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State Sen. Lara introduces bill to keep feds from state databases

Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced a bill to prohibit any state agency or institution from sharing with the federal government information about any applicants, including undocumented immigrants.

The bill does allow for disclosure to law enforcement except in response to a warrant issued by a state or federal court related to an individual criminal prosecution. California keeps data submitted by undocumented immigrants who have applied for driver licenses, financial aid and other benefit programs.

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Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced a bill to prohibit any state agency or institution from sharing with the federal government information about any applicants, including undocumented immigrants.

The bill does allow for disclosure to law enforcement except in response to a warrant issued by a state or federal court related to an individual criminal prosecution. California keeps data submitted by undocumented immigrants who have applied for driver licenses, financial aid and other benefit programs.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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April 12, 2019 2:17 pm

Newsom team calls for less utility liability on wildfire—and ignites ‘a hornet’s nest’

Economy Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his strike team’s report, which calls on lawmakers to consider reducing utility wildfire liability. April 12, 2019. Photo by Judy Lin for CALmatters.

In a comprehensive and already controversial report aimed at spreading the staggering cost of wildfires in California, an advisory panel to Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended on Friday that California ease strict liability laws that have already prompted the state’s largest utility to file for bankruptcy in this era of climate change.

The provocative—and politically challenging—recommendation was among three dramatic proposals by a “strike force” Newsom had tasked with drawing up a wildfire plan shortly after his January inauguration. Fire has been among the most daunting priorities for the nascent administration, which has had to deal not only with the aftermath of last year’s historically lethal Camp Fire in Butte County, but also with the Chapter 11 filing of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the huge and unpopular electricity provider whose equipment is a prime suspect in the blaze.

Newsom said he hopes the report facilitates a tough conversation among utilities, insurance companies, attorneys, wildfire victims and others for crafting solutions in the next 90 days, when the Legislature has a bill deadline.

“I’m of the opinion that in order to maintain safe, reliable, affordable service—utilities and electricity—to meet our climate goals, to protect the victims of these fires, that we’re all in this together and we all have a role and responsibility to play,” Newsom said at a press conference a the headquarters of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services just outside Sacramento.

Credit rating agency Moody’s Investor Services responded positively Friday.

“None of the proposed concepts will alone mitigate the risk for California’s utilities, but combined, the strategies start to exhibit more promise,” said Moody’s vice president Toby Shea. “The credit impact won’t become clear until legislative details addressing liquidity and cost recovery are finalized.”

PG&E, which is relied upon by most of Northern California to keep the lights on, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Jan. 29 in the aftermath of the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, the two most destructive in state history. The utility cited up to $30 billion in liabilities since many blazes have been linked to its equipment.

Currently, under a legal standard known as inverse condemnation, utilities are liable for any wildfire damage traced to their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it. While utilities want to reduce that standard, lawmakers, as well as insurance companies and local governments, have resisted changes because it would shift costs to insurers and wildfire victims.

Last year, the state did adopt changes under SB 901 that made it easier for utilities to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, a process called securitization. However, the process could take a long time, leaving utilities without timely access to financing.

The report noted the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, downgraded California’s three large investor-owned utilities, “opining that the measure failed to adequately address the risks to the utilities’ financial health posed by inverse condemnation.” PG&E’s bonds are in junk status and Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are at close to non-investment grade ratings.

The strike team offered a trio of options to Newsom:

  • Create a state fund to provide utilities access to cash to pay wildfire damage claims while state regulators decide if the utilities can pass the cost to ratepayers. This would be a relatively minimal change of SB 901 to address utility concerns about accessing money.
  • Change the strict liability under inverse condemnation to a fault-based standard. This would be the most controversial and politically difficult since it would shift the risk to insurance companies and uninsured property owners where the utility was not at fault. Insurance companies could raise rates dramatically or stop offering coverage.
  • Establish a wildfire fund by pooling money from the investor-owned utilities to pay for catastrophic wildfire claims. The fund would be limited to paying out only when the fire meets the legal threshold for a catastrophic wildfire.

Newsom said he wasn’t going to share his opinion on whether to change inverse condemnation and believes lawmakers are prepared to start a new round of negotiations in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Butte County where 85 people were killed.

“It’s a different world completely,” the governor said.

Assemblyman Chris Holden, who chairs the Assembly utility committee, said he’s prepared to work on new legislation. “All stakeholders will have to sideline their agendas and step up as Californians to fix this problem,” he said in a statement, “and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work necessary.”

But, he added: “Inverse condemnation is a hornet’s nest. It’s a tough topic especially because of the constitutional questions around it. We would need a deeper and longer conversation around reforming inverse condemnation that I don’t see happening in 90 days.”

The report also recommends reforming the state’s investor-owned utility regulator, California Public Utilities Commission, and puts forth various options for PG&E as it works its way through bankruptcy proceedings, including municipalization.

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April 10, 2019 7:52 pm

Charter-mageddon: Lawmakers advance a raft of union-backed charter school curbs

K-12 Education Reporter
Charter school advocates and teachers unions mass at the Capitol on April 10, 2019, as state lawmakers considered dramatic curbs on charter schools. Photo for CALmatters by Dan Morain
Charter school advocates and teachers unions mass at the Capitol on April 10, 2019, as state lawmakers consider dramatic curbs on charter schools. Photo for CALmatters by Dan Morain

As charter school advocates rallied en masse and California’s teachers’ unions flexed their political muscle, a cluster of bills that would dramatically curb the growth of charters in the state cleared the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. The votes were the first in what figures to be a lengthy, high-stakes battle this session between two of the state’s most powerful education interests.

