More than any other place, California is well positioned to push back against the agenda of the incoming president. In this special series, Capital & Main examines why and how the Golden State will both lead the resistance to Donald Trump and continue to advance progressive ideas and policies.
- University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor and Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold look at why California must lead in the Trump era.
- Danny Feingold names 10 influential Californians who will take on the Trump administration.
- Leighton Woodhouse reports on how advocates are planning for the anticipated assault on immigrants.
- Judith Lewis Mernit explores how environmental activists will work to block Trump’s efforts to reverse climate change policies and to keep California in the vanguard of fighting global warming.
- Bill Raden examines how the repeal of Obamacare will affect California residents, and how the state can limit the damage.
- Bobbi Murray reports on how California’s formidable labor movement will oppose Trump’s attacks on workers’ rights and launch new initiatives to battle economic inequality.
- Bill Raden looks at how California artists are gearing up for the Trump era.
State of Resistance: Artists Push Back
What space is left for art, now that its traditional license of intellect, invention and poetic imagination have been so effectively seized by Donald Trump’s own brand of performance art?
One particularly unsettling portent from the presidential election may have been the role that artists didn’t play. Though political caricaturists and satirists had a field day, no Shepard Fairey stepped forward from the art world to crystalize the ideals and aspirations of a candidate, or to electrify and inspire voters in the way that the Los Angeles street artist’s iconic “Hope” portrait did for Barack Obama in 2008.
Then again, what space was left for art when its traditional license of intellect, invention and poetic imagination was so effectively seized by Donald Trump’s own brand of performance art?
As president, Trump has wasted little time in formalizing his stranglehold on artistic, journalistic and intellectual expression that doesn’t bend to a reality constructed of “alternative facts” and Orwellian doublespeak.
Meanwhile, a report by The Hill noted that the new administration will follow a scorched-earth budget blueprint, published last year by The Heritage Foundation, that calls for the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the outright elimination of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The good news is that California artists along a wide horizon of styles have been rallying and organizing.
- In December, a group of Bay Area-based artists, writers and cultural producers launched 100 Days Action, an online forum and calendar of daily activist and art-driven activities proposing a “counternarrative” to the one hundred day plan that Trump outlined during his campaign.
- In Los Angeles, Hollywood’s World of Wonder Storefront Gallery counter-programmed the Trump inauguration with a show of transgressive protest art called “Surviving Trump: The Art of Resistance,” featuring new works from a roster that includes Ginger (from the activist collective INDECLINE), Kenny Scharf, Raja, Pandora Boxx, Trevor Wayne, Jason Mecier, Sham Ibrahim and media critics the Kaplan Twins.
- Shepard Fairey offered free downloads on his Obey Giant website of his “We the People” portraits celebrating America’s multicultural and racial diversity. The new images turned up on placards carried by thousands at the Women’s March on Washington and offered a human face to those affected by Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda of mass deportations, a border wall and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.
Art’s greatest power is its ability to articulate that which is literally unspeakable. And countering the brutalism of the new Performance Artist-in-Chief may demand an artistic resistance that goes beyond galleries or the conventional rhetoric of the demonstration march — or, as Yoko Ono famously phrased it, art that is a verb rather than a noun.
For a sense of what that verb may look like, Capital & Main spoke to two California artists working in the medium of what has been called “social practice” art, a participatory, multidisciplinary medium that uses social engagement and collaboration in works that transcend traditional categories of art and political activism.
San Francisco artist and media designer Amy Franceschini’s roots in farming, environmental and food sovereignty issues have been central to Futurefarmers, the renowned S.F.-based art collective she founded in 1995. Raised in California by divorced farmer parents — her father was a large industrial grower and owner of a pesticide company in the San Joaquin Valley, her mother an organic farmer and activist near San Luis Obispo — Franceschini is no stranger to ideological divides or food politics.
That formative insight not only shaped Futurefarmers’s political focus, but it informs a collective practice in which members bring their distinct skill sets to bear in socially engaged work that has ranged from Victory Garden, which transformed the front of San Francisco’s City Hall into an urban farming demonstration garden, to Soil Kitchen, a wind-driven neighborhood soup kitchen that offered free soil testing to low-income Philadelphia residents. Currently the collective is mounting Seed Journey, an international sailing expedition organized around the preservation of natural seed stocks, information about the dangers of GMOs and as a resistance to the privatization of the public commons.
Seed Journey may be the group’s most explicit rejoinder to the unbridled privatization behind the Trump agenda. The focus of the sailing expedition, which completed its first leg from Oslo to Antwerp in the fall and will begin its second leg from Antwerp to Istanbul in April, is the disappearing of the commons due to the privatization and corporate ownership of knowledge and the importance of preserving the public domain.
Franceschini, who doesn’t like the label social practitioner, describes Futurefarmers’ work in terms that sounds like a cross between conceptual art and political organizing. When the group accepts an invitation to create a work in a new city, she explained, they first investigate the local ecology of political and artistic relationships — who’s working in local grassroots movements, where the anarchist book store is and attending local art openings.
Futurefarmers constructed a rusticated windmill on top of an abandoned diner in North Philadelphia that generated enough electricity to power lights on the ground floor. The windmill was an homage to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the tilting at the windmill that both commented on the green energy future of Philadelphia even as the temporary installation operated with the city on a grassroots level.
“We were able to work with the Environmental Protection Agency, the mayor’s office, local farmer, and create some demand, because our public artwork was commissioned by the mayor as a call to imagine a green Philly in 2015,” she reflected. “The EPA actually took on our model and traveled it to different cities.”
On board the sailing of Seed Journey will be seeds “rescued” from the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, going all the way back to Viking-era Finnish Rye seeds recovered by archaeologists from a site in Hamar, Norway.
