Los Angeles Times: Capitol Journal -- California is right to fight Trump. His idea of states' rights is clearly limited

January 23, 2017

President Donald Trump began his inaugural address with words that might have heartened nervous California Democrats. But then he warmed up and reverted to the familiar campaigner-in-chief.

Like many Republican leaders, Trump preached states’ rights — or seemed to.

“Today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another,” he said. “But we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”

Did that mean the federal government under Trump would butt out of California’s affairs and let its citizens determine, for example, the state’s own environmental policies? As it has pretty much for nearly half a century, back to the Nixon presidency, when the state began aggressively fighting deadly smog?

No, apparently not. Frankly, it wasn’t real clear what he was talking about — except the old “people rule,” throw-away stuff every politician spouts.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said, using fighting words while lamenting inner-city poverty, rusted factories, incompetent schools, gangs and drugs.

“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.”

No argument there. This certainly is not a time for timid politicians.

And that’s what California Democrats are saying as they prepare — as best they can — to resist the conservative policies of the Trump administration and Republican Congress. But they’re being urged by many, including some in their own party, to relax, be nice and see what happens.

Gov. Jerry Brown, for one, has told Democratic legislative leaders he won’t be joining their outspoken resistance movement. Telling a new president to pound sand is not smart when you’re hoping to negotiate with him over such issues as healthcare and environmental protection, the governor has said privately.

That isn’t calming down Democratic legislators, however — especially the two Latinos who head both houses: Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Paramount.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep wondering what will happen to the people of California,” De León said last week, speaking to Times reporters in the Sacramento bureau.


De León repeatedly held up the front page of last Thursday’s Times, like a street corner newspaper hawker from yesteryear. The top story reported that Trump planned to immediately crack down on illegal immigration, including ordering workplace raids.

“You have children in elementary school who are crying,” De León said. “That’s not healthy.”

An adjacent Times front-page story reported that Trump’s oil-friendly nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency had cast doubts on whether California should be allowed to keep imposing its own emission rules for cars and trucks. If not, it would hamper California’s nation-leading efforts to fight climate change.

“It had a real physical impact on me reading this,” De León said, again holding up the newspaper.

Normally soft-spoken Rendon has called Trump a “very dangerous person with totalitarian fascist tendencies.”

That’s pretty much the tone among Sacramento Democrats.

Updates from Sacramento »

Trump and Congress have the power to mess with a lot of California policy. But the three issues that most concern state Democrats are illegal immigration, environmental protection and Obamacare.

They can fight back like guerrillas on immigration and the environment. But on costly Obamacare, they’re essentially helpless because without federal funding, the state can’t afford the former president’s signature program.

It’s estimated that one-tenth of California workers — including professionals — are here illegally. Up to 85% of farmworkers are.

San Joaquin Valley farmers may have supported Trump for president, but they’re afraid of his immigration policies.

Democrats hope to rush some bills through the Legislature to thwart Trump on aggressive deportations.

One bill would require the federal government to use its own officers and facilities to round up immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally — no more using local cops or stashing the suspects in county jails.

And no barging into courtrooms, hospitals or schools searching for immigration lawbreakers. Obama’s policy forbade that, but there’s no telling what Trump might try.

Another bill would provide state money for lawyers who represent immigrants in deportation cases.

On the environment, if the Trump administration and Congress weaken protections for endangered species — long a GOP and agriculture dream — the Democratic Legislature would attempt to replace those federal safeguards with California’s own.

“We’re in a dramatically new environment with a hostile administration that does not believe in science,” De León said.

Most vulnerable is California’s version of Obamacare. About 5 million Californians benefit from the Affordable Care Act, including 4 million who are on Medi-Cal, the state’s healthcare program for the poor.

California receives roughly $22 billion in federal money for Obamacare, and there’s no politically feasible way the state could replace it.

“A repeal without replacement would lead to a level of chaos that would be hard to recover from,” says Anthony Wright, who heads Health Access California, an activist group. “We’ll fight to preserve key elements of the act.”

Ironically, the San Joaquin Valley benefits hugely from Obamacare, despite being largely represented in Congress by Republicans vowing to scuttle it. Half of Fresno County’s residents are on Medi-Cal, 45% of Kern County’s are and 55% of Tulare’s.

California Democrats are right to fight any Trump assaults on state policy. His notion of states’ rights clearly is limited.