That the legislative panel passed Assembly Bills 1505, 1506 and 1507 on Wednesday wasn’t surprising—the authors of the trio of bills sponsored by the California Teachers Association made up two-thirds of the panel, which is chaired by a longtime public school teacher and former member of the CTA’s policymaking assembly.

But the hearing, which featured more than five hours of impassioned debate and testimony from hundreds of people, offered a glimpse of just how consequential the charter proposals are to teachers unions and charter advocates.

While the two sides have battled for decades—typically to a draw—the political momentum has shifted in favor of organized labor this session.

A wave of high-profile teacher strikes this year in Los Angeles and Oakland put the spotlight on unions’ claim that the growth of charter schools, which are mostly nonunion, has financially stressed traditional public schools, siphoning enrollment and public funding.

And following the strikes, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won office with the support of organized labor, signed fast-tracked legislation that requires charter schools to follow the same open-meeting and conflict of interest laws as school districts. The new law and other charter restrictions had been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The three bills heard Wednesday aim to make the most significant changes to California’s charter school law in the 27 years since its inception. Depending on the viewpoint, the bills either make long-overdue and necessary reforms to how charters are overseen, or mark the beginning of the end for charter schools in California.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat from Long Beach who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and authored AB 1505, said his bill “returns local control to school boards.”

O’Donnell and other legislators stressed that the bills would not close any existing charter schools, adding, “if you’re a good charter operator, there is nothing for you to worry about in this bill [AB 1505].”

“Some charter schools have exploited every loophole in the law, and this bill begins to close those loopholes.”

Charter advocates had a different take.

“Today, we could not be more clear: This package of bills is poison, and we will not go quietly,” Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, told a crowd of supporters before the bill hearings.

Combined, the bills would give local school districts the sole power to authorize charter schools, create state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate, and put strict limits on charter school locations.

  • AB 1505, authored by Democratic Assemblymen Patrick O’Donnell and Rob Bonta, would repeal the ability for charter applicants to appeal denials from local school boards at the county or state level as is currently allowed. Local school boards would have the sole power to authorize charter schools, and they would also be allowed to consider the fiscal impact of charters in deciding whether or not to authorize them.
  • AB 1506, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, would set state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate based on how many are operating by the end of 2019. (Currently, there are more than 1,300 charter schools in California, with majority of them concentrated in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area.)
  • AB 1507, authored by Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a Santa Clarita Democrat, sets strict limits on school locations and is in response to the practice of small school districts authorizing charter schools dozens or hundreds of miles outside of their geographic boundaries.

A fourth bill sponsored by the state teachers’ union, Senate Bill 756, was not heard Wednesday, but calls for a five-year moratorium on charters unless the Legislature passes specific charter reforms by 2020.

The latest legislative battle over charter schools comes as Newsom has directed state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond to lead a panel to study the financial impact charter schools have on school districts with recommendations due by July 1.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, cited this ongoing study as her reason for not voting in support or opposition of any of the three charter bills Wednesday. She noted that the fate of the bills was “a done deal because four of the six members of this dais are co-authors of these bills.”

“There’s no question that after 26 years, there’s a need for a serious discussion about charters in California,” Weber said as the committee debated AB 1505, later adding, “I can’t support it [AB 1505] until I get more information.”

McCarty, the author of the charter cap bill, noted that previous charter legislation battles have drawn out through the end of session, and that “we’ll be going at it, as we know, until the end of summer, end of August, early September.”

“The report that the governor and the [state superintendent] are working on will be out within a couple of months and allow us to take a look at their findings and recommendations and potentially bridge them into the proposals that we have here,” McCarty said.

As Wednesday’s hearings unfurled, the scene at the Capitol was raucous. A line of hundreds of teachers, parents, students, administrators clad in red (in support of teachers unions) and yellow (supporting charters) snaked outside the packed Assembly hearing room where legislators debated the charter bills. Opponents outnumbered those in support.

Earlier in the day, the charter advocates and unions held dueling press conferences, and charter proponents rallied and chanted outside a union event.

Tammy Stanton, CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, arrived at the Capitol at 10 a.m. to secure one of the limited seats to the 1:30 p.m. hearing.

“This bill package threatens our existence,” Stanton said. “It repeals our right of due process and allows a school district to close us down if they cannot manage their own fiscal house.”

Steve McDougall, president of the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers, said he had left Salinas at 4 a.m. to testify at the hearings.

While unions and charter advocates have feuded for years, McDougall pointed to Newsom as the potential difference-maker after years of legislative gridlock.

“He’s our hope, that he will sign bills such as 1505, 1506 and 1507 and move forward and let everybody play by the same rules,” McDougall said outside the Assembly hearing room. “It’s public money, public funds. Everybody should be playing by the same rules.”

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April 9, 2019 11:00 pm

Mission accomplished? Scoring Newsom’s trip to El Salvador

Health and Welfare Reporter

Political Reporter
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

SAN SALVADOR—Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife joke that they’ll return to El Salvador not on any state fact-finding mission, but instead to check out the legendary surfing.

The governor and Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele share a keen appreciation for a venerable California tradition: the money-making potential of surf culture. Salvadoran officials and entrepreneurs hope to promote their country’s beaches as a way to foster tourism, and in turn diminish El Salvador’s reputation for poverty and gang violence. Newsom offers that branding and marketing experts in California’s tourism office may be able to help them with that.

But an entrepreneurial interest in surfing isn’t the only thing California and El Salvador have in common. Both share a general lack of enthusiasm for U.S. immigration policies in the Trump era.

As Newsom concludes a three-day trip here, he said he’s coming away with a different impression than the one he originally held about the tiny Central American country. He found a country in transition with pockets of prosperity, thriving businesses and a high but decreasing homicide rate, but also a lack of opportunities for too many people.

