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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

"He's sort of one of the few young dynamic Latino leaders in the House," said Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report. "He's very intelligent and well-respected, even by Republicans I talk to."

Although he has succeeded in climbing the Washington ladder, Becerra has also, on occasion, dramatically demonstrated his political naivete.

"I understand the politics," Becerra said. "I'm not the best at playing the game."

In 1993, the freshman legislator took on Dan Rostenkowski, then the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee--which Becerra was trying to join.

Rostenkowski wanted to cut welfare benefits to legal immigrants, to fund an extension of unemployment benefits. Becerra and other Hispanic Caucus members objected. They negotiated with House leaders to preserve the payments to blind, elderly and disabled legal immigrants.

An amended bill was drafted with Rostenkowski's reluctant approval. But before it went to the floor for a vote, Becerra made a fatal mistake. During a weekly Democratic whip meeting, he rose to thank the leadership for supporting the bill. Rostenkowski, still frustrated at the change, growled at him.

Becerra could have stopped talking at that point. But he didn't.

Breaching House protocol, the young congressman took on the veteran chairman, arguing that legal immigrants had every right to be in the country.

What ensued was an almost unheard of shouting match, as Becerra continued to raise his voice over the chairman's bellows. Later, on the floor, Rostenkowski lambasted the amended bill as damaging to jobless Americans. The compromise failed. The next day, the original plan passed and was signed into law.

"I learned a lot from that," an unrepentant Becerra said recently. "There were people who said to me afterward, 'Xavier, if you just kept your mouth shut, you had it. You had won.' I said, 'Why do we have to win that way?' "

Becerra's actions also backfired in late 1996, when he took a four-day educational trip to Cuba just as he was bidding to become chairman of the Hispanic Caucus.

Predictably, his trip set off a firestorm of criticism in the Cuban exile community. The three Cuban American legislators were furious he had visited the island and not denounced Fidel Castro's regime.

Becerra was eventually elected chairman of the caucus, but its two Cuban American Republicans resigned from the group, ending its bipartisan clout.

Over time, Becerra did develop some political prowess: Under his guidance, the caucus successfully lobbied to win back some of the benefits for legal immigrants cut in 1994, and pushed Clinton to include more Latinos in his administration.

But questions about his political judgment persist, most recently centering on the case of convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali. Becerra, who has received nearly $14,000 in political donations from Vignali's father, Horacio, wrote a letter to Clinton in November asking for a review of Vignali's conviction. He also called a White House counsel--on Clinton's last night in office--to inquire about the status of the case. Vignali's sentence was commuted the next day.

His involvement, along with that of other Los Angeles leaders, contributed to the firestorm of controversy that flared over the pardons and commutations granted by Clinton.

Surprised by the criticism, Becerra said that it did not occur to him that he might be seen as using his political leverage on behalf of a donor. He was merely trying to get information, he said. He insists that he never asked Clinton outright to give Vignali clemency--merely to see if his 15-year sentence was too harsh.

Becerra entered the Los Angeles mayor's race with a few advantages, some shrewdly obtained. He has won convincingly in a district that ranges from Boyle Heights west to Hollywood. Facing minimal competition in his last reelection campaign, he spent almost $860,000--including almost $400,000 on television ads--to boost his name recognition citywide just as the mayoral election approached. It may have paid off: A recent Los Angeles Times poll put Becerra in the thick of a many-candidate tussle for second place behind the front-runner, City Atty. James K. Hahn.

But Becerra's campaign has suffered from a central disadvantage. Having been fingered by fate for so long, Becerra has found it difficult to answer the most basic of questions: Why is he running?

As recently as December, almost a year after he entered the race, he told Times reporters that he had not yet come up with a message for his candidacy. "I have to figure that out," he said.

More recently, he said his interest in becoming mayor grew after he battled with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Los Angeles Unified School District over their federal funding.

"It was real frustrating and I thought, we have to do better than this," he said. "The more it became clear that no one was stepping forward who I felt inspired by, the more I started thinking about it. It's worth a shot."

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