By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has become the face of the state's resistance to President Donald Trump, challenging the Republican administration's policies nearly four dozen times in court and providing the kind of meat-and-potatoes opposition that Democratic activists say they want.
Yet, he was eclipsed at last weekend's state Democratic Party convention by Dave Jones, the comparatively obscure state insurance commissioner who wants Becerra's job.
Delegates voted 56 percent for Jones and 42 percent for Becerra, though neither candidate received the 60 percent needed for the party's endorsement and financial support.
Becerra and Jones are the most prominent of 11 candidates who filed statements of intention to run for attorney general. The others include Republicans Steven Bailey, a former state judge, and Eric Early, a Los Angeles attorney. The top two vote-getters in the June primary will advance to the November general election regardless of party.
In separate interviews with The Associated Press, Jones and Becerra sharply criticized each other and parted ways on everything from their qualifications and priorities to whether Becerra has been a leader or a follower as he fights Trump's agenda.
Jones accused Becerra of “enabling opioid deaths” because his office has not yet fully implemented a statewide drug database, and of failing to seize guns from thousands of felons, those deemed mentally ill and others who are no longer allowed to own firearms.
Becerra repeatedly accused Jones of being deceptive and questioned if Jones would shirk his constitutional duties when it comes to carrying out the death penalty.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year appointed Becerra to a post that often has been a stepping-stone to California's highest offices: Brown himself previously served as attorney general, and Becerra replaced Kamala Harris after she was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Becerra, 60, served in Congress for nearly a quarter-century, rising to become the highest-ranking Latino. He spent two years in the state Assembly and previously was a deputy state attorney general.
Jones, 56, has twice won statewide office after stints in the Assembly and Sacramento City Council, and for three years was special assistant and counsel to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. He got his start providing free legal assistance to the poor.
“It's almost like the tortoise and the rabbit when you compare them, with Xavier being that very, very hardworking attorney general. He just gets the job done. He's liberal by any standard, but he's probably not as liberal as Dave Jones,” said Carlos Alcala, chairman of the state Democratic Party's Chicano Latino Caucus, which has not endorsed in the race.
Alcala personally supports Becerra but said Jones did a better job preparing for the party convention. Jones' views are more in line with those of party activists, particularly the Bernie Sanders wing, Alcala said.
The two aren't far apart on most issues, but Alcala said Jones appeared to more fully embrace universal health care and wants to abolish the death penalty, issues that can be litmus tests for party delegates.
Becerra said he has long supported universal health care. He fears the death-penalty process isn't foolproof, but both men said they would enforce the state's capital punishment law despite their misgivings. Becerra compared Jones to Republican U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he said would “pick and choose which laws he'll enforce.”
Jones said Becerra hasn't done enough to combat Trump, opioids, gun violence or corporate polluters.
Becerra trailed other states in challenging Trump's travel ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations and his bid to end a program that protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation, Jones said. However, it was Becerra's lawsuit that prevailed in protecting young immigrants, and travel ban challenges have been successful so far, too.
“For anyone to claim that I haven't been at front and center ... you can't get more deceptive than that,” Becerra said.
Jones also faulted Becerra for failing in a legal challenge to the administration ending billions in consumer health care subsidies, and said he should be challenging Trump's acceptance of money from foreign officials who stay at Trump's hotels.
“I'll do a better job of resisting Trump,” Jones said, “but we can do more than just resist Trump.”
Becerra said he wants to make sure the state's prescription drug database protects Californians' medical privacy, and is seeking more money to seize illegal weapons. He laughed at Jones' assertion that he has seven years' experience running a law enforcement agency because his department has more than 8,000 insurance fraud arrests.
“How many guns have any of my opponents taken off the streets with their law enforcement operations? How many sex trafficking rings ... ? How many embezzlement rings ... ? We can go through the list,” he said. “We do far more work on important matters that have nothing to do with Donald Trump.”
University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said Jones has an uphill battle given what likely will be Becerra's growing lead in name recognition and campaign fundraising. Becerra raised twice as much as Jones last year and had $3.1 million in his campaign account going into this election year to Jones' $1.5 million. However, Jones also may be able to use part of the $2.5 million he has left over from a prior race.
Trump, in an unintended consequence, is effectively helping Becerra by allowing him to position himself as the “anti-Trump, the resistance to Trump,” she said.