“We’re involved in close to 50 lawsuits with the Trump administration, immigration is dominating our political discourse, and it’s impacting tens of millions of Californians,” he said. “For me not to understand what lies underneath that debate is almost malpractice on my part.”

Newsom has offered a series of explanations for the trip: to see first-hand the factors driving illegal immigration, to build partnerships between California and Central America, to “ignite a more enlightened engagement and dialogue.” And to offer the world a vision of American moral leadership that contrasts with President Donald Trump. “I think it’s important to let folks know that’s not our country,” he said.

Another possible motivation that Newsom has failed to mention, but which his critics have been eager to embrace: To further his own ambitions and boost his political brand.

Whether you count the trip a success or failure, of course, depends on which of those explanations you buy.

In search of tangibles

Newsom said California will be spending  $75 million for legal services and other aid to undocumented residents, including mental health services for adolescent migrants; exploring whether the University of California system can build partnerships in El Salvador as it does in Mexico; and influencing tech, hospitality, industrial and yes, surf entrepreneurs to invest in the country.

Stabilizing El Salvador, he said, actually saves California money down the road.

“California pays the price of our failed immigration policy more than any other state in America,” he said. “California has more undocumented residents than any state of America.”

To try to remedy the poverty that fuels migration, Newsom joined Bukele and U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes in discussions about fostering economic development in the country, including surf tourism and helping coastal developers create an environmentally friendly zone by providing guidance on road construction, water clean up and zoning regulations.

Manes said tourism in El Salvador is up 14 percent this year, but it’s still relatively small. Of course tourism will remain a tough sell so long as the U.S. State Department violent crime travel advisory stays in effect.

“We want to work together to attract surf tourism,” said Bukele, who campaigned on the concept of building a surf city concept, after meeting with Newsom. “We want to invest in having our young people going into digital and making apps and developing technology, and California is the world leader in developing technology.”

Newsom said he does not intend to expend state money here, but promised to talk up business investment opportunities in El Salvador.

In the footsteps of globetrotting governors past, Newsom could help to strengthen the economic ties between El Salvador and California by setting up a trade mission. But with a mission of facilitating trade relationships, finding investment opportunities and promoting California products, these offices (which were shuttered in the mid-2000s due to budget crunches) were more about boosting California business than the economies of their hosts.

And in any event, it’s not clear how much good they do. One study estimated that the presence of these offices boosted California exports to the host country by a few percentage points—but that it was impossible to distinguish that change from the random ebbs and flows of international trade.

Who was paying attention?

The governor’s trip has caught the attention of people in certain circles: immigration rights activists, ticked-off Republicans and skeptical newspaper columnists.

But it does not seem to have made a big splash elsewhere. There were a few wire service articles, some coverage on Fox News and CNN, and a blurb on Axios, but the governor’s first official international trip can’t be said to have captivated the nation.

Nor was the coverage all positive. The state GOP stayed busy on social media calling out pressing state needs in Newsom’s absence. And Don Rosenberg—whose son was struck repeatedly and killed by an undocumented immigrant driver in San Francisco and who now heads the nonprofit Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime—made an appearance on “Fox & Friends” to accuse the governor of putting “illegal aliens ahead of American citizens.”

Yet Newsom’s trip failed thus far to earn so much as a mean tweet from the show’s number one viewer. That might be because the president has been busy this week tending to other immigration-related tasks—namely, clearing out the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security, including its outgoing secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.

Still, Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant and University of Southern California professor, said the trip made for smart politics.

“Newsom has figured out very quickly that being the anti-Trump gives him national visibility, statewide stature and street credibility with the base of his own party,” he said. “More than any single day or news story, what Newsom is after is the cumulative effect to build an overall contrast. Unfortunately, Kirstjen Nielsen got in the way of this story.”

“This administration has been largely about painting contrasts between Sacramento and Washington D.C.,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Going to El Salvador “feels about as far away from something Donald Trump would do as possible.”

Newsom kept that contrast at the forefront throughout his trip. He put in a good word for U.S. foreign aid to Central America just as the president announced that he was cutting assistance to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to punish their governments for failing to curb migration to the United States. That comes despite reports from the administration’s own Agency for International Development, which found that foreign aid to El Salvador and neighboring countries helped reduce homicides, create jobs and lead to a number of high-profile corruption prosecutions—all of which, they say, helped “foster an environment where families can envision their futures in their home countries.”

“There are programs now to help address the gang violence in a much more systematic way that are producing results,” Newsom said. “US aid has made a profound difference and it only reinforces the absurdity, the stupidity of cutting that aid.”

The governor met with a former gang member who immigrated legally to the U.S. as a child, later joined a gang and then was deported. He had no family here and ended up joining the gang again, going to prison and finding Christianity—said to be the only reason gang members can leave a gang without being killed.

“There’s a story of redemption there, of hopefulness, of restoration, of a life that potentially has new meaning and purpose that can impact for better the lives of people in our country—not just in his own country,” Newsom said.

His tone may be directed at those back home as well—both Californian Salvadorans, who make up roughly a third of all Salvadoran-born residents in the United States, and Newsom’s broader political base.

That symbolic role as moral figurehead is in keeping with the role of governor, said Santa Clara University law professor Deep Gulasekaram.

What distinguishes an elected chief executive from other political leaders, he said, is that voters will often vote for a president or a governor because they “think, at least in part, that they might articulate a value system in line with the electorate.

“Certainly, for Donald Trump supporters, that’s what they think.”

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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April 9, 2019 6:11 pm

Factions take shape as California advances nationally watched police shooting bill

Political Reporter
Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in 2018, lobbies at the Capitol for a bill to limit police use of deadly force. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall

Even as a landmark California bill meant to prevent police shootings passed its first committee Tuesday, the fault lines among Democrats began to emerge, suggesting the measure will likely change as it moves through the Legislature. How much, though, was not yet clear.

