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Congressman Tests His Winning Streak

Mayor's race: Diligence, strong allies are hallmarks. But Becerra has had trouble offering a clear vision.


Rep. Xavier Becerra isn't worried that he has less money and fewer endorsements than other candidates running for mayor of Los Angeles. He isn't worried because the lessons he has gleaned from his 11 years in public office are that Things Work Out. Opportunities Arise. The Underdog Surprises People.

If you lived a life shaped by luck and discipline and powerful patrons, a life that propelled you, after one term as a state assemblyman, to become a respected member of Congress, you might feel the same way.

At age 43, driven less by a determined vision than by a strict work ethic and influential allies, Becerra has accumulated a fair share of political success, particularly considering he had no ambition for public office until about a decade ago.

As chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he forged strong relationships with Capitol Hill leaders and President Clinton. He won a plum assignment on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the first Latino so named. Colleagues from both parties regard him as sharp and fair-minded.

This time around, however, happenstance and hard work may not be enough. The mayor's race is testing Becerra's political acumen and his sunny string of luck. The candidate once perceived as the "favorite son" among up-and-coming Latino leaders is jousting for recognition in a crowded field. Even former allies such as County Supervisor Gloria Molina say they are puzzled that he is running.

Becerra has been slow to develop a compelling message for his candidacy. He has infuriated some Latino leaders who fear that he will split community support with fellow candidate and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, preventing either one from winning. He has come under fire for his role in President Clinton's controversial commutation of a drug trafficker's sentence.

Becerra's involvement in the commutation flap was a jarring contrast to the most persistent image of the congressman--that of a clean-cut, above-the-board legislator, a man some colleagues admire as the "Boy Scout" of politics.

Becerra's mother, Maria Teresa, has a favorite story about her son. One Sunday morning when he was about 8 years old, he tired of waiting as she readied his three sisters for Mass at their south Sacramento church.

"Vamos, Mama," he said. "Mass starts in 10 minutes."

"Si, hijo," she responded. "Paciencia."

But Becerra couldn't wait. Not willing to risk being late, he walked out the door and down the seven blocks to church by himself.

The entire truth about that Sunday may be a little less saccharine.

"I probably didn't want to go to a later Mass and miss football," Becerra said recently, laughing.

Hard Work and Good Grades

The only son among four children, Becerra always got good grades. He broke up fights in high school. He helped his father do construction work as a teenager, quick to handle the heavy labor.

Even then, he succeeded with a combination of chance and by-the-books meticulousness.

Take golf.

It was not the obvious sport for the son of a construction worker growing up in a one-bedroom house. But an elementary school friend's father was an avid player, and gave his son a set of golf clubs. The two boys putted around in the friend's backyard after class. When they grew older, they played at a small public course nearby, sharing a single set of clubs.

Finally, Becerra's father scraped together enough money to buy him a cheap set of Kmart clubs. But he didn't have enough to pay for lessons. So Becerra mastered golf much as he would tackle politics: by cramming.

He went to the library and checked out golf books. He cut the weekly golf tips column out of the Sacramento Bee. Finally, by his senior year at C.K. McClatchy High School, he made the varsity golf team.

During high school, Becerra also mastered a very different hobby: poker. He became so good that years later, during a trip to Las Vegas with his parents, a casino offered him a job as a dealer.

While he gained command of some subjects with focus and diligence, chance also set him on his course to college.

One day in high school chemistry class, a friend who had botched an exam tossed aside his application to Stanford University. Becerra picked it up and, on a whim, filled it out. He didn't know where the campus was until he and his mother drove there to enroll him in the fall of 1976.

The son of Mexican immigrants--his mother grew up in Guadalajara and his father, Manuel, was born in Sacramento but raised in Tijuana--Becerra would become the first in his family to graduate from college.

Close friend Arturo Vargas, who met Becerra at Stanford, said he "always had a clean-boy image, almost to a fault."

"On campus, people tended to drink beer and be rowdy," said Vargas, now the executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based in Los Angeles. "The time I knew him, he was more likely to drink milk."

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