‘California versus Trump’ became an instant rallying cry. But ‘resistance’ has been more complicated

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), right, backed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, blasted the president's decision to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at a news conference on Sept. 5.
(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

Within a day of President Trump’s election last November, California's top Democratic lawmakers responded with a joint statement that contained an audacious promise. It was their state, not Washington, D.C., that would be the "keeper of the nation's future."

An artistic rendering of that vow, with looping calligraphy and a roaring Grizzly, is now on display in the offices of Senate leader Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. In the wake of Trump's win, the words seemed to be a sort of foundational document — California's declaration of resistance.

That pugilistic posture is often conveyed in shorthand: California versus Trump. But the ensuing legislative year, which ended Friday, revealed the messy reality of squaring up against the federal government.

“It’s been challenging,” De León (D-Los Angeles) said, bleary-eyed as he took a break during the final days of the session. “You have to debate, you have to negotiate, you have to make your case, and I think at the end of the day, we’ll still have the most far-reaching policy in the nation.”

The Capitol’s ruling Democrats introduced more than 35 bills to mount policy blockades against Trump. Four have since become law or part of the state budget, and eight more await the governor’s signature. Some have been scaled back from their original sweeping premise, and many early bills flamed out entirely. The most acid-tipped barbs came from more than two dozen resolutions, mainly regarding Trump’s conduct, which do not carry the force of law.

But for some members, even those had value. As proceedings limped into Friday evening, the Assembly lobbed another salvo, a resolution calling for a congressional censure of Trump’s reaction after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

“I would like to move on to another subject, too,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers. “But I keep getting pulled back to reality …. Hatred and discrimination is a weed, and it grows best in neglect.”

The very first day of the legislative session was marked by denunciations of Trump in both houses, when the president was weeks away from occupying the Oval Office. He’s been inescapable ever since, seeping into the political atmosphere of a state he has yet to visit as president.

Fears that Trump would create a federal registry of Muslims prompted a bill that would ban the state from sharing information for any database based on religion, ethnicity or national origin. The president’s break from precedent in deciding not to release his tax returns inspired a measure that would require such disclosure from presidential candidates to appear on the California ballot. Both measures now await a decision by the governor.

In a state that’s home to more than 2.3 million people without legal residency, immigration policy drove a slew of actions. The centerpiece was De León’s “sanctuary state” bill, an effort to shield people from deportation by limiting communication between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

The broad protections in his proposal quickly collided with opposition from law enforcement and unease from Brown. Just days before the close of session, the governor and De Léon agreed to scale back the bill, permitting communication with immigration authorities if the inmate was previously convicted with one of roughly 800 crimes.

The changes were meant to guard against backlash from the public, should the proposal be perceived as shielding violent criminals from immigration enforcement. Nancy McFadden, Brown’s top advisor, said they sought to balance the goals of aiding immigrants “without going so far that we end up hurting ourselves and starting to sway public opinion against the very thing we’re trying to do.”

“We do not want more people to join the Trump train of hate,” she added.

Other ambitious bills stalled entirely. De León’s proposal to enshrine large portions of federal environmental regulations, such as clean air and water protections, into state law — in anticipation of rollbacks from the Trump administration — withered without a vote Friday night. And two bills that would punish private companies that aided Trump in his as-yet unrealized bid to build a wall on the country’s southern border failed to advance.

Still, the California-versus-Trump narrative persisted, reliably attracting national attention when state leaders threw out jabs. But their feistiness belied a vulnerability to the mercy of a federal government that is tightly intertwined with the state.

The push by Trump and congressional Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act underscored how exposed the state really is. A successful rollback threatened to financially cripple the state, which had fully embraced Obamacare.

But officials acknowledged the state has been spared, thanks to the president’s legislative fumbles.

“We've been fortunate that he's politically impotent,” Rendon said, adding that if Trump improved his success rate in enacting his agenda, “there’s not a whole heck of a lot that we can do."

The next venue for more assertive action from California officials is likely to be the courts, where the rights of states versus the federal government are tested. Just as conservative Texas used litigation in an attempt to stymie then-President Obama on immigration and environmental policy, California is looking to the judiciary to block Trump’s goals.