After emotional, standing-room-only testimony from Californians whose loved ones have been killed by police, and a sheriff’s deputy who survived being shot by a gunman who killed her colleague, the Assembly Public Safety committee passed Assembly Bill 392 on a party-line vote. But three of the panel’s six Democrats said they were dissatisfied with the bill in its current form. They asked civil rights groups that support the bill and law enforcement groups that oppose it to keep working toward common ground.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to look at the safety of the public, both law enforcement and the community members that are out on the streets every day,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction such that we aren’t protecting and holding accountable those who are taking life from our community members. I do have serious concerns that the text of this (bill) swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, because the sanctity of the life of our law enforcement is equally as important.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said she would work to reach a compromise before the bill reaches the Assembly floor.

“We are committed to having a piece of legislation that makes a difference and that does provide a balance,” said the San Diego Democrat whose bill would change the legal standard for justifying police use of deadly force.

Her bill—which is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous civil rights groups—was prompted by the death last year of Stephon Clark. He was not armed, but Sacramento police killed him after mistaking the cellphone he was holding for a gun. Last month, the Sacramento district attorney announced she would not press charges because the officers acted legally.

Clark’s case has re-ignited anger among many that black and brown men are unfairly targeted by police, a message that was carried into the Capitol by scores of Californians who packed the hearing room and spilled out into the hallway, wearing T-shirts commemorating slain loved ones, or emblazoned with the hashtag #LetUsLive.

Weber’s bill would make sweeping changes to the laws that determine when California police can use deadly force. It says police could shoot only when it’s necessary to prevent death or serious injury, and would require they use other tactics in many situations.

That would go beyond the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which says police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing. Law enforcement groups said that a law that deviates from the reasonable standard would subject officers to greater danger while performing an already dangerous job.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting to protect complete strangers when I chose to stand between the gunman and the employees and patrons. The thought of having to second guess my actions in that moment is frightening,” said Julie Robertson, a Sacramento deputy sheriff who watched her colleague get killed by a gunman when they responded to a disturbance at an auto parts store last year.

“My only intention is to protect and save lives. How is it that I would be questioned and judged by the ones who live so distant from the dangers we inherently face each day?”

Though law enforcement groups are largely opposed to Weber’s bill, several said they would keep working with her to find common ground. Police groups have backed competing legislation, Senate Bill 230, that focuses on updating department policies on the use of force and increasing training for officers. It will likely get its first hearing later this month.

Follow this issue as it moves through the Legislature this year with CALmatters’ podcast, Force of Law.

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April 8, 2019 10:31 pm

“Because we punch above our weight:” Gov. Newsom says California deserves bigger say in U.S. immigration policy

Health and Welfare Reporter
California Gov. Gavin Newsom wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom listen to a recital of violins by young Salvadorans who belong to a music academy in Panchimalco, El Salvador, AP Photo by Salvador Melendez/Pool
California Gov. Gavin Newsom wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom listen to a recital of violins by young Salvadorans who belong to a music academy in Panchimalco, El Salvador, AP Photo by Salvador Melendez/Pool

SAN SALVADOR—California Gov.  Gavin Newsom says he intends to help steer U.S. immigration policy just as former Gov. Jerry Brown influenced climate change policy—because California’s size, robust economy, diversity and political clout allow the state to “punch above our weight.”

“The one area that California should do more is on immigration policy,” he said today, the second of his three days on an official visit to El Salvador. He added that in the last decade, the state ceded that role to governors from more conservative border states. “That’s why I’m down here. That’s what I want to bring back in terms of the leadership that we want to advance for our state.”

The stated purpose of his trip: to learn more about the root causes driving Central Americans to migrate by the thousands in the last year and how California could help here or at home. It also raises his political profile as a counterpoint to President Donald Trump.

Newsom said he’s relying on the powerful California congressional delegation—which includes Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield—and local leaders to work from the bottom up to compel changes in the Trump administration’s hostile approach to immigration from places such as Central America.

“We have a unique responsibility and an opportunity to advance a different conversation,” he said after a session with humanitarian, LBGT and women’s rights advocates in the small town of Panchimalco, about an hour outside of San Salvador.

Since arriving on Sunday, Newsom has met with El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén; U.S. ambassador Jean Manes, a career diplomat stationed at the embassy since the Obama administration; Salvadoran mayors and community members.

While Newsom focuses on “managing up” to impact federal immigration policy in the remaining years of the Trump administration, humanitarian advocates on the ground in El Salvador say they hope he will have a positive impact on economic opportunities and human rights.

“He can influence the El Salvador government, the El Salvador legislators, to get them interested in how to reform workplace regulations, how to ratify codes that protect the rights of women,” said Montserrat Arevalo Alvarado. She’s executive director of Mujeres Transformando, an organization pushing for better working conditions for the 70,000 women who work in clothing factories, and make clothes mostly exported to the U.S.

“He can send letters, bring delegations and spotlight what is happening here,” she said. “I believe he can because our leaders go to the United States, too, and it’s important they listen to him.”

Traveling with only his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, some staff and reporters—as well as a security contingent from the California Highway Patrol. The governor has received a warm welcome here.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom receives help from dance students, to place on her head a traditional Panchimalco shawl worn by women during the last century, during a visit to Panchimalco, the home of indigenous Salvadorans. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez/Pool)

People in the mountain town of Panchimalco were waiting for him when he arrived this afternoon.  Salvadoran children adorned in colorful costumes danced and boys in white played traditional instruments—part of a  cultural arts program intended to help the children avoid gangs and possibly create a path to future jobs through traditional artisanry.