“Seeds are a beautiful metaphor,” Franceschini explained. “Literally and metaphorically they’re shared through many hands, and so what we say is, ‘How do we keep the power of our commons in the hands of many, rather than the hands of few and, in the case of seeds, in the hands of fewer and fewer huge companies?’”
At the opposite end of the social practice spectrum is Los Angeles multidisciplinary “life-artist” Jennifer Moon. Since emerging as a breakout star of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial exhibition in 2014, Moon has become a wildly whimsical crossover attraction in group political art shows on both coasts, most recently sharing the bill of the 31-artist S/Election: Democracy, Citizenship and Freedom exhibition at East Hollywood’s Municipal Gallery.
Even though her work doesn’t deal in conventional direct-action politics or Futurefarmers’ brand of policy-focused social engagement, Moon sees the election of Trump as an opportunity for politically progressive artists.
“Before the election,” she declared, “people were asking, ‘What happens if Trump gets elected?’ I told them, ‘Maybe the revolution can actually happen then.’ … I hope artists — including myself — do start thinking, Who I’m in partnership with? Why am I making art? Who is this benefiting?”
Moon’s highly autobiographical blend of political theory, psychotherapy and elaborate fantasy explores the idea of love as a revolutionary force — a mix of lived experience and activism that she calls “The Revolution.” Through performances, videos, manifestos and sculptures that playfully draw from the ideas and postures of theoretical physics, cognitive science, self-help gurus and TED talks, Moon undertakes, through her own highly idiosyncratic framework, the very serious business of challenging the underlying belief systems and political economies that perpetuate problems like economic and social inequality, climate change and the depletion of resources.
“My tagline on my website is ‘Jennifer Moon, artist, adventurer, and revolutionary,’” Moon explained. “To me, popular politics, which is where Trump exists, is not a form of [authentic] politics in terms of how Hannah Arendt talks about the polis, which is a sphere of freedom.”
Moon’s recent work borrows heavily from quantum mechanics and cosmological theory — how 95 percent of the universe consists of unknown forces and matter that can’t be seen or observed — to explore the tenuous connection between systems of belief and the real world. In 2015’s Phoenix Rising: Part 3: laub, me and the Revolution (The Theory of Everything) at Los Angeles’ Commonwealth and Council art gallery, Moon illustrated that fraught connection with an outlandish installation that melded fantasy with the language of self-help cant and included a room-size model of the Large Hadron Collider cobbled from Popsicle sticks, duct tape and Habitrail tubes.
The shared “five percent reality,” as Moon describes it, represents a kind of conceptual prison that ultimately enabled white women and Latinos to ignore to Trump’s attitudes toward women or immigrants in order to cast their vote for him.
“What we’re seeing is not everything that’s there,” Moon explained. “I’m interested in how to access the things that we can’t see as a way to point towards expanding our reality beyond the five percent reality. … If I’m really affected by Trump, my job is to go in and identify what he represents, because he’s essentially a carrier of a certain belief, or bad beliefs.”
State of Resistance: Health Care or Trumpcare?
What exactly Trumpcare will be remains vague, but for the more than 50 percent of South L.A. that now relies on the state’s ACA Medi-Cal expansion for health coverage, the future is frighteningly uncertain.
Fernando E. Hurtado scrolled through photos on his mobile phone in a pristine new examination room of South Los Angeles’ federally funded St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. Nearby, his wife, Amy Areli, waited with two of their four children as the younger boy fidgeted nervously.
“He’s getting his immunization shots today,” Hurtado grinned at the 3-year-old before pausing at a close-up of a woman’s forearm and what looked like a mosquito-bite-sized bump surrounded by a patch of ruddy inflammation. The next image revealed a gaping, half-dollar-sized crater where the bump had been.
“My wife got a tiny cut on her arm that became infected,” Hurtado explained. “It was [Methicillin-resistant] staphylococcus. She spent nine days in the hospital. They told me that if we hadn’t had Medi-Cal, the bill would have been more than $100,000. If this would have happened without medical coverage, there would have been no way for us to afford to pay that kind of expense.”
On the same day that congressional Republicans set the stage to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the 35-year-old father, who installs artificial lawns, grimly reflected on the shadow that his family and the majority of St. John’s patients have been living under since the election of Donald Trump signaled the coming end of the law that has dramatically transformed California’s health-care landscape.
“Before my wife got the infection,” Hurtado said, “our 2-month-old baby was also in the hospital, with an infection for [chicken pox], when he got an infection in his head and he was hospitalized for four days for the same [staph] bacteria. I imagine them not having medical coverage. Yes. Of course I’m worried.”
Though the form that Trumpcare will take remains vague, for Hurtado and his family — and the more than 50 percent of their newly insured South L.A. neighbors, who now rely on the state’s ACA Medi-Cal expansion for their health coverage — the future remains frighteningly uncertain. They are not alone.
Over five million Californians
Over five million Californianshave received coverage under Obamacare — 3.7 million through Medi-Cal and 1.4 million through Covered California — and the state has logged the largest percentage-point decline in its uninsured rate of any state, dropping from nearly 17.2 percent in 2013 to 8.6 percent in 2015.
St. John’s alone has enrolled over 18,000 previously uninsured Angelinos, nearly all of them black or Latino, and more than doubled its insured-patient base. The health center has aggressively embraced the new ACA population to dramatically expand preventative and primary care throughout the region, which before the law had been ground zero of California’s uninsured crisis.
