Xavier Becerra knew he would have a fight on his hands when he was sworn in as California attorney general on Jan. 24, 2017, four days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
“I knew there would be challenges with the administration, because of what Trump had been saying as a candidate,” he says. “But I had no idea how President Trump would operate. He’s much more extreme than we thought he’d be.”
The harvest has been a torrent of litigation pitting California against the federal government. Becerra has filed, either on behalf of California alone or in concert with other mostly blue states, 38 legal actions against federal agencies or challenging federal policies. (There may be more by the time you read this.) The figure includes lawsuits and petitions for injunctions; the state has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in several other actions. Most are pending.
The state is also defending against a lawsuit the government filed challenging legislation enacted in Sacramento to block federal immigration enforcement initiatives—the so-called sanctuary laws. A federal judge on July 9 largely upheld the state’s laws.
Trump’s rollback of regulations and policies affects Californians in a dizzying variety of professions and lifestyles. The administration has repealed or ceased to enforce rules protecting banking customers, student loan borrowers, buyers of health insurance, transgender workers and service members, and users of birth control. Its deregulatory fervor touches on environmental protection rules, raising the prospect of dirtier air and water; oil drilling in California offshore waters, which has been subject to a federal moratorium since 1984 and a state ban on new leases since 1994; and the protection of agricultural workers handling pesticides.
New Trump tariffs have prompted retaliatory measures by Canada, Mexico and China that will squeeze the state’s dairy farmers, many of whom rely on exports; Mexico, which has been the industry’s “most reliable trading partner,” has slapped a 25% tariff on U.S. cheese, dairy groups pointed out in a letter to Trump last month. Californians whose livelihoods depend on fishing see a threat to their ecosystems from federal diversion of water from the riverine environment to politically connected farmers.
These and other conflicts have turned California into what some have called “the resistance state.” Over the next weeks and months we’re going to be chronicling the conflict between California and the Trump administration. We’ll telling personal stories reflecting how Trump policies affect individuals, families and communities in California, and reporting what the state can and should do about them. We’re open to hearing your stories; feel free to send us tips at CalVsTrump@latimes.com.
The state’s resistance to Trump has played out not only in court, but in laws debated or passed in Sacramento as counterweights to Trump policies. There are also steps taken by agencies such as Covered California, the state’s Affordable Care Act exchange, to substitute homegrown consumer protection rules and regulations for those abandoned by the White House in its campaign of sabotage of the ACA.
The state also has pushed back against administration initiatives taking aim at California’s national leadership, which dates back decades, in fuel efficiency, auto emission standards and the promotion of renewable energy. Last summer, just days after President Trump announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Gov. Jerry Brown was in Beijing, meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping and signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperative research into green technology—overshadowing U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was in China at the same time but wasn’t granted an audience with Xi.
In recent weeks, the state legislature has taken up a measure to counter a repeal by the Federal Communications Commission of net neutrality regulations, which keep the internet’s playing field level for content producers small and large, by imposing even stricter rules; the measure has been passed by the Senate and is awaiting final action in the Assembly.
The state’s leaders are resisting Trump policies not chiefly on partisan political grounds, but out of a conviction that California’s policies are enhancing economic growth and other indicators of well-being. The state economy is among the fastest growing in the nation; if it were a country, it would have the fifth-biggest economy in the world. Despite its stringent environmental regulations, high taxes and reputation as a business-unfriendly state, California’s manufacturing sector is the nation’s largest, employing 1.3 million workers and easily outstripping second-ranked Texas, with 878,000 workers. California’s commitment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions has been so successful that the state’s initial goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 was reached in 2016—four years early—according to an announcement last month by the state Air Resources Board.
To the state’s dwindling Republican base, these initiatives by California’s Democratic leadership look like partisan political opportunism built around hostility to Trump. “It’s all a carefully orchestrated plan to distract California voters from what’s really going on in the state,” says state Republican Chairman Jim Brulte.