In January, Rendon and De León hired former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to help plot the Legislature’s legal strategy, although only the state Senate continued the relationship after several months.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has sued the Trump administration six times since April and filed amicus briefs opposing a number of the president’s policies, including the travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries. Among the lawsuits are challenges to the Department of Education for delaying protections for student borrowers and to the Justice Department for threatening to withhold money from jurisdictions with “sanctuary” policies that protect immigrants.

The exacting work of litigation does not always align with the urgency of politics. When Trump announced plans to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program to shield from deportation around 800,000 young adults who were brought to the country illegally, 15 states quickly responded with a court challenge. California was not among them; Becerra filed his own lawsuit five days later.

“When we filed our lawsuit to defend the DACA recipients, people said, ‘How come you didn’t do it last week when they did it in New York?’” Becerra recalled with a chuckle. “I said, look, we have to do this the right way.”

Texas was Obama's chief antagonist. In Trump's America, California is eager for the part »

Throughout the year, the desire to challenge Trump was “an important component. We had to spend time on it, no doubt,” McFadden said. “But it hasn’t been the sole focus. And it shouldn’t be.”

Trump had little to do with the year’s biggest legislative battles. The nail-biter votes were on hiking the state’s gas tax to repair roads and bridges, and securing a package of bills to promote affordable housing — issues that had eluded lawmakers for years. The push to extend the cap-and-trade program, California's signature tool to combat climate change, was colored by the president's rejection of action on the environment, but it would have been a top priority of Brown's no matter who occupied the White House.

"The president didn't create the water crisis,” said Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley). “He didn't create the housing crisis that we have. He didn't create the fact that we haven't built enough freeways and we're stuck in traffic. None of that was created by him."

Meanwhile, in resolutions, the Trump critiques could be most scathing — using his loss of the popular vote to prompt a call to abolish the electoral college or pointedly noting his fondness for Russia. But they also led legislative leaders to share their own backgrounds, stories they said painted the diverse picture of California families.

In one frank exchange over a resolution to condemn Trump’s DACA decision, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) said his experience as the son of Mexican immigrants without legal status was not much different than that of a “Dreamer,” save for where he was born.

“I was born here, and yes, I became an ‘anchor baby,’” he said, identifying with a derogatory term for the child of a mother without U.S. citizenship.

But the zeal to denounce Trump could also be alienating to Republicans, who felt Democrats were going out of their way to verbally kneecap the president.

"It’s been so partisan,” said Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine). “If you had a solid message going to Trump, wouldn't it be better if the Trump supporters were on board with the resolution, so it solved the problem?”

The unease wasn’t limited to Republicans. Rendon (D-Paramount) declared in February he was tired of talking about Trump and said last week he fretted at times that Democrats “devolved into symbolism.” He made a point of reminding his members multiple times of the need to keep focus on “California’s business,” and in conversations with reporters, he implied his Senate colleagues were not doing the same.

For De Léon, the appetite to take shots at Trump remains strong.

“Donald Trump is a threat to everything that we stand for as a great state,” he said. “So, it’s not just as president of the Senate, or as a senator, but more importantly as an ordinary citizen and son of a single immigrant mother do I take these positions.”

His partner in resistance, Rendon, has moved away from seeking direct confrontation with the president. Instead, his focus has turned inward, arguing a successful California is the best way to undermine Trump.

Rendon said he’s not even too sure about the term “resistance,” which he says evokes France under Nazi rule in World War II. He wobbled on whether it is an apt metaphor for California today.

“I think, yeah, to an extent it is,” he said, before reversing himself. “No, I don't actually.

“There was a point early in the year at which I thought California was going to feel like it was an occupied state,” he continued. “I no longer feel that way …. California's firmly in control of its own destiny.”

Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.



Texas was Obama's chief antagonist. In Trump's America, California is eager for the part

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelves single-payer healthcare bill, calling it 'woefully incomplete'

How California's Trust Act shaped the debate on the new 'sanctuary state' proposal

California clean energy proposals face demise as opposition fails to yield

The housing package passed by California lawmakers is the biggest thing they've done in years. But it won't lower your rent

Updates from Sacramento