In California, One America Fights Another
Posted January 6, 2018 1:21 p.m. EST
LOS ANGELES — When drivers entered California recently from the borders with Arizona and Nevada, they were greeted with signs welcoming them to an “official sanctuary state” that is home to “felons” and “illegals.” It was a prank, but the message was clear: By entering California, they might as well have been entering foreign territory.
And in many ways it feels like that these days, as the growing divide between California and the Trump administration erupted this past week over a dizzying range of flashpoints, from immigration to taxes to recreational marijuana use.
What had been a rhetorical battle between a liberal state and a conservative administration is now a full-fledged fight.
Just as Californians were enjoying their first days of legal pot smoking, the Trump administration moved to enforce federal laws against the drug. On the same day, the federal government said it would expand offshore oil drilling, which California’s Senate leader called an assault on “our pristine coastline.”
When President Donald Trump signed a law that would raise the tax bills of many Californians by restricting deductions, lawmakers in this state proposed a creative end-around — essentially making state taxes charitable contributions, and fully deductible. And California’s refusal to help federal agents deport undocumented immigrants prompted one administration official to suggest that state politicians should be arrested.
The clash between California and Trump and his supporters — between one America and another — began the morning after he won the presidency, when Kevin de Leon, the state Senate leader, and his counterpart in the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, said they “woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land.” Since then, the fight has metastasized into what could be the greatest contest over values between a White House and a state since the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government moved to end segregation and expand civil rights.
Back then, of course, the ideologies and values at issue were reversed, as conservative Southerners, under the banner of states’ rights, fought violently to uphold white supremacy. In these times, it is liberal California making the case for states’ rights, traditionally a Republican position.
“It seems like every day brings a new point of contention between two very different types of leadership,” said Jim Newton, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles.
And it does not end there: New laws that went into effect Jan. 1 in California raised the minimum wage, allowed parents to withhold gender on birth certificates and strengthened what were already some of the toughest gun laws in the country by restricting ammunition sales and assault weapons, and barring school officials from carrying concealed weapons at work. Taken together, the measures are the surest signs yet of how California is setting itself apart from Washington — and many parts of the United States, too.
De Leon, along with almost the entire leadership of California, has been a bulwark against the Trump administration. He introduced the sanctuary state legislation — the California Values Act — that restricts state authorities from cooperating with federal immigration agents, and places limits on agents entering schools, churches, hospitals or courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants. The law went into effect Jan. 1, provoking a prankster — presumably a Trump supporter — to put up those highway signs, and setting off a war of words between California and the administration.
The state should “hold on tight,” Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview on Fox News last week.
“They are about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers,” he said. “If the politicians in California don’t want to protect their communities, then ICE will.”
Homan went on to assail politicians who support the sanctuary policy, suggesting they should be arrested.
Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, California’s capital, reacted angrily Wednesday, saying on Twitter that “they certainly know where to find me.” Also this past week, De Leon introduced legislation to limit the impact of the new tax bill on Californians by essentially allowing residents to pay their state taxes in the form of a charitable contribution, which could then be deducted when filing federal income tax.
De Leon also said he was working with Eric Holder, an attorney general under President Barack Obama, to push back against attempts to enforce federal marijuana law, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday that he would allow federal prosecutors to do.
“Whether Jeff Sessions likes cannabis is not the question,” De Leon said. “The people of California voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana for recreational use.”
For his part, Trump is the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to not take a trip to California in his first calendar year in office, not even to visit his golf course in Rancho Palos Verdes, south of Los Angeles, or a mansion he owns in Beverly Hills, or to tour the vast damage left after a series of wildfires. By contrast, he has made multiple trips to other states hit by natural disasters, including Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
In California, every state leader is a Democrat, including the governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly. Of the state’s 53 members in Congress, only 14 are Republicans, and analysts believe several of them are in jeopardy of losing their seats to Democrats in next year’s midterm elections because of opposition in California to Trump.
Still, not every Californian is lining up to join the opposition. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader, has stood firm with the president, was a strong supporter of the tax bill, and has said he believes there is still an opportunity for Democrats and the administration to come together, particularly on immigration. In an interview with Fox News on Friday, he said, “I think there is a plan for securing the border, for dealing with chain migration.” He added, “I think there is a common ground that both sides can get to.”
But California’s diversity — 40 percent Latino, and with an estimated 2.3 million undocumented workers, according to a Pew Research Center survey — is regarded by many people here as a powerful counternarrative to the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies and the ugly racial incidents and outbursts of white supremacy that have surfaced during his presidency in places like Charlottesville, Virginia. Beyond demographics and politics, charting its own course is part of the identity of California. “We are the frontier,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “Beyond us, there’s nothing but ocean.”
California is not the only liberal state standing up to the Trump administration. But as the most populous state, with close to 40 million people — if it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest economy, sandwiched between Britain and France — California has been energized in the age of Trump to take the lead in opposing what many here believe is a depressing reversal of U.S. progress.
“California has distinguished itself from the federal government for a long time,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a political consultant who has worked for Gov. Jerry Brown, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Kamala Harris. “Certainly Arnold spent a lot of time talking about California as almost a nation-state. And many Californians feel that way.”
She continued, “For Californians and California there’s always this concept of a Golden State, a model of what a state can be and achieve.” These days, with the country roiled by a resurgence in white supremacy and nasty fights over immigration and diversity, essentially a battle over U.S. identity, she said, “there are sharp distinctions that many Californians are drawing between us and them.”
Those distinctions may become sharper, as a generational shift in California Democratic politics, driven by leaders like De Leon, could tilt the state further to the left. De Leon, 51, is mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 84, by positioning himself more to the left — and more stridently opposed to the president — than his rival.
Ordinary Californians have found other ways to push back.
One of them is Andrew Sturm, a graduate student in visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Last year, Sturm was with a friend in Tijuana, Mexico, at a spot near the border where prototypes of Trump’s planned wall had been positioned.
“We were thinking, man, these things look like drive-in movie screens,” he said. “We were thinking about how we could do something with them.”
The result was a display of political art, in the form of light. One evening last fall at dusk, Sturm and other activists, working from the Mexican side of the border, erected theater lights and used stencils to project images onto the prototypes — of a ladder, of the Statue of Liberty.
“I felt kind of sick as a U.S. citizen,” he said, referring to Trump’s immigration policies. “I didn’t want folks in Mexico to think this is how we all feel.”