“We provide free medical, dental, mental health and support services, and case management in about 300,000 patient visits a year at 14 sites and two mobile [clinics],” St. John’s Well Child and Family CEO Jim Mangia told Capital & Main. “We provide health-care services to the homeless. We serve thousands of homeless folks through two mobiles that go into the riverbeds and to help buy homeless shelters. And we’re the largest health provider in South L.A., which is the largest area of contiguous poverty in the United States.”
But with Trump now in the White House, those gains are in the crosshairs of the new president and the Republican congress. At stake for Californians is $20.5 billion a year in federal ACA subsidies. The murkiness surrounding what will happen next has left the state’s political and public health leadership with little choice but to brace for the worst and hope for the best.
“It is almost impossible to develop a contingency without knowing exactly what we are dealing with,” state Senate Health Committee Chair Dr. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) told Capital & Main in an email. “A loss of federal funding would be devastating for low-income and middle-class Californians who rely on the ACA for their health insurance. We plan to do everything we can to protect the people of our state and ensure stability in the health insurance market and Medi-Cal program.”
St. John’s spotlights a lesser-known aspect of the Affordable Care Act — namely, its role as a conduit for $12 billion in construction infrastructure spending and operational funding for the expansion of private nonprofit health centers, which are known as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC). These provide low-income and immigrant communities with quality health care, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. That makes the center both an exemplar of how much California stands to lose, as well as an unexpected harbinger of what resistance to the abolition of the ACA might look like.
“I started that literally the day after the election,” Mangia said about planning for the Trump era, “and now I’ve got all of these players. There’s a lot of special interests that benefited from the Affordable Care Act. … We’re talking about, ‘Okay. What’s our advocacy need to look like? Who do we need to be talking to? Who do we need to bring to the table to craft a solution in the state?’”
Forty-five percent of St. John’s patients are ineligible for insurance under ACA because of their immigration status. According to Mangia, who was part of President Obama’s health policy committee when the Affordable Care Act was first being drawn up, addressing the plight of those ineligible for Obamacare because of immigration status was always part of the plan. Care for the undocumented is partially paid by My Health LA, a no-cost health-care program run by L.A. County. Private fundraising makes up the rest.
The FQHCs have been instrumental in braking the country’s decades-long expansion of America’s health-care inequality gap, which continues to be one of Obamacare’s most significant achievements.
Even more transformative, perhaps, is the quality of the medical care and the innovations that ACA has delivered. The law reorganized payment methodology and radically re-prioritized the health-care system with pay-for-performance measures that shifted the focus of providers from end-of-life and sick care to prevention and primary care. It encouraged innovations like the patient-centered “medical home” — a holistic delivery model designed to improve quality of care through team-based coordination of care, for the “whole” patient. Tying Medicare payments to the quality, rather than the quantity, of care that characterized the pricey, pre-Obamacare fee-for-service model, created efficiencies and surpluses for health centers like St. John’s that could then be used to serve California’s estimated 3.3 million uninsured, along with its undocumented population.
“These relatively modest reforms actually ended up being revolutionary in all sorts of different ways,” recalled Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy coalition Health Access California. “There was all this really exciting work to provide people medical homes, and have early intervention to keep people healthy before they got sick in the first place. There was exciting work about how to treat issues around substance abuse and behavioral health medically, rather than criminally, which was starting to have profound benefits to not just our health system but to our criminal justice and corrections systems . If we undo the Medicaid expansion, we undo all that progress in one swoop.”
Preserving that expansion has been the focus of California resistors, including consumer groups, labor unions and Democratic lawmakers, since election day, both in the current campaign by patient advocates, to bring public pressure on Trump and Republicans, and in anticipating the full extent of the damage to California’s Medi-Cal expansion that will need to be controlled.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to resist what is still unknown. And the extent of that damage won’t be clear until the plan is unveiled sometime after Trump’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, Georgia Representative Tom Price, is approved by the Senate.
Recent promises by Trump for a speedy and concurrent repeal and replacement of ACA with “insurance for everybody” that is “much less expensive and much better” have only further muddled the picture. The broad strokes remain at odds with what has been outlined in separate ACA alternatives by Price, who opposed ACA’s fundamental reforms, and by House Speaker Paul Ryan. And Price’s Tea Party antipathy to federal entitlements makes future attempts to cut Medicare and Medicaid likely.
“Both of [the plans] would repeal most of the regulations under the ACA, but they would restore some aspects of the law, including subsidies for people to buy health insurance,” explained Gerald Kominski, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research. “But their subsidies would be substantially lower than those currently available under the ACA, and would [go] back to a market that’s largely regulated at the state level rather than [have] the layer of federal regulations [that has standardized] the individual insurance market. So it’d be a little bit of a free-for-all.”
California resistors are divided as to whether the state would have the political will or financial wherewithal to make up the federal government’s $20 billion share of the Medi-Cal expansion and Covered California, should it be cut, or to even go it alone with a version of single-payer.
“I have always believed that health care is a right for everyone in California and the country,” state senator Ed Hernandez said. “The dilemma arises on how to finance it and whether the public supports it. … The state would be unable to backfill the loss of $20 billion in federal funds without massive tax increases or major program reductions.”
Wright illustrated California’s difficulty in translating a moral imperative into a health-care entitlement by pointing out that the recent passage of Proposition 56, the two-dollar cigarette tax that, beginning in April, will generate a billion dollars annually for Medi-Cal, had faced three ballot fights — and $200 million in opposition spending by tobacco companies — to become law.
“Before we get to what California does,” he cautioned, “we all need to be focused on the federal fight. The framework and financing that they provide is going to be very determinative about what is possible for California to do, whether it is an Obamacare lookalike or single-payer or anything else.”