Earlier in the day the Newsoms toured a deportee processing center, where Salvadorans who have been returned to the country are fingerprinted, interviewed and offered assistance if they need it. Several returned migrants shared their stories with the governor, telling him they left El Salvador because they lacked jobs and feared for their safety. Two were detained in Mexico and deported. A third made it to Houston, but returned after six months for a family reason.

The Newsoms and Carillo also met privately with President Cerén and the U.S. Ambassador Manes. Afterward the governor said little about the meetings, but did report that both expressed concern about having just met with Trump administration officials to discuss U.S. humanitarian aid—more than $450 million—only to have President Trump move to cut off the aid.

“The U.S. aid we are providing is making a real difference in people’s lives, not just from a security perspective but from an economic perspective,” he said he learned. “The absurdity of the U.S. would pull back from something that is working and would create a problem they want to fix.”

He said his wife asked President Cerén about the situation for women in El Salvador, and particularly women in prison. The issue is important to Salvadoran American leaders in Los Angeles, who say many women in El Salvador face incredible violence and abuse, which often propels their migration.

“Their American dream, as part of America, is to stay in their home and in their community,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Human Rights Los Angeles. “Nobody comes because they want to.”

Newsom didn’t disclose the president’s response.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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April 8, 2019 8:47 pm

Welcome mat: How California has responded to influx of migrants

Political Reporter
Marchers in Sacramento protest Trump administration immigration policies. Photo by Trevor Eischen for CALmatters
Marchers in Sacramento protest Trump administration immigration policies. Photo by Trevor Eischen for CALmatters

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week’s trip to El Salvador, he framed its purpose as part scholarly, part Good Samaritan.

“Let’s understand what’s happening,” he told an audience in Los Angeles late last month. “And let’s see if we can help!”

It’s that second part that has raised the obvious question from some quarters: Help, how?

Without its own diplomatic corps or immigration policy, California can’t start “issuing its own visas or have a different policy towards El Salvador than the United States,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a law professor at Santa Clara University. Newsom has described the trip as a “fact-finding” mission. Leaving aside the broader question of whether the governor needed to go to El Salvador in person to find those facts, what exactly are the policies that they will inform?

Immigration law—who gets to come into the country and who gets to stay—is the exclusive purview of the federal government. But the laws that apply to immigrants once they get here—the rights and benefits they enjoy and their relationship with local and state authorities—is something that Sacramento policymakers have plenty of experience weighing in on.

All told, said Gulasekaram, California likely has the “most integrative” policy toward undocumented immigrants of any state. Here are a few of the ways the Democrats who control California’s Capitol have diverged from the the Trump administration and responded to the migratory crisis on its southern border.

1. Money for migrants

Since taking office, Gov. Newsom has signed a bill to spend $5 million to fund nonprofits that provide emergency services for asylum seekers. His proposed budget includes another $20 million.

Much of the funding will go to a short-term shelter operated by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, set up earlier this year to provide temporary accommodation for migrants released from border patrol custody without food, money or the ability to travel to their closest loved ones.

Those who operate the shelter in downtown San Diego—which also offers health screenings, logistical help and rudimentary legal assistance to migrants—estimate that they’ve served roughly 12,000 people.

The increase in financial aid is welcome news to immigration rights organizers such as Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

“It just goes to show what you can do when you have a state that’s willing to respond, willing to be innovative, and willing to take some responsibility even though technically, they could just point the finger and say this is a federal problem,” she said.

2. Status-blind Medi-Cal

Medi-Cal, the public health insurance program for low-income Californians, covers qualifying children up to the age of 18 regardless of their immigration status. Adults are still barred from accessing most of the state’s subsidized health insurance programs. Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA estimate that roughly 40 percent of California’s uninsured are undocumented immigrants.

The governor is hoping to change that. His budget proposal includes a plan to expand coverage to undocumented Californians under the age of 26.

Sen. María Elena Durazo, a newly elected Democrat from East Los Angeles wants to go a step further. She has proposed a bill that would make every low-income Californian eligible for Medi-Cal, regardless of immigration status and age. Last year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that such a proposal would cost $3 billion per year. And some Republicans in Congress have already taken umbrage at Newsom’s proposal. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy declared earlier this year that he would push legislation to block California, adding: “It’s crazy for California liberals to provide free health care to anyone in the world who can sneak across our border. Taking care of the most vulnerable Americans should be our priority.”

3. A state agency

Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that would create a California Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Agency.

The state already has a Director of Immigrant Integration and provides an array of services for undocumented immigrants. But under Chiu’s proposal, the agency would be responsible for coordinating all of these services across local, state and federal partners.

4. Legal help

For two years, the state has provided funding for nonprofits that provide legal services for undocumented immigrants in California. These funds are meant primarily to help those who came to the county as children apply for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, though in some instances the funding has been used to help other undocumented immigrants fighting deportation proceedings or applying for asylum.

Earlier this year, the governor proposed $75 million for immigration-related legal services. That includes a little over $1 million for UC students and their families.

5. Sanctuary state

The most controversial—if not necessarily the most consequential—of California’s immigrant-related laws, the 2017 law puts limits on how much state and local law enforcement officers can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The law does not apply to state prison employees who might coordinate with U.S. immigration agencies hoping to deport a convicted felon. But it does prevent a police officer, sheriff or highway patrolmen from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, detain someone solely at the request of federal immigration agencies or otherwise act as an immigration authority.

Those details aside, it’s been one of the fiercest battles in the many-fronted political war between Democratic California and the Trump administration. Just a month after the president’s inauguration, Trump threatened to cut off federal funding over was then only a proposed law. Sacramento and Washington have been fighting it out in court ever since—although it also has fierce opponents within California as well, including sheriffs in more conservative counties.

