California positions itself to lead a blue state rebellion

The country's most populous and economically independent state looks willing to push back against the Trump administration in a way not seen in decades.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, third from left, flanked by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, right, and other Democratic lawmakers, discusses a pair of proposed measures to protect immigrants, during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 5. California's recent hard swing to the left means it could find itself at odds with President-elect Donald Trump on such issues as immigration, health care, and climate change.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is probably not going be standing in any schoolhouse doors blocking immigration officials from entering, but the Golden State looks willing to challenge federal authority in a way not seen since the days of George Wallace.

More than 50 years ago, the Alabama governor, flanked by state troopers, stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama, physically barring federal officials from allowing two black students to enroll in the all-white campus.

Things may not come to that in California, but there are signs that the liberal bastion feels comfortable taking the lead in an ideological fight with a conservative Washington over who has the right to impose its will on its residents.

Already, state legislators have launched the first salvo, opening the new session Monday by passing a resolution that challenged President-elect Donald Trump's deportation agenda. State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D) of Bell Gardens introduced a trio of bills that seek to block attempts by the Trump administration to build a wall along the Mexican border, establish a registry for Muslim citizens, and contract with local immigration detention centers.

Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) of Paramount also took a combative tone in his opening day speech, saying, “Californians may accept the lawfulness of the November election, but millions of us do not accept the sentiment delivered by this election … Californians do not need healing. We need to fight.”

In many ways, pundits say, the state’s aggressive posture is a natural result of a transfer of power: States often dissent against Washington when its leaders are not members of the ruling party, and have done so for generations. California has taken a similar position before, when it acted as an outspoken counterweight to George W. Bush’s administration.

Governor Brown himself softened some of the rhetoric from his colleagues in the legislature, saying that California could not “go rogue” on issues like climate change and calling for a “wait and see” approach to a Trump White House. California did not always agree with the Obama administration, Brown pointed out, and the president-elect has yet to release any concrete policies on immigration or climate change for Californians to oppose.

Still, some say a combination of factors may be setting the stage for a very contentious four years between California and the capital.

The state’s hard swing to the left, coupled with liberals’ disapproval of Mr. Trump, mean the state’s Democratic leaders may feel comfortable directly opposing the new administration. A booming state economy – with a budget surplus that “could weather a mild recession without cutting spending or raising taxes” until 2020 – gives them the confidence and ability to do so, analysts say.

“The state’s political leaders have essentially declared war on Washington, D.C.,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “They’re prepared to fight back against the Trump administration at almost every opportunity, [and] there is going to be a lot of highly-charged debate on any number of highly-charged issues.”

“California has become the capital of blue America,” he adds, “and they’re going to play that role to the hilt.”

Rogue states?

Some of this tension is built into the political DNA of the United States. By nature, a federalist form of government allows states to push back against federal policies. And in a two-party system, fissures usually erupt along partisan lines, political analysts say.

“Federalism gives states the power to push as hard as they can to preserve their own principles, to have their policy zig while the rest of the country zags,” says Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. “This has been happening as long as we’ve been a union.”

The worst schism – in which Southern Democratic states opposed Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s antislavery policies – resulted in the Civil War and nearly tore the country in two. The decades since have seen plenty of conflict between state and federal leadership. Such clashes have more often led to bitterness, not bloodshed, as in the case of Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door.”

During Prohibition, Maryland, in violation of the 18th Amendment, refused to pass any state laws that would enforce the nationwide liquor ban within its borders. Then-Gov. Albert Ritchie argued that forbidding alcoholic beverages was an infringement on individual liberties. He held that position until the amendment was repealed in 1933.

More recently, Texas has led the way in opposing the Obama administration on multiple fronts, from the Affordable Care Act to Common Core education standards to immigration and abortion. According to the Texas Tribune’s last count in July, the state had sued the federal government at least 46 times since Obama took office in 2009.

For the most part, political scientists say, such conflicts are just part of the process of running a nation of 300 million people who hail from a multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“It’s one of the beauties of federalism that states have sovereignty over a subset of nonfederal issues,” says Tom Hogen-Esch, a professor of political science at California State University, Northridge.

“But the problem becomes – and nobody can quite agree – where federal authority starts and stops,” he notes. “How do you govern a nation when we’re really not one nation but 50?”

Or, as Professor Kousser puts it: “How far will this fight go? Is Jerry Brown going to be standing at a police department door barring federal agents from immigrants in detention?”

To the left, to the left

The question, pundits say, takes on new significance today as California – the country’s most populous and economically independent state – embraces its status as the nation’s liberal capital.

Democrats here hold a two-thirds majority in both the state Assembly and Senate, pitting them against a soon-to-be Republican White House and Congress in Washington. The situation echoes the strain between California and the capital during the early years of the second Bush administration.

But California – with its growing nonwhite electorate – has moved further left since, even compared to the rest of the country. In the 2008 presidential election, eight states and the District of Columbia voted more Democratic than California. In 2012, it was six states. This year, only Hawaii voted more Democratic, and by just a single percentage point.

“Aggressively confronting a conservative Trump administration … allows the state’s political leaders to be seen as standing up on behalf of their constituents in a very visceral and dramatic way,” says Professor Schnur at USC.  

That Mr. Trump himself – in his attitude, rhetoric, and person – represents to many Democrats the antithesis of liberal values serves only to heighten hostility towards the new administration.

Rumblings of secession through the “Calexit” movement, though hardly a viable course of action, speak to a sense of deep dissent in the state’s leftmost corners, politicos say.

“You see California going to this hysterical extreme before Trump is even sworn in,” says Bill Whalen, a research fellow specializing in national and California politics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The US has been here before

As Mr. Whalen and others point out, however, it's important to assess the situation in the context of the nation’s long history of state-federal conflict.

“I don’t know if it’s not anything to worry about, but it’s not anything new,” Kousser says. In the unlikely event that a state-federal standoff, à la George Wallace, takes place it’s important to remember that the country has been through similar periods.

“Even if it goes that far, it’s not unprecedented,” he says. “We’ve seen big standoffs in this realm before.”

The next four years could also provide an opportunity for creative compromise, Whalen says.

“It’s so easy because it’s Donald Trump and he’s a dog whistle to the left,” he says. “But as a leader you can either say, ‘I won’t work with him,’ or you can say, ‘He’s a blank slate. Maybe this is a chance for us to scribble.’ ”

“Yes, defend your ideals,” he adds. “But also understand it’s a nuanced topic. There may be areas where perhaps common ground can be reached.”

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