveyance, Governmental Organization, and Health Committees. If he were appointed to the attorney general position, he would be the first Filipino person to hold the job.
He holds a degree from Yale Law School and served for a time as Deputy City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco.
During his time in the Legislature, Bonta has focused on race and civil rights issues. During the 2020 session, he introduced legislation that would make it a hate crime to call 911 on someone because of their race.
Assemblyman David Chiu
San Francisco Democrat David Chiu chairs the Assembly's Housing Committee, a powerful post in a state with a massive housing shortage.
Chiu worked with Newsom to pass rent cap and eviction protection legislation. He's also been an outspoken critic of the Employment Development Department particularly over its mishandling of unemployment claims, although he's been careful to assert that he blames the department's leadership — not Newsom — for the problems.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez
Gonzalez, D- San Diego, has had her eye on Secretary of State Alex Padilla's spot for some time, but could also be a contender for attorney general. She has both a master's degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Since her election to the Assembly in 2013, Gonzalez has helped pass notable legislation, including California paid sick leave and California's New Motor Voter Act.
She angered many business groups and independent contractors with her highest profile legislation, Assembly Bill 5, which codified a California Supreme Court case that made it more difficult for businesses to hire independent contractors. Gig economy companies spearheaded by Uber, Lyft and Instacart convinced voters to strike down part of the law through a ballot measure earlier this year.
Gonzalez has recently ramped up her campaign for secretary of state, securing an endorsement last week from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Less Likely: A Member of Congress
Newsom theoretically has a deep bench of Congressional Democrats to pick from, too, including Reps. Eric Swalwell, Adam Schiff, Jackie Speier, and Ted Lieu.
However, political experts say it's unlikely he'll select someone from the U.S. House.
After Democrats lost several seats during the election last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi enters 2021 with a slimmer majority and can't afford to lose any members, South said. If Newsom appointed a House member, it would take several months before the seat could be filled through a special election.
"Even though they may be totally qualified, given the situation in the House, he simply can't pluck somebody out of a congressional seat," South said. "It doesn't matter how Dem that seat is... because it would empty that seat out for 4-5 months, and it would rob Nancy Pelosi of a vote."
Ashford also said a congressional pick appears unlikely, especially because Biden will need to rely on the House to implement his agenda.
"It seems like a strange time to leave Congress, because there's this thrilling opportunity to work with the Biden administration and right the ship in the United States," she said.
Other Potential Contenders
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg
As mayor of Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg has worked with Newsom in addressing homelessness problems through the Big City Mayors Coalition. He holds a degree from the University of California, Davis School of Law.
Aside from being mayor, Steinberg has extensive experience with state lawmakers, having served as both a member of the Assembly and the State Senate. He was President pro Tempore of the California State Senate from 2008 to 2014.
Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was on Gov. Jerry Brown's short list for attorney general several years ago when Kamala Harris left the job to join the U.S. Senate.
Saenz has worked for years in the civil rights arena, and at one point served as counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He holds a law degree from Yale University.
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