Editors’ note: This article was updated Sept. 16 to reflect last-minute legislative action.
The 2017 legislative session now wrapping up began with a rhetorical punch in the face to Donald Trump.
Democrats who rule California’s Legislature passed a winter resolution urging the newly elected Republican president not to pursue mass deportations, and denouncing “bigoted, racist, or misinformed descriptions of the immigrant community.” They went on, in the ensuing months, to tout the introduction of dozens of bills meant to preempt Trump’s administration from whittling down health care, cracking down on immigrants and canceling out environmental safeguards. A hashtag went viral: #stateofresistance.
Yet with their opportunity to pass bills for the year coming to a close on Friday, California Democrats had a mixed record when it came to turning their anti-Trump talk into action. A high-profile sanctuary bill meant to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation was significantly scaled back. A proposal to make it harder for the feds to build a wall on the California-Mexico border stalled. An attempt to provide state-run health care for all Californians—intensely demanded by progressive activists—was put on hold. And approval of a bill meant to preserve tough environmental standards in California even if the federal government weakens protections nationwide also stalled.
“It’s mostly bark and not so much bite,” said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio. “There is really only so much (lawmakers) can do.”
Why the mismatch between political rhetoric and policy accomplishments? On a practical level, state lawmakers have limited options for overriding or avoiding federal law, meaning the strongest of California’s challenges to Trump are more likely to come through the courts. And on a political level—even though Democrats enjoy a supermajority in the Legislature and hold every statewide office—the Capitol is full of moderating forces. Law enforcement and business groups tamped down some of the most radical proposals this year. Gov. Jerry Brown has been zealous in combating Trump on climate change, but has demonstrated more caution in other areas.
“I don’t use the term resistance,” Brown told the New York Times this spring.
Which is not to say the Legislature has done nothing to poke at Trump. Lawmakers did pass several bills meant to thwart the Trump administration or simply troll the president. They extended California’s cap-and-trade program to combat global warming, even as Trump pulled the nation out of an international climate agreement. They approved $65 million to provide legal help to immigrants facing deportation—and after Trump announced an end to the DACA program, threw in another $10 million for loans to college students who had been brought to the country illegally as young children.
And blasting Trump’s refusal to release his income tax returns, they sent Brown a bill that would deny presidential candidates who refuse to share their returns a spot on the California ballot.
Other #stateofresistance proposals also were approved in the final days of the session: allowing students to continue attending California public schools after their parents are deported, preventing cities from contracting with private jails to detain immigrants and beefing up state regulations meant to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence at schools and colleges, as a way to counter-act potential rollbacks to federal rules by the Trump administration.
Such anti-Trump policies would seem to play well in a state where voters rejected him by a 2-to-1 margin. Yet the reality of politics in Sacramento has made the strongest proposals difficult to get across the finish line. The California Chamber of Commerce, a big spender in campaigns, fought the border-wall and environmental-protection bills. Law enforcement and Brown pushed to weaken the immigrant sanctuary bill.
“The rollbacks are part of a compromise,” said Democratic Senate leader Kevin de León, who carried the sanctuary bill. “We started off in a very ambitious manner.”
Brown voiced support for the modified version of the bill, which expands the circumstances in which local cops can communicate with immigration officials. Despite the changes, de León said it will still be the most far-reaching immigrant-protection law in the country
Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara also had to dial back. Originally his border-wall bill would have required a public vote before a barrier could be built in California. Then he dropped that idea and instead crafted the bill to prohibit state contracts to any companies working on the wall. And then that version stalled in the face of major business opposition. Lara said he’ll keep working on it next year.
“Regardless of the politics of this building, we are still far ahead when it comes to protecting our immigrant communities,” Lara said during an interview in the Capitol. “And we’re going to continue to do so unapologetically.”
Some of the apparent slowing of the resistance also reflects different paths carved by the two chambers of the Legislature. Immediately after Trump’s election, the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly together drafted a rare joint statement of shock, declaring they felt “like strangers in a foreign land.” Then, they hired the Obama administration’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, to help strategize against the Trump administration. But after a few months, the Assembly opted not to renew the contract with Holder, while the Senate continues to work with him.
The two leaders, both Democrats from Los Angeles, also began to strike different tones. Just this week de León, the Senate leader, vowed to protect immigrants from the “pernicious, mean-spirited policies of Donald Trump.” But as early as February, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he was tired of talking about Trump and wanted to instead focus on California issues such as the state’s crumbling roads and high poverty rate.
“The Senate has had a lot of bills that I think have largely been symbolic,” Rendon said in an interview this week.
Among them, in his view, was the highly publicized and contentious effort to create a state-run “single-payer” health care system. Supporters hailed it as a rebuke to Trump’s threats to end Obamacare. But Rendon shelved the bill for this year—saying it lacked a funding plan or mechanism for delivering care—and instead agreed to hold hearings on the issue this fall. The Assembly has a large bloc of business-oriented Democrats, and Rendon’s move shielded them from having to vote on it.
In short, the state of the #stateofresistance is more complicated than it seemed at the start of the session, when many Democrats shot for the legislative moon.
“We are still resisting,” said Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who saw the Assembly kill her bill to make it harder to drill for oil in the federal waters off California’s coast.
“But there is no purity in any of this.”