California Strikes a Bold Pose as Vanguard of the Resistance
January 18, 2017
In the months since the election of Donald J. Trump, California has turned into a laboratory of resistance — championing legal, legislative and political strategies to counter Republican policies while pressing the kind of new Democratic policies that presumably will not be coming out of Washington anytime soon.
The state lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, said California could use its stringent environmental protection law
to block Mr. Trump from building a wall along the Mexican border. In Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers are pressing bills to expand environmental protections, provide legal assistance for immigrants facing deportation and raise gasoline taxes to pay for highway construction.
“An earned-income tax credit,” said Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the Assembly. “Huge infusions for early-childhood education. Those types of things are certainly things that we are interested in doing.”
Democratic members of the California delegation to Congress are lining up to announce they will not attend the inauguration of Mr. Trump. And in Los Angeles, Sheila Kuehl, a member of the powerful county board of supervisors, has started what she has called “Operation Monkey Wrench,” urging people, including state and federal government workers, to systematically disrupt Trump policies that run counter to California laws and policies.
“I am encouraging people to engage in any way they can to slow down anything that might come from the federal departments and Congress,” she said. “You can’t just be dormant when fascism is growing.”
It may not be “Calexit
” — the name of a decidedly quixotic campaign for California to withdraw from the union — but it is turning into what is, for all intents and purposes, a slow-motion secession.
California is becoming to Mr. Trump what Texas — which is as Republican as California is Democratic
— was to President Obama: a sea of defiance and a potential source of unending legal and legislative challenges. Texas sued the federal government more than 40 times in recent years, moving to block an influx of Syrian refugees and to stymie air pollution regulations and Mr. Obama’s health care plan. Earlier this month, Democrats in the California state legislature hired Eric H. Holder, the former attorney general, in anticipation of a run of legal battles with the Trump White House.
“We will definitely not sit by idly as the Trump administration tries to deport immigrants, throw people off health care, ignore climate change and steal our water,” said Scott Wiener, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors who was just elected to the State Senate. “It’s about playing defense to whatever the administration throws at us — but also offense in terms of continuing California’s push for progressive social change.”
Antonio R. Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles who is running for governor, said threatening to actually secede was the wrong response to what he described as policies that could be devastating for this state.
“I hear a lot of talk about Calexit,” he said. “The last time a state tried to leave the union there was a civil war. I think it would be a lot more productive for us just to double down on what we do well.”
For all the talk of defiance, and political considerations are certainly at play in the early war footing taken by leaders in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, there are great risks to assuming this confrontational stance from the outset.
For one thing, it could invite retribution from Mr. Trump, who has not seemed inclined to turn the other cheek.
For another, California could find itself at the end of the line should Mr. Trump proceed with the extensive infrastructure program he has pledged. It might also find itself in a difficult position in the event of the kind of natural disaster where states need to turn to the federal government for assistance; some Republicans in Congress opposed giving federal aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner where you lose your ability to negotiate,” said Ted Gaines, a Republican senator who represents a rural district east of Sacramento. “They’d be better off offering an olive branch rather than setting down a pathway that may make it difficult to back off.”
“I think it’s premature,” Mr. Gaines said. “If they want to come out fighting, I think that hurts the relationship in the long term.”
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former aide to Pete Wilson, a Republican governor, said that he thought Democrats were “playing to the crowd.” But he described the approach as a short-term strategy with risky long-term implications.
“Trump likes to bully. He does not like to be bullied. And he likes to have the last word,” he said. “There are going to be millions of dollars to be spent across the country on infrastructure. Why would you want to end up on Donald Trump’s blacklist? You could end up on that list anyway. But why pick a fight?”
All of this has unnerved some in the business community.
“This is all based on the president-elect’s campaign messaging,” said Allan Zaremberg, the chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t know how that is going to manifest in action.”
Jimmy Gomez, a Democratic assemblyman running for Congress, said he was not worried about any kind of retribution. “That would be an overreach for one president to punish one state,” he said. “When they do political payback not based on policy, but based on whether you are with them or against them, we will use that against them. If California doesn’t do well economically, the country doesn’t do well economically.”
California’s economy is the sixth-largest
in the world.
There are parts of this state, however, that showed considerable support for Mr. Trump, and that would applaud efforts, for example, to roll back air pollution regulations.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District — which regulates air quality in one of the dirtiest areas of the nation — is looking to President Trump’s transition team to amend the federal Clean Air Act, said Mark Keppler, a professor of public affairs at the California State University in Fresno, noting one example.
And there are limits to what the state can do. Mr. Brown, in a budget he presented last week, projected a $1.6 billion shortfall by next summer, which means it will be difficult for California to promote the kind of spending program lawmakers want to make up for cuts in Washington, particularly on health care. The legal efforts being threatened — by Mr. Holder for the legislature and by Xavier Becerra, whom Mr. Brown just tapped to be attorney general — could delay some actions by the Trump White House, but won’t necessarily block them.
Still, Democrats overwhelmingly control California, and the thinking about Mr. Trump appears to be uniform: The state is entering rough waters. Mr. Trump could move to cut off funds for so-called sanctuary cities accommodating illegal immigrants, such as San Francisco; sharply cut federal aid that was part of President Obama’s health care program; or use regulatory powers to try to halt this state’s aggressive policies to reduce carbon emissions.
“The impact of anything coming out of Washington is going to be so difficult for California that we are almost thrown into survival mode,” said Ms. Kuehl, who has been in public office since 1994. She said she had urged people — “everyone: local and state governments, staff of federal agencies, nonprofits, neighborhood groups” — to aggressively try to impede any policies pushed by Mr. Trump that undercut California laws or policies.
“I said ‘If you have to lie, cheat and steal, do it,’” Ms. Kuehl said. “Take federal money and just tell them you are going to do whatever they want.”