WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has selected Xavier Becerra, the Democratic attorney general of California, as his nominee for secretary of health and human services, tapping a former congressman who would be the first Latino to run the department as it battles the surging coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Becerra became Mr. Biden’s clear choice only over the past few days, according to people familiar with the transition’s deliberations, and was a surprise. Mr. Becerra has carved out a profile on the issues of criminal justice and immigration, and he was long thought to be a candidate for attorney general.
But as attorney general in California, he has been at the forefront of legal efforts on health care, leading 20 states and the District of Columbia in a campaign to protect the Affordable Care Act from being dismantled by his Republican counterparts. He has also been vocal in the Democratic Party about fighting for women’s health.
If confirmed, Mr. Becerra will immediately face a daunting task in leading the department at a critical moment during a pandemic that has killed more than 281,000 people in the United States — and one that has taken a particularly devastating toll on people of color.
“The A.C.A. has been life-changing and now through this pandemic, we can all see the value in having greater access to quality health care at affordable prices,” Mr. Becerra said in June, when he filed a brief with the Supreme Court in defense of the health care law. “Now is not the time to rip away our best tool to address very real and very deadly health disparities in our communities.”
A spokesman for Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment. The president-elect plans to formally announce Mr. Becerra as his choice to lead the health department early this week, along with several other top health care advisers, according to people familiar with the rollout.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, will be selected to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a person familiar with Mr. Biden’s deliberations. Dr. Walensky, whose selection was reported earlier by Politico, will replace Dr. Robert R. Redfield as the leader of the scientific agency at the forefront of the nation’s pandemic response.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, will reprise that role for Mr. Biden. A telegenic confidant of the president-elect, Mr. Murthy will become one of Mr. Biden’s closest advisers on medical issues and will lead much of the public outreach on the pandemic.
Jeffrey D. Zients, an entrepreneur and management consultant who served as the head of Mr. Obama’s National Economic Council and fixed the bungled rollout of the health law’s online insurance marketplace, will become a coronavirus czar in the White House, leading efforts to coordinate the fight against the coronavirus pandemic among the government’s sprawling agencies.
Some medical experts, who have been pushing the Biden team to name people with medical or public health expertise to serve in health leadership positions, were caught off guard — and unhappily so — by the news of Mr. Becerra’s selection.
In a letter sent last week to Mr. Biden, five leading medical groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians among them — called on the president-elect to appoint “qualified physicians to serve in key positions critical to advancing the health of our nation.”On Politics with Lisa Lerer: A guiding hand through the political news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.
One person familiar with that effort said people involved were “astounded” by the selection of Mr. Becerra, and suggested that Mr. Biden elevate Dr. Murthy to a cabinet-level position.
But in an interview on Sunday night, Dr. Ada D. Stewart, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the groups that sent the letter, described Mr. Becerra as “a good choice” and “an experienced legislator and executive” — even as she conceded that her group would “prefer, of course, to have a physician in this position.”
“We’ve already seen his commitment to health and equity, and those things can’t be overlooked,” she said.
Mr. Becerra’s experience in Washington may also help Mr. Biden secure legislative changes to bolster the Affordable Care Act, a central promise that the president-elect made during the 2020 campaign.
Mr. Becerra, 62, served 12 terms in Congress, representing Los Angeles, before becoming the attorney general of his home state in 2017. He is the first Latino to hold that office, and while in Congress he was the first Latino to serve as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, where he worked on health care as a senior member of the health subcommittee. He also led the House Democratic Caucus, which gave him a powerful leadership post.
An outspoken advocate of improved health care access, Mr. Becerra said in 2017 that he would “absolutely” support Medicare for all, a proposal for government-run health care that Mr. Biden has explicitly rejected. A source familiar with the selection said Mr. Becerra would support the president-elect’s call for strengthening and preserving the A.C.A. and would not be pushing Medicare for all while in office.
As California’s top law enforcement official, Mr. Becerra helped lead legal fights across the nation for access to health care, focusing in particular on dismantling barriers for women struggling to get medical services.The Presidential Transition
In April, Mr. Becerra led a coalition of 22 state attorneys general in challenging a Mississippi law that prohibited doctors from providing abortion services past 15 weeks. In a statement at the time, Mr. Becerra called the ban “unjust, unlawful, and unfair.”
“Laws like Mississippi’s are a systematic attempt to undo a woman’s constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade,” he said. “I will continue to stand up for safe access to reproductive care and defend these rights for all women.”
Mr. Becerra’s office boasted frequently of the many lawsuits he had filed against the Trump administration, including suits challenging the president’s immigration and environmental policies. His activism in fighting the Trump agenda in court earned him praise from leading progressives in the Democratic Party.
In September, Mr. Becerra said the tally of his anti-Trump lawsuits had grown to 100.
But Mr. Becerra also partnered with Republican counterparts at times, joining a bipartisan group of attorneys general in August to urge the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to increase access to remdesivir, a drug that has shown promise in treating Covid-19. He also worked with Republicans to prevent student vaping.
Born in Sacramento, Mr. Becerra grew up in a working-class family; his mother emigrated from Mexico, and he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He attended Stanford as an undergraduate and received his law degree there in 1984.
Mr. Biden was impressed by Mr. Becerra’s personal story, according to a person familiar with his thinking. In particular, the president-elect liked the fact that Mr. Becerra served clients with mental health needs shortly after graduating from law school, the person said.
While in Congress, Mr. Becerra was a fierce advocate of the Latino community and became deeply involved in efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. He also promoted plans to build a national museum devoted to exploring the culture and history of American Latinos. The House voted this year to create such a museum.
Representative Filemon Vela, Democrat of Texas, praised Mr. Biden’s choice of Mr. Becerra, calling it “historic” and saying the California attorney general was the right person to lead the sprawling agency during the worst public health crisis in 100 years.
“Becerra will lead an agency that will play a crucial role in overseeing a massive immunization effort and help manage a bolstered federal response to tackle the worsening Covid-19 crisis,” Mr. Vela said. “He will also help shape the Biden administration’s efforts to build on the Affordable Care Act.”
In the late 1990s, Mr. Becerra traveled to Cuba and visited with its leader, Fidel Castro, which infuriated Republican members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They resigned, saying they were “personally insulted” by the visit.
Mr. Biden’s selection of Mr. Becerra to replace the current secretary, Alex M. Azar II, comes as the president-elect is under increasing pressure from the Latino community and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to diversify his cabinet. Mr. Becerra is the second Latino Mr. Biden has chosen for his cabinet after the selection last month of Alejandro N. Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant, as secretary of homeland security.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico had been thought to be in line for the health secretary’s job, but she apparently fell out of the running. Instead, news leaked last week that Ms. Lujan Grisham had been offered, and turned down, the position of interior secretary.
The leak prompted Senator-elect Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico to use a private meeting with top Biden advisers to rebuke the incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, and other senior Biden officials for their treatment of Ms. Lujan Grisham, according to a Democrat familiar with the discussion.
If approved, Mr. Becerra’s nomination would create yet another statewide office in California to be filled by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was already considering candidates, including Mr. Becerra, for the Senate seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Mr. Becerra has been California’s attorney general since 2017, when Ms. Harris was elected to the Senate and Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to fill her seat. His term would expire in 2022.