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PROFILE: XAVIER BECERRA

Congressman Tests His Winning Streak

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

March 12, 2001|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another college acquaintance said he was "the straightest Chicano I knew. It looked like his short-sleeved shirts were ironed." (They were.)

When his girlfriend--now wife--Carolina Reyes was downstairs in the lounge of the Casa Zapata dorm leading meetings of the Chicano activist organization MEChA, Becerra was more likely to be upstairs studying. Friends encouraged him to take a greater leadership role on campus, but Becerra was intent on getting into law school. (He did, graduating from Stanford Law in 1984.)

"I was the grandiose one who wanted to conquer the world, and he did too, but he wanted to do it step by step," said Reyes, now an obstetrician.

After working for Legal Aid in Massachusetts while his wife attended Harvard Medical School, Becerra came back to Sacramento to work for state Sen. Art Torres, who had been his boss during a post-college fellowship. He moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to run Torres' district office.

Soon, he met Eastside political operative Henry Lozano, chief of staff for the venerable Rep. Edward Roybal, the dean of local Latino politics. One day on the golf course, Lozano asked Becerra, so when are you going to run?

He wasn't.

"I'm a policy guy," Becerra told Lozano.

A few years later, Lozano and other Eastside community leaders invited Becerra--by then a deputy attorney general--to meet. They posed the question again, more specifically: Will you run for the open state Assembly seat in the San Gabriel Valley?

"I guess we were considered kingmakers," said Frank Villalobos, a longtime Eastside activist who was at the meeting. "When we asked someone, it was pretty much considered giving them el dedazo."

El dedazo, literally the fingering from a powerful person: It's your turn.

New Generation of Latino Leaders

Becerra looked stunned. He thought they were kidding, until he realized no one was laughing. He'd have to talk to his wife, he said.

"My vision was I was going to be the right-hand person that an elected official counts on to do the memos, to advise," he said. "You know, the one you always see in the movies whispering in the ear of the official, and then all of a sudden the eloquent question comes out."

But once planted, the idea took root.

A group known as the "macho dogs"--Lozano, Villalobos, future city Councilman Mike Hernandez, future Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Molina's husband, Ron Martinez--put together his campaign.

Torres, Becerra's old boss, loaned staff and helped Becerra raise money. They challenged the candidates being backed by two other powerful Latinos. (Later, Molina, then an assemblywoman, endorsed Becerra and brought on her political team.)

The fresh-faced, Stanford-educated Becerra fit the image voters were seeking, weary as they were of scandal in the wake of state Sen. Joseph Montoya's political corruption conviction.

Becerra's victory kicked off a new era in Latino politics, a rise in young, polished college graduates who offered a different mold of leadership than many of their roughhewn elders.

Two years later, Roybal decided to retire from Congress after 16 terms.

The power brokers, including Molina, approached Becerra again. This time, he had the support of both the powerful county supervisor and Roybal.

Becerra moved into the district, sleeping on his friend Villaraigosa's couch for a few nights before he found an apartment. Fending off criticism that he was a carpetbagger, he won a tough primary against school board member Leticia Quezada and handily beat his Republican opponent that November.

Last fall, he won reelection with 83% of the vote.

Becerra's relationship with Villaraigosa--and their competition on the ballot--has served as a tense undercurrent to the mayor's race. Becerra resisted efforts last year by Molina and Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to broker a compromise so that only one Latino would be in the race.

Becerra has repeatedly told supporters that he refused to cut a deal with Villaraigosa because he doesn't believe in el dedazo.

But isn't that exactly how he got into office?

He laughed at the question.

"Those were tiny dedos," he said. "What they offered wasn't enough to push me over the finish line."

Others disagreed.

"He'd be nowhere if Gloria Molina hadn't put him in office," said one Latino leader and longtime associate who did not want to be identified.

When pressed, Becerra acknowledged he got help.

"I am where I am because of others," he said. "What I'm saying is I've never been part of the establishment."

'Not the Best at Playing the Game'

Whatever the origins of his success, Becerra thrived in Congress. His diligent attention to detail earned praise from members of both parties. A fluent Spanish speaker, he has spent much of his time pressing issues affecting his Latino constituency, such as restoring benefits to legal immigrants and defending bilingual education.

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