SACRAMENTO — Ripping into Donald Trump in the final hours of this year’s legislative session, California lawmakers passed measures urging Congress to censure the president, bucking his immigration policies and seeking to force him to release his tax returns. They also formally called on Trump “to publicly apologize to all Americans for his racist and bigoted behavior.”
If there was any question about the location of the nerve center of the anti-Trump resistance, it was settled with a defiant fusillade of legislation Friday and Saturday memorializing California’s antipathy toward the president.
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The end-of-session rush of bills served as a reminder of the limitations of the president’s recent diplomacy with Democrats in Washington — and of an unrelenting effort to keep pressure on the president from afar.
“The issue of resistance is beyond the symbolism,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said after the session officially closed. “There’s real lives at stake … and I think that a lot of other municipalities, as well as other states, are looking towards California … to be the leader of this resistance.”
Trump’s imprint has been heavy in statehouses across the country, with Democrats — and some moderate Republicans — bidding to blunt the effects of the administration’s policies on issues ranging from health care to climate change and immigration.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed legislation last month prohibiting local authorities from detaining people based solely on their immigration status. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown barred state agencies from participating in the creation of any Muslim registry. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed amending his state’s hate crime statute to include inciting a riot against protected classes of people.
But nowhere has Trump reshaped a state’s political landscape as thoroughly as in California, a state the president said in February “in many ways is out of control.”
Trump was trounced in this heavily Democratic state last year, contributing to his loss of the national popular vote, and California’s elected officials have spent the first months of his presidency pummeling him.
Skeptical of the likelihood of a working relationship with Trump, de León called him “an individual who would betray you in negotiations in a heartbeat.”
Trump’s flirtations with congressional Democrats — including with California’s Nancy Pelosi on immigration — did nothing to soften Democrats’ displays of defiance here. As a Mexican Independence Day celebration picked up on the grounds outside the Capitol building, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher said on the Assembly floor that “with the president’s decision to rescind DACA and step up ICE raids in our neighborhoods,” additional legislation to protect undocumented immigrants is “needed more than ever.”
Drinking a Perrier in his office off the Assembly floor on Friday night, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told POLITICO that while Trump met with Democrats at the White House, he heard no member of his caucus even mention the possibility of improving relations with the president.
On top of advancing a “sanctuary state” bill limiting local law enforcement officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and tax return bills, an advisory measure urging Congress to censure Trump for his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and passing legislation requiring presidential candidates to release tax returns before appearing on the California ballot, lawmakers also called on other states to withhold voter data from the president’s commission on election fraud.
And after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she would rescind an Obama-era schools directive on sexual assault, they voted to write that directive into state law.
“It’s almost numbing,” Assemblyman Marc Levine said, “how often we have been rising to talk about how our values as Americans and as Californians have been challenged recently.”
The controversial “sanctuary state” bill was weakened before passage to gain Gov. Jerry Brown’s support, allowing local agencies to work with immigration authorities on cases involving immigrants convicted of a wide range of crimes. Yet Republicans and some law enforcement officials remained opposed, and the Trump administration responded sharply after the legislative agreement was announced last week.
“The state of California is attempting to codify a commitment to returning criminal aliens back onto our streets, which undermines public safety, national security, and law enforcement,” Devin O’Malley, a Department of Justice spokesman, said in an email. “Given the multiple high-profile incidents that have occurred in California in recent years, it is especially disappointing that state leaders would take steps to limit cooperation between local jurisdictions and immigration authorities attempting to keep Californians safe.”
The political calculus involving Trump is far different for state-level Democrats than for their counterparts in Washington. For Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said John Burton, a former congressman, California Democratic Party chairman and state Senate president pro tem, “it doesn’t do you any good to spit in the guy’s face when you’re trying to get something out of him.”
But for lawmakers in California who are “consumed with protecting those who need protection from abhorrent behavior by the federal government,” Burton said, “what the f— is wrong with protecting people who need protection?”
Democrats are also continuing to search for ways to undercut Trump in 2020, including with the bill compelling disclosure of presidential candidates’ tax returns.
“[For] 40 years, 40 years … Democrats and Republicans alike have released their tax returns,” said Democratic state Sen. Mike McGuire, the bill’s author. “It’s time that California holds this president and all future presidents accountable.”
It was unclear if Brown will sign the measure, or if it would withstand a legal challenge if he does. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states cannot add to the qualifications for U.S. Senate or House members, according to a legislative analysis, and California’s legislative counsel released an opinion ahead of the vote calling the measure unconstitutional. But other legal experts have said such a requirement could pass constitutional muster.
In addition to combating Trump, California Democrats moved forward with major legislation this year related to the environment, infrastructure and housing — de León said the legislature “still did our work.”
Yet it was the ascendance of the president as a foil that afforded relatively low-profile state lawmakers a rare platform to engage on issues of national concern — and Republicans were quick to chide Democrats for their swagger.
“For the 12th time, I get it,” an exasperated Republican, Assemblyman Matthew Harper, scolded his colleagues as floor debates dragged on from late Friday into Saturday morning. “The Democrats in this body don’t like Donald Trump.”
“It’s allowed these folks to have an identity that is frankly bigger than California,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant who specializes in Latino politics in the state. “There’s the reactionary, ‘We’re scared, we’re going to build up our own political wall’ … But the other part is these guys are falling in love with having a louder megaphone than they otherwise would have.”
Republicans groaned throughout the week that Democrats’ assault on Trump was a distraction from the state’s stubbornly high poverty rate and other state-specific concerns.
“They don’t want to talk about California,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the state Republican Party. “It makes a lot of sense when you look at it in that frame.”
But the GOP and Trump’s meager base of support in California held little power to redirect the Legislature’s focus. And Democrats had no reason to let up.
“The first thing to understand is the Legislature is predominately Democratic, and for Democrats, Donald Trump is about as popular as a time share in North Dakota,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.
For a California lawmaker, Whalen said, “He’s easy pickings.”