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April 7, 2019 10:39 pm

“The rhetoric is so toxic:” Newsom lands in El Salvador as Trump moves to end aid there

Health and Welfare Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero at Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador, AP Photo/Salvador Melendez, Pool
Gov. Gavin Newsom with his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero at Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador, AP Photo/Salvador Melendez, Pool

SAN SALVADOR: As Gov. Gavin Newsom touched down in El Salvador today to begin a three-day trip designed to contrast his own approach to immigration with that of his nemesis, President Donald Trump, the contrast could hardly have been more stark.

Trump had just visited California’s southern border to announce “Our country is full…. we can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry, can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.” His State Department has moved to cut off all foreign aid, more than $450 million, to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as punishment for what he described as their failure to halt the exodus. And then today he announced the resignation of his Homeland Security secretary, which was widely interpreted as a sign of a further immigration crackdown.

“I don’t like people being called invaders,” said Newsom, a Democrat. “I don’t like the language coming from the Trump administration, I don’t like the rhetoric coming out of the administration. I want to understand.”

His trip, he added, “sends a message.”

“The rhetoric is so toxic coming out of the White House and it impacts people here in a very real way,” he said. “I think having a counter-narrative, which is one of respect of the human condition and talks about the morality and ethics of calling people invaders.”

Newsom is in El Salvador for three days to explore the roots of migration that are driving thousands of people to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America. He plans to meet with the Salvadoran president, U.S. ambassador, president-elect, and humanitarian and gang intervention advocates.

Today his motorcade sped through the streets of El Salvador’s capital city to its cathedral, to visit the tomb of Saint Oscar Romero, a bishop known for his work on poverty and violence who was assassinated in the 1980s and is considered a civil rights hero by Salvadorans. The governor lit a candle alongside his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles, herself a Salvadoran immigrant.

San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt took the church tour as an opportunity to share his concern about losing U.S. aid money—a resource he credits for helping impact the level of violence in the county and funding diversion programs for kids.

“We are grateful for the governor’s positions in defense of our people,” he said. “It’s important for us for him to see the efforts we are trying to make our city and country more secure and to make it so our people can find more opportunities here.”

Newsom would not say if the state could or would fund programs in the country, but stressed that partnership, trade and private investment are ways to help the country boost economic opportunities.

“We have human resources that can help with stabilizing this part of the world that we share so many individuals in common with,” he said.

Critics back home have said the governor should focus on fixing the problems of Californians, including dirty water, flooding, fire damage and other challenges.

And President Trump, during his border visit, emphasized the danger resulting when “rough tough people with criminal records are asking for asylum.

“Gov. Newsom, honestly, is living in a different world. That’s a very dangerous world he’s living in,” the president continued. “And if he keeps living there? Lots of problems for the people of California. They don’t want that. They wanna be secure. They wanna be safe.”

Fielding questions from reporters today, Newsom defended his trip, saying it is his “responsibility” to understand what is happening because California is home to the largest community of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador.

“You want to end the ‘crisis’ on the border?” he said. “Stabilize these countries, create economic opportunity, and you end the crisis. You don’t have to spend money militarizing your border, you don’t have to build a border wall. You spend a tenth of the money on stabilizing the community as opposed to this. That’s why I say it’s just manufactured, pure political theater.”

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said it’s appropriate for the governor to visit El Salvador given California’s demographics and progressive leanings.

“California has taken a different approach to all of its residents—which includes Salvadorans, who have come from there and have family there—than the federal government has,” he said. “You have to address root causes which are the conditions which are driving this and you also have to create some opportunities for really desperate people to migrate legally.”

Rosa Hernandez, 54, waited outside the church while Newsom was inside. She and her granddaughter had been in side the cathedral but where ushered out when it was cleared for the governor’s visit.

She said she doesn’t have enough money to try to go to the United States but she said she’s known many people who have left because they can’t find work and because of the violence. All six of her children are grown now, but she still worries.

“When they go out you don’t know if they are going to come back, if they are going to live or die, but I have to trust in God,” she said.  “The only thing that anyone can do to help is to help improve security here, because nobody does anything about it.”

Inside, below the main church Newsom, took his time writing in a guest book beside the ornate tomb.

He said he wrote: “ I never thought I’d be kneeling in front of Saint Romero as governor of California trying to express my appreciation, which is what I phrased of the privilege of being here and trying to modestly live out some of the values that Saint Romero practiced.”

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April 7, 2019 9:09 pm

Los Angeles legislator who fled El Salvador as a child returns with California governor

Health and Welfare Reporter
Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo in San Salvador , where she is accompanying Gov. Gavin Newsom on his first official international trip. Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters
Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo in San Salvador , where she is accompanying Gov. Gavin Newsom on his first official international trip. Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters

SAN SALVADOR:  Whenever Wendy Carrillo returns to El Salvador, she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like if civil war had not driven her family out.

It was an incredibly violent time in El Salvador,” Carrillo said. “My mother made a very courageous decision that she would go to the U.S. and seek asylum, and was eventually denied. But she stayed anyway because she understood that she had to make choices for herself and for her family.”

Carrillo’s mother worked as a babysitter, saving money for three years to bring her to the U.S.  At age 5, Wendy said goodbye to her best friend and her school, and accompanied her grandmother—first on a plane to Mexico City, and then on to Tijuana to hire a “coyote” to smuggle them into California.

“I remember I was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt because it was my favorite shirt—it was the 80s, so it had the red sleeves and the white center with Mickey Mouse, and my hair was in pigtails,” she said. “And I remember being told to just be very quiet. And I was in the backseat with my aunt, and we crossed.”