Mangia expressed what might be the ultimate vision of California resistance. “I think it would make a very, very strong political statement across the country if the Republicans repeal [Obamacare] and California says, ‘Okay. Well, we’re going to keep it.’ Democrats control two thirds of the legislature. There’s a Democratic governor. I think we have a real opportunity.”
State of Resistance: Labor Will Double Down in Trump Era
As workplace protections have come under attack, California has created labor-organizing models to resist attempts to erode labor standards and impose right-to-work measures.
California’s labor laws are stronger than federal regulations in most areas, including the minimum wage, paid sick leave, overtime for agricultural workers and domestic worker rights. The state also leads the national trend for predictive scheduling. (In 2014 San Francisco passed the nation’s first measure that requires employers to inform workers of schedules two weeks in advance; 13 states and other municipalities are currently pursuing the policy.
But it’s not all sunshine, now that fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Labor. Puzder, the CEO of CKE, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, is no admirer of California’s labor codes and last year began moving the parent company’s headquarters from California to Tennessee, complaining that “you can’t be a capitalist in this state.” Donald Trump’s nominee is widely regarded by labor advocates as a substantial threat to working standards around the country. The fallout from a Puzder labor department could well reach California.
“We may be big and we may have the Sierras, but we’re not an island,” says Ken Jacobs, who is the chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center. “There are very serious challenges.”
But as union membership shrinks nationally and workplace protections have come under attack, California has created labor-organizing models to resist attempts to erode labor standards and impose right-to-work measures —two predicted hallmarks of a Trump administration labor policy.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 has developed and exported to other states a leadership model that goes beyond the shop floor and trains stewards to engage in an organizing agenda to counter anti-labor attacks and to support local political and contract fights.
The California local, which has a strong presence in the Central Valley and Nevada, created an Organizing Stewards program that recruits stewards, teaches them how to connect with members and trains them in door-to-door canvassing and leadership skills.
Much of it involves on-the-ground training. Just this month the California organizing corps helped Baltimore Gas & Electric workers buck a national anti-union trend to win representation.
Nine organizing stewards went to Wisconsin to join rallies at the state capitol against Governor Scott Walker’s right-to-work policies and to reach out to other workers. Local 1245 also fielded 100 organizing stewards and active members during the 2016 election season to work full time on campaigns across California, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio to support labor-friendly candidates, says Fred Ross Jr., an organizer for the local who, along with colleague Eileen Purcell, developed the program.
Tom Dalzell, Local 1245’s business manager, views a Trump administration, especially Trump’s Supreme Court picks, with concern, but is resigned to resisting. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he says. “We know we’re going to have to do it.”
Dalzell worries about potential Supreme Court decisions that could permit public employees to opt out of union membership. The only answer, he says, will be counter-organizing in the workplace with one-on-one meetings to explain why an employee should stick with his or her union. “It will be like an organizing campaign,” Dalzell says, of “people who are already taking the message of the union to people who have never had to fight for it or live without it.”
Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of the Communication Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union Local 521, SEIU-USWW and UNITE HERE Local 19, plus nine community organizations, formed two years ago in this region dominated by tech development.
“Silicon Valley was the poster child for income inequality,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, SVR’s campaign director. The Silicon Valley work culture is famous for its perks — shuttles sent to a tech worker’s front door, chefs serving gourmet meals, game rooms and massages. Those details make for good headlines but hide the gulf between tech employees who earn, on average, $113,000 annually, and the support staff of janitors, cafeteria workers and others, the majority of whom are contract workers who average under $20,000 a year, according to a study by University of California, Santa Cruz researchers. While tech development drives jobs in Silicon Valley, the majority of those jobs belong to service workers that serve meals and clean offices.
Silicon Valley Rising is poised to push the state of California to keep moving forward on labor and immigration standards, and to continue campaigns around employee rights, work-week rules and local minimum wage measures. The coalition is also working with employers to ensure that employees that work on the sprawling company campuses are protected from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities while on the job.
Tech employees—those considered the industry talent— recently joined service workers in a march in front of the data analytics company Palantir Technologies. The protest targeted Palantir’s involvement in technologies that could support Trump’s announced programs of mass deportation and “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants. Trump mega-donor Peter Thiel holds the largest share of the company, one of the world’s most valuable venture-capital-backed companies.
The tech workers’ message, says Fernandez, is that “’This is not how we want our talent to be used.’ That’s not the Silicon Valley they signed up for.”
Local action is critical, says Fernandez. Labor has won on wage and work standards in cities, and Trump administration policies will thwart gains at the federal level. “Cities have to be the centers of resistance.”
The University of California system exudes the same prosperous air as the tech sector—but grad students working here as teaching assistants, tutors and lab technicians at 10 campuses in the UC system can make as little as $18,000 annually.
The fight here concerns labor standards—but has other ramifications. Funding for research and research assistants is federal, says Anke Schennink, the president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, which represents 7,000 post-doctoral researchers in the UC system. “Most of our international students are on work visas, so we’re doing education and strategy discussions around what exactly is going on and what we can do.” The local works with the national UAW to press on protecting immigrant post-doc rights.
Schennink is an immigrant from the Netherlands where “a lot of power is in the hands of labor — strikes are a common thing, not unique.” Under-paid post-doctoral students are her rank-and-file but the union’s issues go beyond pay and working conditions, and the local is prepared to defend against attacks on immigrant rights and potential federal cuts that could decimate funding for climate science, clean energy and some medical research.
“We of course have to put together a legislative and political plan with Trump as a factor,” she says. An October contract win that created family leave and other amenities has boosted union activism and the Trump victory has actually accelerated organizing.
