How Xavier Becerra went from working construction in Sacramento to launching Obamacare
“Ex-zavey-err Becerra,” an elementary school teacher called out in 1960s Sacramento.
It wasn’t the pronunciation that Xavier Becerra a future U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, was expecting as a kid growing up in the shadow of California’s Capitol with three sisters and parents who spoke Spanish. More than a half-century later, it is how Becerra can usually determine when in his life he met a particular person — during his K-12 education or later.
Becerra is the first Latino HHS secretary, one of just 17 Hispanic cabinet secretaries in all of U.S. history. The mammoth agency, with a nearly $2.7 trillion budget for 2023, oversees a portfolio that includes the social safety net, Medicare and Medicaid, cutting edge pharmaceuticals and pandemic response.
Long before that, Xavier Becerra was a kid in Sacramento who knew little about politics and a lot about his father’s work in construction and overnight drives to see family in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. He said that it was in part luck that he ascended to Stanford University for his degrees; he used a friend’s discarded application to get into a college that, unawares to him, was a two- hour drive away.
There he started on a path to make public policy work for people who grew up like he did. Tutoring Spanish-speaking students through a Stanford program in East Palo Alto helped Becerra reflect on who he was. And who he could be, he said in an interview earlier this month in his office overlooking the U.S. Capitol.
It started by reclaiming his name.
“I finally said, ‘Enough is enough,’” Becerra said. “‘No mas.’” No more.
“You realize that you can make a big difference,” he said. “You just have to be ready to do it. And whether I was ‘Ex-zavey-err’ or ‘Havey-err,’ I figured it’s up to me to make sure people are saying it right.”
Affordable Care Act
Becerra, 65, didn’t know then that his 40-year career as an attorney and politician would be interwoven with the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Last week, he celebrated both his second year in the cabinet and the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) thirteenth birthday.
“Thanks, Obama,” he said genuinely, a stab at the sarcastic phrase that detractors of former President Barack Obama used, at an event commemorating its signing into law.
ACA, an historic health care overhaul that greatly expanded access to Americans with low incomes or pre-existing conditions, narrowly passed Congress in 2010. At the time, Becerra was in the House of Representatives leadership under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He went on to defend the program as California’s attorney general and now works to ensure its provisions are upheld.
Along with Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Becerra has traveled extensively to promote the benefits of the ACA, mental health care and other administration initiatives.
Brooks-LaSure remembered one ACA event last year when Becerra took a moment to speak in Spanish to a family with a six-year-old son. While English-only audience members may not have understood exactly what he was saying, the care he took made his message plain, she said.
“So often as policymakers, it is so easy to get focused on the struggles, the macro — all of that,” Brooks-LaSure said in an interview outside of another ACA event in Washington last Thursday. “But actually seeing the people that are affected with tears in their eyes with excitement of what this means to them is really incredible.”
Brooks-LaSure was a Democratic staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee, which works on tax issues, when the ACA was drafted and passed. She remembered the tireless efforts of leadership, including Becerra — then vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus — who scrambled to secure the final votes on the House floor. And again when Becerra, leading other state attorneys general, stepped in to defend the ACA against an attempt to repeal it.
In 2018, Texas’ attorney general challenged the constitutionality of the ACA after a Trump administration tax bill eliminated the penalty for those who failed to purchase insurance coverage. A federal judge in Texas agreed, and Trump’s Justice Department decided not to challenge it.
California, under Becerra, led more than a dozen states in appealing the decision. The back-and-forth reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2021 that the Trump administration and Republican state attorneys general who brought the case against the ACA lacked standing to challenge the act.
“We wouldn’t be here today without the work of attorney generals to defend the ACA when the former administration would not, and worked to dismantle it,” Brooks-LaSure said. “So when we came to the Biden administration, our first focus was really strengthening the ACA and upping our outreach efforts, which has been tremendous.”
Republicans have attempted to repeal the act about 60 times since it passed. Becerra, like the Affordable Care Act, has prevailed against relentless GOP opposition.
