In the run-up to Election Day, when Barack Obama’s history-making victory wasn’t exactly a sure thing, our local congressman urged persistence and optimism.
“We’ve got a big ship there in Washington, with a lot of right-wing momentum pushing it forward,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra on a sultry August evening, speaking to our Democratic club here in Los Angeles. “But if you can stop that ship, if you can start to turn it, you can get the momentum going in your direction and really get something done—with healthcare, with jobs, with ending the war, with all the things Democrats care about.”
Saturday morning, we caught up with Becerra again, this time at a “Coffee with Your Congressman” at an elementary school in a working class neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles. In the intervening three months, American’s economic prospects have darkened considerably, with storied Wall Street brokerage houses failing, Main Line banks collapsing, and America’s Big Three automakers alighting in the nation’s capital, top hats in hand, begging for relief.
But as you listened to this ever-optimistic son of a farm worker field questions from the audience overflowing the school’s gymnasium, you knew something else had happened. Sure, Barack Obama has gotten elected, and with him sizeable majorities in both houses of Congress. More than that, you could feel in the tone of the questioners’ voices and the expressions on their faces that something else has happened. Becerra’s persistence has paid off. America’s ship has begun to turn.
The Things Democrats Care About
Not surprisingly, given the largely Latino audience, immigration reform came up first. “We need to stop the magnet of jobs that draws people to our country by prosecuting companies who hire undocumented workers,” said Becerra, who has represented this congressional district in California since 1992. “Then, you’ve got to get the undocumented out of the shadows by providing a pathway to citizenship.”
Based on conversations he’s had in the Hispanic and Democratic caucuses, Becerra expects an immigration reform bill to come forward, perhaps as early as next fall. “Not piecemeal legislation that addresses part of the problem here and part there, but comprehensive reform,” he said.
On the economic front, Becerra explained that he initially voted against the Wall Street bailout package because it didn’t contain explicit repayment guarantees, nor was the money properly directed. “Rather than put money out the back door to prop up banks, I would much rather put it out the front door, giving it to homeowners directly so they can make their mortgage payments,” he said.
“And now we’re seeing that the financial institutions are not spending the money as Congress intended,” he continued. “I doubt we’ll give them the second $290 billion funding.”
Similarly, Becerra is joining with other Democrats, such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), to set firm parameters for any auto industry bailout. “You want money? Fine. Prove that you’re going to pivot away from making SUVs to producing solid, energy-efficient vehicles,” he said. “And show how you’re going to pay back the people’s loan. Then we can talk.”
This past Wednesday, Becerra was elected vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, the fifth position in the Democratic Congressional hierarchy. “That puts me in the room,” he said. “For example, when the auto executives visited this week, I was there, able to influence the discussion, better able to represent your views.”
Not All a Bed of Roses
The cardinal defeat for progressives here in California was the passage of Proposition 8, the amendment to the state’s constitution that overturns the recent State Supreme Court decision in outlawing marriages between gays and lesbians.
Becerra’s district overall is 70% Latino; in the working class neighborhood where today’s session was held the percentage is probably much higher. Many are Roman Catholics, as is Becerra, and many likely favored the passage of Prop 8.
So, Becerra’s stout, fully explained defense of marriage equality this morning was especially gratifying, given the political capital it may have cost him.
“If marriage was religious, we could all decide how to handle it for ourselves,” he said. “But it’s a civil institution, protected by the courts. So it has to be for everyone equally.”
Interrupted early in his talk by a call from Obama’s newly named chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Becerra briefly spoke with Emanuel but quickly got back to his constituents turning to the issue he is most interested in — changing the kind of funding decisions made by our government.
“I believe in making investments that will be seen by our kids,” he concluded. “Head Start is a good investment. Health care for everyone is a good investment.”
With Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the White House, and thoughtful, compassionate leaders like Becerra in key positions in Congress, you have to believe that those kinds of investments will finally get made.
Dick Price & Sharon Kyle
LA Progressive, Editor & Publisher