As soon as Joseph R. Biden Jr. tapped Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, people began talking about how this election could herald a significant reshuffling of California’s Democratic politics.
Not only would Ms. Harris bring a distinctly Californian sensibility to the executive branch if elected, people said, but her departure from the Senate would also open up a powerful seat.
[Read more about how Ms. Harris made California history.]
On top of that, Mr. Biden would look to California, the nation’s most populous state and its biggest blue stronghold, for a stocked pool of cabinet candidates.
So far, all of those wheels are turning, mostly as predicted.
But none of the conversations I’ve had with political observers, none of the online chatter I’ve read, and none of the sources my colleagues spoke to predicted one of Mr. Biden’s picks: California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Four years ago, Mr. Becerra was a veteran California congressman when Jerry Brown, the governor at the time, picked him to replace Ms. Harris as the state’s top prosecutor, after she was elected to the Senate.
In that role, Mr. Becerra has been cast as the leader of the legal resistance against President Trump, filing dozens of lawsuits challenging the Trump administration on an array of issues including climate change and immigration.
And as we’ve reported, Mr. Becerra was a top contender to replace Ms. Harris, again, in the Senate. But, observers said, Mr. Becerra was a less likely pick for the Senate seat because he’d be a potential choice to lead the Biden Justice Department.
So Mr. Biden’s naming of Mr. Becerra for a job helping to lead the nation’s response to a pandemic came as a surprise, particularly for medical experts who had urged the president-elect to pick someone with public health expertise.
[If you missed it, read about California’s fights with the Trump administration.]
Still, supporters — including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called the move “a game-changer” on Monday — said Mr. Becerra was a great fit.
The governor said Mr. Becerra, if confirmed, would be in a powerful position to advocate for health care for Californians.
“We’ve had our eye on some big reforms,” he said. “We’ve been looking for a great partner. And we’ve found one.”
Mr. Brown emphasized that Mr. Becerra would be committed to his task — “not just to the Affordable Care Act, but to health care and equity in general,” the former governor said.
“And he knows his way around Washington,” he added.
Others have cited Mr. Becerra’s environmental justice bureau, the first in the nation, as evidence that he will bring racial equity to the fore.
[If you missed it, read about the broad power of the state attorney general’s office.]
Nevertheless, like his predecessor, Ms. Harris, he has faced criticism that he hasn’t held law enforcement officers accountable for killing people and that police reforms he touted after the George Floyd protests fell far short. In one episode that became a flash point in the debate over policing, Mr. Becerra declined to prosecute the officers who killed Stephon Clark, a young, unarmed Black man who was shot in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard.
And this week, The Sacramento Bee’s opinion editor, Gil Duran, wrote a piece slamming the attorney general for threatening legal actions against journalists for publishing information about officers who had been accused or convicted of crimes and for being largely absent in the State Legislature’s debates over major policing reforms.
“I’ve never gone out there and done a press conference and beat my chest,” Mr. Becerra told Mr. Duran, defending his record. He said he had been a more low-key proponent of reform.
Senate Republicans may be skeptical of Mr. Becerra, but they’ve stopped short of saying he wouldn’t be confirmed. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
Mr. Becerra’s exit gives the governor the rare opportunity to pick three high-profile leaders. [Politico]
It wasn’t just George Gascón: Protests over the summer fueled a “tsunami of change,” as cities across the country elected progressive prosecutors. [The New York Times]
If you missed it, here’s why Latino advocates say representation is about more than just having leaders who look like the electorate. [The New York Times]
(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)
Here’s what else to know today
Some two million Californians are teetering on the verge of losing their homes. Most are protected by an eviction moratorium — but temporarily. Here’s a collaboration looking in depth at what’s at stake. [CalMatters]
A Bay Area lawmaker hopes to expand the state’s existing eviction protections. [The Mercury News]
State Assembly leaders are pushing for school districts to reopen in the spring. Proposed legislation would require public school students to return in phases and only after their counties are moved from the state’s most restrictive reopening tier. [EdSource]
The alert you may have gotten on your cellphone about the state’s stay-at-home orders was its largest such alert ever. [The Sacramento Bee]
Here’s the latest on restrictions in the state. [The New York Times]
Battle lines are already being drawn over fracking. The governor called for the Legislature to pass a bill banning the practice by 2024. [The Bakersfield Californian]
If you’ve ever wondered whether the waters off the San Onofre nuclear plant are safe, you now have a way of finding out. (So far, scientists say, it’s slightly radioactive, but much less than even a dental X-ray.) [The San Diego Union-Tribune]
And finally …
In a normal year, I look forward to perusing the end-of-year lists for the best restaurants I haven’t tried, the best movies I haven’t watched, albums I haven’t listened to, books I haven’t read. It’s fun, despite the tinge of FOMO I tend to get; I know I’ll never catch up, but there’s always more to discover.
This year, though, as the lists have begun to trickle out, the feelings are complicated.
Lists of restaurants are necessarily reminders of the places we’ve lost, lists of albums are reminders of concerts we didn’t get to experience. I found myself relating more than is probably healthy to my colleague Manohla Dargis, whose list of the 10 best movies of 2020 is headlined “I Watched Until My Eyes Bled.”
At the same time, this year’s lists help us remember that people have adapted and found ways to create.