His confirmation as HHS secretary was the bumpiest endured by President Joe Biden’s cabinet picks.
Becerra’s outspoken support for abortion access — his wife is an OBGYN who works on high-risk pregnancies — made him a target for groups that wanted the procedure barred. While only a handful of HHS secretaries have held medical degrees, Republicans seized on Becerra’s lack of medical experience to question his qualifications.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor at the time that GOP lawmakers “complain loudly that he has no direct experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lockstep to install Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law, as the previous HHS secretary.”
Becerra was confirmed, 50-49, in March 2021. But his background was a continued theme in GOP critiques of the White House pandemic response.
“You’ve made these decisions, a lawyer with no scientific background, no medical degree.” Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican of Kentucky and an eye surgeon, said during a 2021 Senate hearing over school reopenings and vaccines. “This is an arrogance coupled with an authoritarianism that is unseemly and un-American.”
Sacramento to … Sacramento
Becerra and his sisters didn’t have much. Their father, Manuel, was in construction and his mother, Maria Teresa, did clerical work once all the kids were in school. But they were a happy, working-class family. His mother immigrated from the state of Jalisco, Mexico; Becerra’s father, born in Sacramento, was raised in Tijuana.
Sacramento remains his home. It’s where his wife, Carolina Reyes, and mother live now and where his father died, Becerra said.
He fondly recalls the drives from Sacramento to Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico, to visit family. His father would push straight through the 35-to-40 hour trip because they couldn’t afford to stay in a motel, fly or take too much time off.
“We got a kick out of it because we got to stay up at three in the morning — we were helping my dad stay awake,” Becerra said.
Despite living in the state’s capitol, Becerra didn’t know much about politics. Like most families trying to survive, what lawmakers were up to was not top of mind.
“I would come home and it wasn’t in my life,” he said.
Becerra didn’t know about the PSAT, a preliminary standardized test that precedes the SAT, before his friends signed up. But he took it. He followed his teachers’ advice to “keep his grades up” at C.K. McClatchy High School, and so he became the first in his family to graduate with a four-year degree. He went on to get his law degree from Stanford too.
How to use a jackhammer? That was something he definitely knew from summers working road construction with his father.
“One of those years that I did it I actually got assigned to the same crew my dad was in, so that was a thrill to get to pull the jackhammer out of his hand and say, ‘Hey, let me let me do this one,’” he said.
Sacramento to secretary
Working with laborers, like those in construction, and kids, like the ones at Stanford, launched his legal and political career. He started in politics working for then-State Senator Art Torres as a Los Angeles administrative assistant.
Becerra later served as a deputy attorney general in the California Department of Justice for three years before winning a seat in the California State Assembly in 1990. Just two years later, against advice from some who urged him to pursue a lesser office, he ran for the U.S. House in the Los Angeles area and won.
“I would love to do this on a national basis,” Becerra recalled thinking, “so I’m helping workers, their kids, nationally, not just in California.”
He served from 1993 to 2017, rising through House leadership, first as assistant to the Democratic Leader, then Pelosi, to become the chair of the House Democratic Caucus for the last four years of his tenure. That’s when then-Gov. Jerry Brown named him California’s attorney general, the first Latino to hold that office. He sued the Trump administration more than 100 times.
Through his legislative agendas — education, immigration, law enforcement, civil rights, climate, health care — Becerra said he prioritized equity and fairness.
He said he was lucky that his family had health care when he was growing up because his father was a union member. But he knew those in similar situations, including extended family, who did not. They “couldn’t afford to get too sick,” and it’s his mother’s words that resonate when he thinks about improving on HHS services.
“My mom would always tell us in Spanish, ‘mejor prevenir que remediar’: ‘better to prevent than to remediate,’” said Becerra. “I would love to see us move in that direction so that we’re keeping you well and healthy versus trying to treat you and cure you after you’ve gotten ill.”
As he did when standing up for his name, Xavier Becerra knows it is incumbent on him “to help make a difference.”
Room for inequality? “No mas.”