The Oakland-based Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has a similar big-picture perspective. The local organizes front-line health-care staff members who answer phones and check in patients at UC’s 10 campuses, five medical centers and additional clinics, research laboratories and UC Hastings College of the Law. “The cuts to health care will be devastating to our members and leave millions without health care,” predicts Elizabeth Perlman, the local’s executive director.
For Perlman, guaranteeing worker rights in the Trump era means doubling down on the union’s information campaign in the face of anticipated right-to-work initiatives that are legislated from Congress or adjudicated by a Trump Supreme Court. This defensive war will require keeping in close touch with her local’s members, so “the union knows what’s important to them, what connects them to the union, who they are, where they work. It’s focus groups, it’s polling, it’s every piece of data we can collect.” The union, she says, must make hard assessments about how it connects with workers. If Supreme Court decisions give employees a choice as to whether to opt into the union, locals must work to find out what makes members value their union and be willing to participate and pay dues.
UC Berkeley’s Jacobs is encouraged by California’s innovation and energy, but remains cautious about predicting the national impact.
“We have incredible people [and] unions—if anybody can craft a solution it’s us. We should be clear-eyed that people need to fight the changes on a national level— we’re going to also have to figure out what to do as a state.”
State of Resistance: Protecting California’s Air and Water
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt pinned his career on fighting laws and regulations that stood in the way of agricultural, mining or energy interests. Now he’s Trump’s pick to lead the EPA.
In December of 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on Canyon Plastics of Valencia, California, for allegedly polluting local waters with nurdles. Tiny bits of resin used in the manufacture of plastic products, nurdles leach chemicals as they collect on beaches and clog up the digestive tracts of marine creatures. Canyon Plastics, the EPA alleged, had been disposing of them in a tributary of the Santa Clara River, which empties into the ocean. The nurdles posed an immediate threat to the endangered steelhead trout that persist in the river, and after an inspection, the federal agency proposed a fine and a remediation plan that was open to public comment.
Nurdles in the Santa Clara might seem trivial compared with lead poisoning a city’s tap water, or Volkswagen (and now, allegedly, Fiat Chrysler) cars tricking smog tests. But policing nurdles is an example of an important function of the EPA that often flies under the radar of anyone who hasn’t been subscribing to the agency’s news feed. Just in the last few months in California, the EPA has ordered a home renovator in Anaheim to spend $34,000 on blood tests for clients’ children, who may have been exposed to lead dust; forced Trader Joe’s grocery stores to spend $2 million to fix faulty and polluting refrigerators; and imposed a six-figure penalty on a Bay Area refinery that was illegally disposing of the toxic chemical benzene in an unlined waste pond.
All of the small, cumulative enforcement actions over time add up to a single, worthwhile purpose: The safeguarding of the country’s air and water to the extent that the EPA’s resources allow.
That news feed abruptly went dark this week, as Myron Ebell, the overseer of the EPA transition for the Trump administration, ordered staff to cease communicating with the public except for critical messages. Ebell also ordered the suspension of grants and contracts, according to information provided to the Huffington Post and ProPublica. The unprecedented move was a cold reminder of what everyone following the news has known since December 7, when the news broke that then-President-elect Donald Trump would pick Scott Pruitt as his EPA administrator: The federal agency created under the Nixon administration to enforce our environmental laws may very well be in peril. “Pruitt,” says Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau, “is everything people say he is.” To wit: no friend to regulation that restrains the polluting industries.
The proof is in Pruitt’s record. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt pinned his career on fighting laws and regulations that would stand in the way of agricultural, mining or energy interests. He has sued to stop a creature on the brink of extinction from being added to the endangered species list; he went to court to defend a state ballot measure that would bar any restrictions on agribusiness’ right to pollute the state’s waterways (the measure failed at the polls).
Pruitt has also gone after the EPA itself — 19 times, in fact — suing to block a rule that would reduce the haze that contaminates the skies in national parks. He’s even tried to stop the time-honored practice of citizens—privately, or under the aegis of environmental nonprofits —taking the agency to court when it falls short, a practice enshrined in the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.
There was much discussion of citizen lawsuits during Pruitt’s January 18 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (Pruitt affirmed, to Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, that he opposed the practice.) Also on the docket was Pruitt’s handling of poultry waste in the Illinois River, with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recounting how Pruitt turned his back on a legal settlement that Pruitt’s predecessor, Drew Edmondson, had achieved with the poultry producers to reduce phosphorous pollution. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pressed the nominee on his views on climate, which, like every other Trump nominee’s views on climate, came out sounding more measured and reasonable than the president’s “Climate change is a Chinese hoax” remark.
Less attention was paid, however, to what will happen to these many smaller enforcement duties when the EPA and Justice Department abandon their roles in protecting public health. Pruitt has said that he respects state’s rights; it’s been one of the key phrases of his tenure. He nevertheless indicated during the hearing that he might deny California its currently held right to impose limits on tailpipe emissions that exceed federal standards; he also suggested that the federal government should have stepped in sooner in Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. “The EPA should have acted expeditiously” when it became clear the state wasn’t acting to clean up the lead in the city’s water supply, Pruitt said. But that’s a statement that runs counter to literally everything Pruitt has done in his active career as the chief enforcer in his home state, where, as Delaware Senator Tom Carper noted, every county for which data is collected consistently exceeds federal air pollution standards.
Pruitt’s record on enforcement has been one of laxity, not enforcement. His inaction as the new EPA head could nullify environmental laws in practice even while they remain on the books.
Environmental laws are only as good as their implementation,” says Jared Blumenfeld, the recent former regional EPA administrator for the Pacific Southwest and Hawaii. “They are great things to have on the books; we can feel good about them. But without enforcement, they’re paper tigers.”