For the first 8 years of her life in Los Angeles she was undocumented, until then-President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty. She became a legal resident at 13 and a citizen at 21.

Today Carillo—a Democratic state assemblywoman representing northeastern Los Angeles—is back, the only Salvadoran state lawmaker, and the only legislator to travel with Gov. Gavin Newsom on his first official international trip. The new governor is visiting the tiny Central American country, he says, to learn “firsthand” the reasons why thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras have been seeking U.S. asylum.

“Coming back here now in this new role as a member of the Legislature, I’m trying to figure out how we can help—and how we can understand not only the remnants of the civil war, which ended in 1992, but everything that’s happened since the economic downfall of El Salvador and the violence against women,” she said. “There’s so many issues that need to be addressed.”

Carrillo talked about her family story in the 10th floor lounge of the hotel where Newsom’s group is staying—and noted that it is in an affluent part of the city that is much safer than where most Salvadorans live.

The last time she came to El Salvador, with a delegation of state legislators last year, her meeting with outgoing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén felt like a homecoming of sorts.

When he saw me, he said that he was very proud of me because I was a daughter of this country, and he gave me a big hug and welcomed me back home,” she said. “For me that was very emotional because had it not been for the war, my family would never have left.”

Her new life in California wasn’t easy. As a teen she dropped out of school, but a principal at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles pulled her back in, encouraging her to graduate and be a role model for her four younger sisters.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and become a radio host, and she handled communications for a Service Employees International Union affiliate. She lost a bid for Congress, but in 2017 she won a special election for the state Assembly in a race against 11 men.

“Part of what propelled me to run was this idea that Salvadorans needed a seat at the table, especially when a federal administration was saying that immigrants don’t deserve to be here,” she said.

Carrillo thinks about how differently her life story might have played out were she living it today, in the Trump era. “Would I have been separated from my grandmother and put in a cage and completely forgotten about? Which is happening to many children right now.”

That will be on her mind as she and Newsom endeavor to meet with the Salvadoran president, U.S. ambassador and humanitarian advocates. She’ll be thinking, she said, about how she and California can help here and back home.

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April 4, 2019 5:42 pm

A slew of firsts in Gov. Newsom’s weekend trip to El Salvador

Political Reporter

Health and Welfare Reporter
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Gov. Gavin Newsom will be making his first official international foray as governor, traveling to El Salvador. Illustration by Sylvia Li for CALmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s trip to El Salvador, which he embarks on this weekend, is full of firsts:

The first time Newsom has left the United States in his official capacity as governor. The first time any California leader has taken an official trip to the Central American republic, or justified travel abroad as a fact-finding mission to learn more about a refugee crisis.

And the expedition doubles as Rorschach test. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a gubernatorial study-abroad trip, a humanitarian and diplomatic mission befitting the state’s status as the world’s fifth-biggest economy, or pure grandstanding on a global scale.

Democratic legislative leaders praise the new governor for his willingness to learn first hand about the root causes of a migration crisis that has driven Central Americans to seek U.S. asylum. Salvadoran Californians and immigration rights organizations are applauding him for recognizing an underrepresented constituency in such a high profile way.

The fact that Newsom chose to make El Salvador his first international destination “says a lot about his values, about the need for California to be an advocate within the United States for El Salvador,” said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles. Carrillo is the Legislature’s only Salvadoran immigrant and will be its only member to accompany Newsom on the trip.

But outside Newsom’s political tent, reaction has ranged from bemusement to outrage. Critics argue that international migration is the U.S. president’s responsibility, not the governor’s, and that Newsom, as an ambitious Democrat, is merely boosting his anti-Trump cred.

“I’ve got areas in my district that are flooding,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia. “Not in Central America. Come see the central San Joaquin Valley….Come down to where we have Third World conditions.

Newsom has said he wants to establish “more formal relationships” between California and Salvadorian lawmakers—to “better understand” why so many people make the dangerous trip from Central America to the United States, and to “communicate to the broader public—not just here in California, but across the rest of the United States—so we can change the conversation on immigration and move away from responding to a president of the United States who simply doesn’t get it.”

His expedition is premised on the idea that current migration can be slowed by improving living conditions on the ground. That contrasts with President Donald Trump, who recently cut humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to punish those countries for not doing more to curb outward migration. Trump has accused them of helping to “set up” the so-called caravans of migrants heading for the United States.

The lack of economic opportunity, climate change and gang violence are the top reasons people are fleeing El Salvador, experts said.

Only about 2.5 % of the world’s population migrates; it’s not something people want to do, said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and an expert in migration from Central America.

“You have to push people hard to move in a massive way. You need war, famine, a shock to the system,” he said. “What you have in Central America is environmental malfeasance, a pattern of land tenure and climate change and people who are unable to feed their families.”

Add violence and it’s unsustainable.

El Salvador has a complicated history with the U.S., which has often run roughshod over the smallest of the Central American countries, according to many experts.

Because those countries are located on an isthmus that connects east and west, there has been interest in the region for centuries, said Jocelyn Viterna, sociology professor and Central American expert at Harvard University.

“From the very early days we see these interventions from the outside economic forces fomenting violence and unrest in Central America for reasons that don’t help Central Americans themselves,” she said.

A U.S.-backed civil war in the early 80s triggered an exodus of thousands of migrants from El Salvador to the United States. Many settled in Los Angeles.

At that time, they had little chance of getting asylum. Seeking protection from local bullies and violent gangs, youth formed their own—the notorious MS-13 and 18th St gangs.

In El Salvador, the U.S. cut off aid after the war and the country tried to organize and rebuild but chaos continued.

A few years after a 1992 peace accord, the U.S. began deporting thousands of Salvadorans with criminal records and gang affiliations.