He points to rising income inequality, a dearth of affordable housing that drives thousands of residents out of the state every year and forces others to live in their cars, and an educational system that can’t meet the demands of the state’s own high-tech employers. He argues that Trump’s assault on “extreme regulations,” many of which are being defended by the state, has “helped California and the rest of the country,” and that middle- and low-income Californians will see lower taxes as a result of the Republican tax cut bill.
Plainly, the major points of conflict between the state and the Trump administration are immigration and environmental policies. Trump’s tightening of immigration rules, including liberalized rules covering people who came to the U.S. without documentation as children — the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — and the stepped-up border enforcement that created a family separation catastrophe, has thrown immigrant communities into chaos. Even legal immigrants are increasingly suspicious of police and wary of accessing public programs for healthcare or education.
The result has been the rapid expansion of sanctuary laws in cities and statewide that limit local cooperation with immigration agencies. The highest-profile pushback has been that of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. In February, Schaaf issued a tweet alerting her residents to a pending immigration sweep, placing her in the crosshairs of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who accused her of endangering “the lives of law enforcement just to promote a radical open borders agenda.”
Schaaf retorted that her goal was not to place officers’ lives at risk, but to safeguard the health and safety of her constituents. “It is a visceral experience to see how much fear and trauma this administration has imposed on our most vulnerable communities,” she told me recently. “When you have a city like Oakland, where roughly one-third of our residents are immigrants, you have to depend on everyone feeling they can call 911 when they have the need or that they can testify and be a witness to crime. You cannot have a community where a third of your residents feel they are victims without recourse. That is not public safety.”
The disconnect between California and Trump reflects a notable shift in California politics in recent decades. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the state was a fount of ideas and personalities for the national Republican Party. The GOP in that period was shaped by native Californian Richard Nixon and transplanted Midwesterner Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as governor before moving into national politics.
The peak of the California GOP’s influence may have been reached in 1994 with the passage of Proposition 187, a harsh anti-immigrant measure championed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. A federal judge later ruled the initiative unconstitutional, and an appeal was dropped by Wilson’s successor, Democrat Gray Davis. The measure cast a long shadow over the state’s Republicans. As my colleague Mark Z. Barabak observed 20 years later, its passage “energized a growing Latino voter population and badly damaged the image of the Republican Party … helping turn California into one of the bluest states in the country.” Today Republicans hold not a single statewide political or executive branch office.
As it happens, the provisions of Proposition 187 prefigure some immigration policies favored by the Trump administration. Law enforcement officers were expected to investigate detainees’ immigration status and report results to federal immigration authorities; undocumented immigrants were excluded from public services, including healthcare programs and schools; and local governments were prevented from interfering. No such law is likely to pass in California today.
Where can California go from here? Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic candidate for governor, says the state has the opportunity to move from reacting to Trump to filling the void in policy-making left by a dysfunctional administration, especially on topics like immigration. (We reached out to the GOP candidate for governor, John Cox, but got no response.)
“We truly are a nation-state that can use the bully pulpit to set a different agenda vis-a-vis Trump,” he says. With 27% of the state’s population foreign-born, “we cannot afford not to be assertive on the national stage.” Disparate communities within the state, including agriculture and tech, he says, share an interest in immigration reform. “No state has more to gain and more to lose” in the quest for sensible immigration policy, he says. “We have a real opportunity to push back on the status quo as it relates to that debate.”
In the meantime, the chief battlefield may be the courts. Becerra says he’s astonished at the degree to which Trump is forcing California and other states to revisit policies that had been established for years, even decades. “The need to relitigate things we thought were settled is what’s surprising,” he told me recently. “I could have imagined we would had to go to court on abortion or gun rights. But whether a child could be separated from a parent and sent to an internment camp?”
But he sees his task right now as protecting California values and initiatives. “We didn’t have to make investments in clean energy, but we did, and as a result we have more jobs in clean energy in California than there are in the entire coal industry. We don’t think we should look back simply because this president wants to do things the old way. The new way is working for us. Why should we want to change?”