Enforcement, in fact, is the very reason for the EPA’s existence—as well as the defining characteristic of modern environmentalism. If President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous camping trip with John Muir had ushered in the era of conservation, it was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, a “quietly shocking tale about the widespread pesticide poisoning of man and nature,” according to the agency’s official origin story, that gave rise to “a political movement which demanded the state not only preserve the Earth, but act to regulate and punish those who polluted it.” It was, at the time, a nonpartisan ideal: The EPA’s first administrator was a staunch Indiana Republican, William Ruckelshaus, who nonetheless believed wholeheartedly in the agency’s mission. “Obviously,” he told senators at his confirmation hearing, “if we are to make progress in pollution abatement, we must have a firm enforcement policy at the federal level.”
One of the first things Blumenfeld did after President Obama appointed him was rebuild the EPA’s enforcement division, which had been gutted way back under President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch. (George W. Bush’s administration further hobbled enforcement staff, sending longtime staffers fleeing in disgust.) Still, the Obama administration’s EPA has not been the most robust in history. Criminal prosecutions for environmental crimes, which peaked under President Bill Clinton in 1998, in 2016 were the lowest they’d been in two decades, reports the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. But that’s mostly a problem of diminishing resources, a situation Congress has responded to by further diminishing them.
And Pruitt is right about Flint: The EPA did err when it failed to intervene in that city’s water crisis, long after agency scientists knew lead was leaching into the water supply. But the Flint disaster also points up why the EPA is necessary. Most enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, those twin landmark laws first authored during the Nixon administration, is delegated to the states, which in turn pass the responsibility on to regional or local authorities. (California, for instance, takes its federally delegated authority to regulate pollutants under the Clean Air Act and distributes it among 35 local air districts.) When those local agencies fail to protect public health, the EPA can and should intervene. Its failure to do so in Flint shows what happens to state environmental law when the EPA isn’t there as a backstop.
“States need to know that someone else is watching to make sure federal environmental laws are being effectively implemented and enforced,” Blumenfeld says.
Even a governor who views himself as an environmental warrior at times lacks the political will to do the right thing. In 2011, when California regulators warned that Central Valley oil-drilling operations risked polluting local aquifers, Governor Jerry Brown fired the regulators; three years later, the EPA ordered a more thorough review, and shut down 56 wells.
There’s also the issue of local authorities getting to know their industrial operators a little too well. “The basic enforcement philosophy at EPA is that the closer the relationship between the enforcer and the entity that’s being inspected, the greater the likelihood that problems will arise,” says Blumenfeld. Exide Technologies’ battery recycling facility in Vernon was allowed to pollute the community under a temporary permit for 33 years, with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control exacting only minimal fines before the story broke wide in 2013. This, despite a long history of inspections that revealed leaks of lead-acid battery waste and arsenic into the neighborhood’s soil and water. It took the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice to close down the plant for good.
And even when California regulators abide by environmental laws better than their counterparts in other states—and pass emissions laws that exceed federal standards—there’s no guarantee California will remain the beacon of environmental progress that it is now. Jim McElfish, a senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute, points out that Wisconsin was once “one of the great environmental pioneers” and the home of conservationist hero Aldo Leopold. Now, with Wisconsin under conservative political leadership, environmental groups complain that the state has scrubbed all mention of climate change from its official websites, and say officials repeatedly turn a blind eye to Clean Water Act violations.
“California might feel pretty good right now with a unified state legislature and governor and strong economy,” McElfish says. “But if you look back a decade, when you had a legislature that couldn’t pass much of anything, a huge budget deficit and the economy flagging — it was hard back then to do much for the environment.” Depending on shifts in the political winds, California could go that way again.
“States,” says McElfish, “can regress.”
Environmental enforcement at its best, however, happens when states’ own environmental laws are strong and the federal government acts to shore them up. Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis, cites the recent Volkswagen settlement as an example of that fact: A state with rigorous air laws had the support of the federal government to make them stick. “The opportunity for an efficient, effective and swift resolution of that case was enhanced considerably when you had the state of California and its air board working shoulder to shoulder with the EPA and the Justice Department,” Frank says. “It’s a very good example of a collaborative, aggressive approach.” A similar drama is now unfolding with Fiat Chrysler, which also allegedly installed test-beating software in some of its cars.
Such collaborations will no doubt be rare in the next four years — the arrest of Volkswagen’s emissions compliance executive, Oliver Schmidt, at Miami International Airport on January 7, may be the last of its kind for a while. (Schmidt allegedly lied to California regulators about why polluting diesel cars were passing their emissions tests, adding a criminal investigation to the civil settlement). In California, potential criminal operators might still be found out, but holding them accountable will require more time and money. And the air we breathe could well get worse.
Which brings us back to those EPA announcements that until recently came over the email transom—not just the news of penalties and fix-it orders, but the grants and the financial support the agency provides for clean-fuel vehicles in polluted areas, or its offers to install better ventilation in alarmingly toxic nail salons. However much the average citizen blanches at the surfeit of data, however mind-numbing all those announcements had become to the public and reporters, there’s always a subset to whom each one of them matters a great deal: The people whose air or water has been contaminated, whose children on some days can only breathe with the help of inhalers, who’ve been living on bottled water for fear of what issues from their taps, whose parents died young of some strange cancer. Before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were written, a smog event in Pennsylvania had killed 20 people in a single week, and a river in Ohio had burst into flames. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of a Republican president under pressure from both an alarmed public and a relentless Democratic congress, was established to stop such things from happening.
