President-elect Joe Biden nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra ’80 J.D. ’84 as secretary of health and human services on Monday.
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Becerra’s selection for the role is a surprise as he was believed to be under consideration for U.S. attorney general and emerged as a favorite to succeed Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate.
As secretary, Becerra would be responsible for leading the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with Vivek Murthy, who has been selected to serve as surgeon general, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who will take on the role of chief medical adviser. In the coming months, the Department of Health and Human Services will play a key role in managing the distribution of coronavirus vaccinations, which are pending regulatory approval.
At a news conference on Tuesday announcing his health team, Biden characterized Becerra as a “key leader” and “true public servant who has dedicated his career to the service of the people and the service of this country.”
“Xavier spent a career fighting to expand access to health care, reducing racial health disparities, protecting the Affordable Care Act, and take on powerful special interest who profit off of people’s health,” Biden added.
In his remarks, Becerra called the nomination a “breathtaking opportunity” to “shape our health care future,” saying that “to build back a prosperous America, we need a healthy America.”
“The COVID pandemic and its economic fallout have thrust families into crisis,” Becerra said. “Too many Americans are sick or have lost loved ones. Too many have lost their jobs and with that their health care and their hopes.”
Becerra also reflected on his family, noting that his mother, a clerical worker, and his father, a construction worker with a sixth grade education, “had only their health and hope when they arrived to California.”
Since becoming California’s attorney general in 2017, Becerra has proved to be one of the Trump administration’s top legal opponents, filing over 100 lawsuits challenging the federal government’s policies on matters related to criminal justice, tax policy, climate change and immigration.
He is also leading 20 states in a lawsuit defending the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court. “COVID-19 has made one thing undeniable: We must safeguard the Affordable Care Act — lives depend on it,” Becerra said at a November press conference. He is also a strong advocate for women’s health, leading a group of 22 states in April against a Mississippi law that prevented physicians from providing abortions past 15 weeks.
“Laws like Mississippi’s are a systematic attempt to undo a woman’s constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade,” he said at the time. “I will continue to stand up for safe access to reproductive care and defend these rights for all women.”
Political science professor Jim Steyer ’78 J.D. ’83, a long-time friend of Becerra, told The Daily that “All members of the Stanford community should be delighted that Xavier will be helping to lead and represent our country at such a key moment.”
“With his thoughtful leadership, we will all be in good hands indeed. I could not be prouder of Xavier’s leadership, and he truly deserves this great honor and will do all of us proud,” he added.
Becerra was born in Sacramento and raised in a working-class family; his mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Becerra, who attended Stanford as an undergraduate and for law school, was the first in his family to graduate from college.
At Stanford, he majored in economics and lived in Casa Zapata, which he said provided him with community and support. “I believe Casa Zapata really did give me that fulcrum that let me survive my four years at Stanford,” he told The Daily in October.
Becerra participated in work-study in college to help cover his expenses, tutoring underprivileged children as a part of Barrio Assistance, a student-run literacy tutoring and mentoring program. His experience working with preschool and elementary school students in East Palo Alto opened his eyes to the inequities in the city.
“I loved the experience, but I also learned how easy it was for these kids to fall behind in school because they were essentially drowning not knowing how to swim,” Becerra told The Daily. “That really gave me a strong sense that I wanted to do advocacy work and thought of becoming an attorney.”
Not only did attending Stanford influence Becerra’s professional life, but it also had a significant impact on his personal life. It was at Stanford he met Carolina Reyes ’81, whom he would later marry. “We’re still together,” he said. “And we now have three daughters, two of them went to Stanford. You know, Stanford has given me a lot, including my family, and I am thankful for the experiences I had.”
After finishing his undergraduate studies and participating in the California Senate Fellows Program, Becerra matriculated at Stanford Law School. He credited his three years at Stanford Law for preparing him for a career of public service and law.
After graduation, his desire to advocate for others led him to Massachusetts, where he worked on behalf of low-income individuals and those with mental illnesses at a legal services office for a year. The president-elect was impressed with Becerra’s personal story, particularly his service to clients with mental-health needs, according to The Times.
In 1990, Becerra launched his campaign for the California State Assembly. With little financial resources and name recognition, he went on to receive 60% of the vote and serve one term in the assembly, representing the 59th district. “There wasn’t a plan,” he said. “I wasn’t like Bill Clinton plotting my course. I’ve just been very fortunate along the way.”
Becerra was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, serving his constituents as representative for nearly 24 years. During his 12 terms, he was a leading member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and took part in Democratic Party leadership, serving as assistant to the speaker, vice chair and later chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He was also the first Latino to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
In Congress, Becerra, informed by his own experiences, opposed measures that would limit immigration and formed a bipartisan group of lawmakers to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Amid discussions of privatizing Social Security, he strove to keep it public, remembering how his own parents, who had been defrauded, relied significantly on the stability of Social Security. In the Ways and Means Committee, Becerra sought to expand welfare benefits to immigrants and increase tax credits for the working class.
Following Kamala Harris’ election to the U.S. Senate, California Gov. Jerry Brown offered Becerra California’s top law enforcement position. The appointment, which at the time he called “an opportunity I cannot refuse,” meant his return to his hometown, Sacramento.
Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’ stanford.edu.