As California's Attorney General Prepares to Move Up, Democrats Vie for Coveted Job

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks as Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in September 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The post of California attorney general may be one of the most coveted political positions in the state, if not the country. It has served as a launching pad to higher office for several former attorneys general, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

Now, like so many before him, current Attorney General Xavier Becerra is moving up.

Becerra has been tapped as President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His confirmation is likely now that Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Becerra’s resignation would mean Gov. Gavin Newsom gets to pick a new attorney general for the state. Democratic consultant Brian Brokaw, who’s worked for both Harris and Newsom, said competition is stiff.

“It is a very powerful position and it's a very unique position," Brokaw said. "There's a reason why it is so sought after now, and every election year.”

There’s an old joke that AG actually stands for aspiring governor. That may be one reason Brokaw said the job is drawing a lot of interest.

“I certainly know there are people in Washington who would be willing and interested in coming back to serve in the role," he said. "I think there are a lot of people in Sacramento and throughout the state who are interested in the position.”


Several Democrats well known around the state Capitol have been mentioned as contenders, including Sacramento Mayor and former state Senate President Darrell Steinberg, and Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Both have good relationships with Newsom. The names of U.S. Reps. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, and Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, are also in the mix.

Women in the California Legislature are pushing Newsom to appoint a woman.

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Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said Newsom will likely want someone he feels comfortable with. He may take gender or racial diversity into consideration, and, Levinson said, Newsom has shown he likes to break barriers with his appointments.

“I just think that Gov. Newsom really loves being a king or queen maker," she said. "And he wants to put his stamp on the next big up and comer.”

'A Very, Very Different Job'

Whoever the pick, he or she won’t be in the same situation as Becerra was. He served during the entire Trump administration, filing more than 120 lawsuits against the president. And while that put Becerra in a very public-facing position, Levinson said the next attorney general probably won’t be as visible.

“We now have a federal administration where California will probably be working with that administration, will be supporting the administration. And that is just a very, very different job," she said.

However, Levinson said the next attorney general will probably still spend a lot of time pressing California’s case on environmental and immigration issues.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown (and another former attorney general) agrees the job will be different under the Biden administration. But he said there will still be plenty to do.

“The appetite for litigation is endless and the opportunities to sue people are endless," Brown said. "So don't worry about the lawyers sitting around the water cooler twiddling their thumbs. They'll find plenty of paper to push around.”

Maybe while dreaming about what office they might hold next.