Congressional Democrats are hosting a panel discussion today, Tuesday (live video here), to hear testimony about Pruitt’s nomination from tribal leaders, environmental advocates and other interested parties, in order to probe “serious questions” that remain about Pruitt, Sen. Carper’s office said in a statement Monday. Pruitt may not be confirmed, but his defeat wouldn’t be the end of the threat. The next pick will still come guided by Ebell, known as the “climate contrarian” of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-lobbying group.
California can still do a lot to protect the environment within its borders, and no doubt will. The chair of the state’s air board, Mary Nichols, who served in President Bill Clinton’s EPA, is renowned as a relentless firebrand on clean air policy—she’s even pushed for an end to the internal combustion engine. State water authorities, while refusing to speculate on the new administration, insist they’ll carry out their duties to public health and ecology with or without the support of the federal government. “Our authority is very clear,” wrote spokesman George Kostyrko in an email, “and we will continue to ensure that the beneficial uses of surface waters are sustained for the residents of California under our authority within both the Clean Water Act and California Water Code.”
“We’ve been the best environmental stewards in the country,” says Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our economy is tied to the green economy, and our economic recovery is an example of what happens when as a state you do what’s in the best interest of the environment.”
California’s environmental groups aren’t in an unfamiliar place when it comes to taking up the slack of a feckless EPA. The key, say some, is to ride herd on the state while continuing to pressure the feds in court. Blumenfeld points to the example set by Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit based in the Imperial Valley that uses citizen science to take action on local pollution. In 2007, the group began conducting “Toxic Bus Tours” of low-income neighborhoods in the Imperial Valley; Olmedo and his crew later branched out with websites where people can report environmental violations and keep track of whether they’re being addressed. So far the group has developed portals for seven communities and has outfitted some with air-quality monitors.
Olmedo calls the online reporting system a way of “democratizing environmental protection,” inspired by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s data crowdsourcing after the BP oil-spill disaster of 2010. It’s raised the community’s environmental awareness and fostered relationships between local communities and state regulators, who show up at local task force meetings to discuss current or impending issues.
The new White House’s policies and practices aren’t of much concern to Olmedo; his group’s information gathering, he believes, is insulated against politics. Data-gathering is hard to fight on partisan grounds. “We’ve already been through two administrations in the time since we’ve been evolving this model,” he says. Transparency, he finds, gives a community the “political muscle” to force change. “It’s proactive policing.”
Crowdsourcing may be California environmentalists’ best chance of protecting the state’s resources in the face of federal hostility. Many complaints of potential environmental crimes, Olmedo says, come from business owners who are following environmental laws and want their competitors to do the same. “Even in the worst of circumstances, communities can expose corruption and get it addressed,” he says. “What we have is a feasible way for the state to cover more ground.”
And that’s probably what the state agencies will have to do—expand their reach, and investigate more deeply. It can be done. “We learned during the Bush administration that we can’t rely on the federal government to fix our problems,” says Mark Gold. “California is big enough to lead by example.”
Trump photo by Michael Vadon; Yosemite photo by Guy Francis.
State of Resistance: California Braces for Immigration Battle With Trump
Three-quarters of Californians oppose mass deportation measures of the kind that President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for.
Republicans didn’t just win total control of the federal government last November. They also emerged holding a record number of governorships and retained their overwhelming dominance of state legislatures. There are now only five states in which Democrats have a “trifecta” — control of both legislative chambers as well as the governorship — compared to 24 for the Republicans. That’s two fewer such states than Democrats had held before the election, which was in turn the fewest they’d held since the Civil War, when there were only 35 states.
Fortunately for the Democrats, one of those trifecta states is the most populous and economically powerful in the country. Additionally, California has, by far, the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: 2.4 million out of about 11 million total. Moreover, three-quarters of Californians oppose mass deportation measures of the kind that President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for, and nearly two-thirds believe immigrants who are already here should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship. California is now simultaneously the welcome home (relatively speaking) to more than a fifth of America’s unauthorized residents, and one of the last strongholds of a besieged Democratic Party.
A collision between the Trump administration and Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento is inevitable. California lawmakers are counting on it. Today the president is expected to sign an executive order authorizing construction of his vaunted border wall, and to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since November, in anticipation of actions such as these, state legislators in California have been rushing to pass a slate of new laws to put the state’s undocumented population as far out of reach of federal authorities as possible, and to give them at least a modicum of protection from summary deportation once they’re ensnared by Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Here are the ways state lawmakers are preparing for the coming showdown.
Non-Cooperation With ICE
Shortly after Trump was elected, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck declared that his officers would continue to adhere to the department’s long-standing policy of not assisting federal agents in deporting immigrants. Beck referenced Special Order 40, a directive from 1979 that prohibits LAPD officers from questioning people about their immigration status.
The LAPD’s hands-off approach to immigration enforcement is part of why Los Angeles is considered a “sanctuary city.” But despite Special Order 40, the department in fact routinely collaborates with ICE, whose agents and the LAPD conduct joint operations together. The LAPD shares intelligence with ICE, and LAPD officers have rounded people up on raids ostensibly unrelated to immigration, then allowed ICE to take custody of those arrestees for the purpose of deportation. Outside of the LAPD’s jurisdiction, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has allowed ICE agents to operate inside county jails.
Immigration attorneys and immigrant-rights advocates have criticized this kind of cooperation between local police forces and federal agents throughout the Obama administration. Now, with Trump pledging to deport two to three million immigrants — the equivalent of the total number of removals through eight years of record-setting deportations under Obama — California lawmakers are finally proposing to put an end to the practice.
A bill introduced last month by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles would bar state, local and school police officers from pursuing or helping federal agents track down people for immigration violations. That includes sharing information with ICE that’s gathered in databases such as California’s “CalGang” system, which purports to track gang affiliations. The bill would also stop law enforcement from helping the feds put anyone on an identity-based registry, such as Trump has proposed for Muslims living in the United States. In effect, the bill would make California a sanctuary state.
