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 more on the issues of criminal justice, immigration and tax policy, 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 Republican attorneys general. He has also been a leading voice in the Democratic Party 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. Vivek Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, will reprise that role for Mr. Biden. Telegenic and a 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.”

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.

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. 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 Affordable Care Act and would not be pushing Medicare for all while in office.

As California’s top law enforcement official, Mr. Becerra took a leading role in waging legal fights across the nation for access to health care, focusing in particular on breaking through barriers for women who struggled to get medical services.

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 during the president’s first term.

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. Neither of his parents “had much formal schooling,” according to an official, 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, he was a fierce advocate of the Latino community and became deeply involved in efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. He also promoted 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.”

But it was under his leadership that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus lost its bipartisan membership. In the late 1990s, Mr. Becerra traveled to Cuba and visited with its leader, Fidel Castro, which infuriated Republican members of the caucus. They resigned, saying they were “personally insulted” by the visit.

Mr. Biden’s selection of Mr. Becerra comes as the president-elect is under increasing pressure from the Latino community and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to diversify his cabinet. 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.

Mr. Luján’s frustration revealed a broader concern that few Latinos have been chosen for high-ranking positions in the Biden administration. Alejandro N. Mayorkas, a Cuban-American and the nominee for secretary of homeland security, has been the only Hispanic selected for a cabinet job.

A person familiar with the selection process said Ms. Lujan Grisham continued to be a co-chairwoman of Mr. Biden’s transition and would remain closely engaged with helping to confront the pandemic even after he takes office.

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