“They found a country with a lot of people who didn’t know what do with their lives because farms were destroyed, businesses were destroyed, so much was destroyed,  and the gangs took hold in El Salvador,” Viterna said.

Those deportees are credited with importing the powerful criminal gangs that continue to flourish today. That has led to waves of new migrants, coming in caravans or however they can, who are now in the direct glare of the Trump administration.

California is home to the largest group of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador, roughly 440,000 immigrants, but the community is much larger if U.S. born children are included in the count.

“Irrespective of immigration policy, [the Salvadoran population in California] is a very large community, so it is important for the governor to go visit and make connections—be they business, trade, or cultural exchange,” said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at UCLA.

Historically, gubernatorial trips overseas have been for the ostensible goal of advancing the economic interests of the state by nurturing trade relationships.

“For the most part when they travel abroad, it’s about trade, economic partnerships, and getting free vacations paid for with lobbyists’ dollars,” said Chris Thornberg of the consulting firm Beacon Economics. “They’re not staking out global positions.”

Gov. Jerry Brown may have broken that mold in traveling to Europe to tout California’s climate policy initiatives, standing in on the world stage after the Trump administration retreated. In going to El Salvador, seeking to frame California as a more humanitarian alternative to Washington, Newsom is following in his predecessor’s global-mission steps, said Thornberg: “This is Newsom channeling his inner Jerry.”

Though there’s plenty of Newsom in this trip too.

Wendy Carrillo

Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo. Photo via Carrillo’s office.

The governor has a history of going on study-abroad trips while in office. As mayor, he would frequently go on missions to cities abroad—Manilla, Mexico City, Shanghai—to return with the latest idea in city management. Sometimes the ideas would gain traction. Others, like his proposal to bring Chicago-style public surveillance cameras to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, were dead on arrival.

As lieutenant governor, Newsom took a trip with GOP legislators to Texas to research his economic development plan for that state. That earned him a rebuke from Gov. Brown.

Here in California, advocates pointed to things the state could do, such as helping detained asylum seekers with bonds so they can be released, and providing legal aid for those who need it.

The governor’s office says the final cost of the trip will be released after the entourage returns. Flights, hotels and other on-the-ground expenses will be paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, one of several nonprofits that have stepped in to relieve the taxpayer of travel costs for gubernatorial trips since the 1980s. Staff salaries will still be picked up by the state.

But some worry that the foundation serves as a vehicle for interest groups to curry favor with the governor.

Business, labor and other interests donated $1.7 million to the foundation at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown over the course of his last two terms. The largest donors included political action committees representing real estate agents, building trade unions and the California Chamber of Commerce.

The governor’s office has not yet responded to questions about who’s donating to the foundation to cover his travel expenses. All contribution made to the foundation at the behest of the governor must be made public within 30 days.

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April 1, 2019 10:33 pm

Kamala Harris backs idea to unionize child care workers

Political Reporter
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris points off camera as she greets members of organized labor at a conference in downtown Sacramento, April 1, 2019.
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris greets members of organized labor at a conference in downtown Sacramento, April 1, 2019. CALmatters photo.

Democratic presidential contender Kamala Harris was just about to take the stage tonight at Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel ballroom when she spotted and ran over to a group of women sporting yellow t-shirts sitting on right side of the auditorium. They were California child-care workers hoping to win collective bargaining rights in Sacramento. And Harris, a U.S. senator from California, put her stump speech on hold to exchange hugs and snap selfies.

It was a brief, unscripted moment in what was to be a fairly conventional campaign stop, but it was a notable one.

In her 20 minute speech to the conference put on by the California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Harris spoke broadly about the value of organized labor— “unions built the middle class of this country”—and stuck mostly to national politics. She promised to repeal the changes to the federal tax code signed into law by President Trump last year, and spoke about the aspirational nature of the American character.

Her one tangent into California state policy belonged to the women in yellow.

“I was going over there to talk to my sisters in the child-care workforce, and I thank you for all that you are doing to organize a critical workforce—to organize and unionize,” she said, speaking to the cheering members of the Service Employees International Union and the United Domestic Workers of America.

“The greatest expression of a society’s love of its children,” she continued, “is to put resources and support into anybody who is caring for those children.” 

For more than a decade, child-care workers in California who receive state subsidies to serve low-income families have been lobbying in the state Capitol to get the right to bargain with the state over reimbursement rates, licensing requirements and other policies that affect their industry. Supporters say that direct negotiations with state agencies are the best way to improve working conditions and child-care quality, though some skeptics worry that higher reimbursement rates could eat away at state funding that could be used to serve more children. Others see the campaign as yet another way for organized labor to consolidate political power.

This year, Santa Barbara Democrat Assemblywoman Monique Limón said that she is more optimistic than ever that her bill to OK the unionization effort will be successful this time. 

“This is a new era,” Limón told CALmatters last month. “We have a new governor who cares a lot about child care.”

And now they appear to have the backing of one of the Democratic front runners to be the next president of the United States. At least that’s certainly how many of the assembled childcare workers interpreted it. Harris did not take questions before or after her speech.

“It felt good,” said Nancy Harvey, who runs Lil’ Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse out of her house in West Oakland. “She’s on our side.”

“I loved what she was saying,” added Celeste Galeno, who owns Little Lambs Daycare in Tulare. “She knows that child care affects every single one of us in this place because every single one of us has been a child.” 

Harris wasn’t the only state politician to show up at the union confab to rub elbows and to seek possible endorsements. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra also made an appearance, as did at least three dozen state legislators. Also today, Harris’s campaign announced that the Oakland native and former state attorney general had raised $12 million in the first quarter of her presidential campaign, and her public appearances in the state have been sandwiched between private fundraisers. 

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