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Biden Nominates Xavier Becerra To Be HHS Secretary

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The secretary of Health and Human Services will be one of the leaders in the Biden administration's fight against the coronavirus. And the president-elect has chosen California's attorney general for the job. Xavier Becerra has been a Democratic star beyond California, filing high-profile lawsuits against the Trump administration as attorney general. And before that, he spent nearly a quarter century representing part of Los Angeles in the U.S. House of Representatives. Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco has covered Becerra for many years and joins us now.

Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us more about the path that Becerra has taken to where he is now.

SHAFER: Sure. Well, Becerra was born in Sacramento in 1958. He went to college at Stanford University, where he also got his law degree. And he worked for a legal assistance group on behalf of people with mental illness back East for a bit, came back to California, served briefly in the California state legislature. And he got elected to Congress in 1992, and he was serving his 12th term there in 2016 when California Attorney General Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. And so then Governor Jerry Brown picked Becerra to replace her.

He is, of course, the first Latino attorney general in California. And I talked to him after he became AG, and I asked him what his immigrant parents taught him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

XAVIER BECERRA: My dad couldn't walk into a restaurant because of the signs that said no dogs or Mexicans allowed, even though he was a U.S. citizen. You know, he never spoke one time, in any of the times that I've had an opportunity with him, ill about this country.

SHAFER: So clearly, Ari, he's taken those immigrant roots with him to Congress, the attorney general's office and perhaps next to the Department of Health and Human Services.

SHAPIRO: Now, his name often came up as a possible Cabinet pick, but generally, people speculated that he might be attorney general because he is currently California's attorney general. He does not have a health background. So what does he bring to Health and Human Services if confirmed?

SHAFER: Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise. But, you know, from his years in Congress, Becerra is very familiar with how things get done or don't get done in Washington. And he has a lot of relationships on the Hill. All of that will help him. You know, he worked with Nancy Pelosi, who he knows well, to get the Affordable Care Act passed a decade ago. And in Congress and as AG, he's been a strong advocate for women's health, and he understands immigrant communities very well, as well as health disparities.

And I spoke to Mayra Alvarez. She's president of The Children's Partnership in Los Angeles. She's worked with Becerra on a lot of issues around health care access for working-class families.

MAYRA ALVAREZ: And I think it's personal for him. He is the son of immigrants. He comes from a blue-collar background. He has three daughters of his own. He recognizes the importance of health care in our day-to-day lives.

SHAFER: And Ari, as AG, Becerra has sued the Trump administration more than a hundred times over many issues, including health care.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, priority No. 1 for HHS and the entire administration is going to be fighting the pandemic. For HHS, distributing the vaccine will be a huge focus. What does it say about the Biden team's strategy here that they didn't choose a doctor or health professional for the role?

SHAFER: Yeah, well, I'm sure some doctors are asking that very question. But, you know, under him at HHS would be Medicare, the CDC, the FDA and a whole lot more. And Biden is putting medical professionals in charge of those agencies, as well as his coronavirus task force. And so Becerra can use his skills to work with Congress and work with the states to shore up the Affordable Care Act to get it - you know, being implemented more effectively, that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: Finally, I have to ask what this means for California because as you said, Becerra stepped into this role when Kamala Harris became a senator, and now Governor Gavin Newsom will have an opportunity to fill the role again. What are you hearing?

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, of course, he's getting a lot of pressure to name a Latino or African American to the Senate seat - people like Karen Bass the congresswoman or former Labor secretary, current LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis. You know, there's a lot of pressure. In some ways, having an AG opening gives him more flexibility, the opportunity to spread those appointments around. So if he picks for the Senate seat someone like Secretary of State Alex Padilla, well, then he's got another seat to fill. So, you know, bottom line, Ari, it's a really unprecedented amount of influence over statewide offices for a governor to have in California. He's got a lot of good options.

SHAPIRO: KQED's Scott Shafer in San Francisco, thanks a lot.

SHAFER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.