By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday nominated U.S. Congressman Xavier Becerra to be attorney general, a high-powered pick that signals the state's readiness to defend its progressive policies as Republicans consolidate power in Washington.
In choosing Becerra, 58, Brown is tapping a pragmatic and reliably progressive Democrat with a deep knowledge of Washington politics as the state's top lawyer. He will replace Democrat Kamala Harris, who was elected last month to the U.S. Senate, at a time when California is positioning itself to respond to anticipated conservative policies from Republican President-elect Donald Trump.
"California’s prosperity and people are currently under threat by a hostile Trump administration," California Senate leader Kevin de Leon said on Thursday. "Xavier will serve as a guardian of the Constitution and an ultimate check and balance against the forces of division and scapegoating that are mobilizing in Washington."
Brown, a Democrat who is particularly concerned that Trump and congressional Republicans will try to roll back environmental protections and reduce the U.S. role in efforts to combat climate change, cited Becerra as someone who could battle such efforts.
"Xavier has been an outstanding public servant – in the State Legislature, the U.S. Congress and as a deputy attorney general," Brown said in announcing the appointment. "I'm confident he will be a champion for all Californians and help our state aggressively combat climate change."
The appointment also takes Becerra out of the running to become the ranking member of Congress's powerful Ways and Means committee. In a statement released on Thursday, outgoing ranking member Sandy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, indicated the position would be filled by U.S. Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts.
A Stanford-trained lawyer, Becerra served as California's deputy attorney general before winning a seat in Congress representing the northeastern section of Los Angeles in 1992.
In Congress, Becerra rose to chair the House Democratic Caucus and also served on the Ways and Means Committee and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
"California right now is ahead of the country when it comes to clean energy, commonsense treatment of immigrants, real health security and so much more," Becerra said.
The Sacramento native said in a conference call with reporters he would welcome friendly overtures from Trump and the Republicans who control Congress, but promised sharp pushback if the federal government tries to undo progressive policies on immigration, the environment, worker protections and other issues.
"If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us," Becerra said.
If approved by the Democratic-majority state legislature, Becerra will replace Harris after she resigns from the post to join the Senate in coming weeks. Harris, also a Democrat, replaces U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who is retiring.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Diane Craft and Jonathan Oatis)