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California’s Democrats Are Ready for Political War



The Republicans are about to control Congress and the presidency for the first time in a decade, and they have an ambitious agenda. They’ve promised to undo Obamacare, deport undocumented immigrants, and roll back environmental regulations. The Democrats who run the state government in California aren’t happy. Immediately after the election, state Senate President Kevin de León and his Assembly counterpart, Anthony Rendon, both Latinos from Southern California, sent out a scathing statement in English and Spanish assuring all 39 million Californians that they were ready for political war. “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California,” they wrote. “We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”

Democrats have dominated all branches of California’s government since 2011, when Jerry Brown succeeded Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. With the largest economy in the U.S. and the sixth-largest in the world, the state enjoys greater independence from Washington than most. It was the first state to adopt its own vehicle emissions standards, in 2002. In 2012, California created the only state-level cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions after Republicans in Congress rejected a national model. California, which has more undocumented immigrants than any other state, offers them driver’s licenses as well as financial aid for college. It has imposed some of the country’s strictest background checks on firearms purchases. It’s one of three states to provide paid family and medical leave and one of five that require employers to offer paid sick leave. “This is unlike anything we’ve seen in modern political history,” says de León. “We’re going to do everything in our power to protect our people and our values as Californians.”

Hillary Clinton won more than 61 percent of the state’s vote, a higher share than President Obama won in 2012. Voters approved ballot measures decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, restricting ammunition purchases, and increasing taxes on the rich. The national election triggered a resurgence of California secession fantasies, this time under the hashtag #Calexit—a reference to Brexit, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

State Democrats say there’s plenty they can do short of leaving the U.S. California has long been a net contributor to Washington’s coffers, receiving an estimated 78¢ in federal spending in return for every dollar it sends, according to a study by the Washington-based Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank that provides analysis of federal and state tax policies. That gives state leaders potential leverage when it comes to complying with policies it doesn’t like, starting with the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

From January 2014 to September 2015, California released immigrants considered deportable under federal law in more than 11,000 instances, rather than keeping them in custody for federal agents, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data obtained by the Texas Tribune. The next state on the list, New York, released people in fewer than 2,000 cases.

On Nov. 14, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said he won’t reverse long-standing department policy blocking officers from doing immigration enforcement, despite Donald Trump’s threats to cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, which offer residents protection from federal agents. “We are not going to work with Homeland Security on deportation efforts,” Beck said. “That is not our job, nor will I make it our job.” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has also publicly affirmed his commitment to remaining a sanctuary city, and his office has begun drawing up contingency plans for dealing with a loss of federal funding, says City Controller Ben Rosenfield.

One of the biggest points of contention between Sacramento and Trump’s Washington will be climate change. The incoming president has called global warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” He’s also pledged to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, the first legally binding global deal to reduce carbon emissions, and to shred Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to control emissions from power plants.

Governor Brown has devoted himself to strengthening California’s carbon pollution rules, already the nation’s toughest. “We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time—devastating climate change,” Brown said in a statement that also referred to finding common ground with Trump and the GOP where possible. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf says cities should be willing to uphold the Paris commitments at the local level. “You have 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from cities,” she says. “If all mayors agree to take action, we can actually render federal action irrelevant.”

California’s Democrats are also exploring ways to ensure continued access to health care. The Affordable Care Act guarantees federal subsidies for 90 percent of the 1.4 million residents insured by Covered California, the statewide health exchange, and about 5.5 million more Californians now have insurance via the Medicaid expansion made possible by the 2010 law. A repeal, as Trump and Republicans have pledged, would cost the state more than $15 billion in federal subsidies a year, according to the nonprofit Urban Institute. “In theory, California could implement its own universal health-care program,” says California’s insurance commissioner, Dave Jones—though doing so, he warns, would require significant state tax increases.

One area where Trump may be able to override state objections is his plan for a border wall, although much of California’s border with Mexico is already lined with high fences and motion sensors. Yet there are plenty of policies that Trump won’t be able to disrupt. Take abortion rights: If Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, were to be scrapped by a new court majority, the issue would revert to states. California leaders have taken steps to expand access to the procedure, and could make the state a haven for women seeking abortions if Roe were to fall. And some ideas that Trump has endorsed, like stop-and-frisk law enforcement policies, are determined at the local level, not by Congress. Says Mayor Schaaf: “I think it is wise to not react too much to things that have not yet occurred, but rather to be prepared and strengthened in the event that they do.”

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