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.