Passing this bill would throw a pretty big monkey wrench into Trump’s deportation machine. Without active, concerted assistance from local law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine the federal government having the intelligence or the sheer manpower to track down millions of undocumented California immigrants. “Trump’s deportation plans really depend on cooperation or voluntary assistance from states and localities,” Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me. “This bill just says no. We’re not using our local resources to assist in deportation.”
No Data Sharing
De León’s bill would also prevent state agencies from collecting information from people beyond what they need to perform their official duties, and from sharing that information for any reason other than fulfilling the services they’re tasked with.
In an era of Big Data, this might be one of the most significant requirements of the entire package of legislation. One immigration attorney told me that there are probably two to three million undocumented immigrants who the government can already track down easily through biometric data gathered from prior interactions with the state, whether through criminal convictions or simply going to the DMV.
It’s unclear how many and which state agencies have already shared their data with ICE, though we know that law enforcement agencies have done so as a matter of course. However extensive the practice has been, de León’s bill would work to put an end to it.
Due Process for Deportation Defendants
Under federal law, non-citizens have no legal right to government-provided lawyers in deportation proceedings — there is no public defender system in the immigration courts. Most defendants, unable to afford an attorney, are forced to represent themselves. A 2015 study of over 1.2 million deportation cases between 2007 and 2012 found that just 37 percent of defendants had counsel, and only 14 percent of defendants who were in detention did. Having a lawyer makes a difference – with legal representation, detained defendants were up to 10.5 times more likely to avoid deportation.
The Central American refugee crisis, which peaked in 2014, provided example after example of what “due process” can look like without the guarantee of legal representation. When I reported on the subject for Capital & Main two-and-a-half years ago, Lindsay Toczylowski, currently executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, told me: “I’ve seen infants going into court. I’ve seen a five-year-old girl questioned by a judge while she’s sitting in a chair big enough so her feet don’t even touch the floor.” Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and senior staff attorney at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, described the process as “a joke.”
Last month, State Senator Ben Hueso of San Diego introduced a bill that would require the state to guarantee legal representation to immigrants who are in detention and facing removal proceedings by contracting or subcontracting out to nonprofit law firms. The bill would also establish a legal defense fund that could take donations from private foundations to pay for the lawyers.
Pro-immigrant municipal and county officials are also creating legal defense funds at the local level. In San Francisco, where an estimated 44,000 undocumented immigrants live, Supervisor David Campos has proposed that the city and county put $5 million toward establishing such a fund (the measure has become bogged down in a dispute with the mayor over whether the funds should go largely to the city’s Public Defender’s office or exclusively to private nonprofit community legal-services groups). In Los Angeles, the county has voted to contribute to a $10 million legal fund for immigrants in removal proceedings; the city is expected to take a similar vote.
Immigration Law Training for Public Defenders
Another bill, introduced by East Bay Assemblymember Rob Bonta, sets up centers to train public defenders in immigration law. When undocumented immigrants are charged with crimes, their plea deals can often create unexpected problems related to their immigration status, even when they might result in a lighter criminal penalty. Public defenders who are versed only in criminal, and not immigration, law can unwittingly advise clients to agree to accept charges that end in deportation. Bonta’s bill aims to solve this problem.
The immense power of the federal executive can be dangerously abused, especially when a prickly chief with autocratic tendencies and single-party control of all three branches of government sits atop it. But rounding up, detaining and deporting millions of people is a hard enough task even with pliable and obedient state and local agencies to work with. In California’s case, these agencies are soon likely to become not just unhelpful, but legally obligated to recalcitrance. And these agencies happen to serve the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the country.
Open, unbridled confrontation with a hostile federal government is an unenviable scenario to be in. But so is having the core commitment of your entire presidential campaign depend, in large part, on the decisions of people who are committed to defy everything you stand for. The emerging showdown between Sacramento and Washington over the fate of millions of California residents will be forced into a standoff, a compromise or an epic political battle.
Video: State of Resistance
More than any other place, California is well positioned to push back against the agenda of the incoming president. In a special series, Capital & Main examines why and how the Golden State will both lead the resistance to Donald Trump and continue to advance progressive ideas and policies.
State of Resistance: California in the Age of Trump
For the past two decades, California has been at the cutting edge of social and economic change in America. Now, with Donald Trump about to enter the Oval Office, the Golden State is poised to take on a new role: leader of the anti-Trump resistance.
For the past two decades, California has been on the cutting edge of social and economic change in America. Now, with Donald Trump about to enter the Oval Office, the Golden State is poised to take on a new role: leader of the anti-Trump resistance.
California’s frontline position in opposing Trump is not merely a reflection of its deep-blue politics. On many of the flashpoint issues expected to define Trump’s presidency, California has a tremendous amount at stake. As the new administration tries to reverse the significant gains made on immigrant rights, climate change, criminal justice and workers’ rights, to name a few subjects, many of the fiercest battles in the country will be fought up and down the state.
Can California lead the resistance to Trump’s right-wing agenda and continue to be in the vanguard of advancing progressive change? Yes – and in fact, the two are inextricably linked, both tactically and symbolically. In the months and years to come, California must become like the best sports teams, capable of playing defense and offense at the highest level.
Why California Must Lead
No state rivals California either in the dimensions of its population or economy. At just under 40 million people, California has more residents than the nation’s 20 least densely populated states put together. Its economy is the sixth-largest in the world, trailing only the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.
California is also home to several of the nation’s most powerful and influential industries, including high tech and entertainment. Both Silicon Valley and Hollywood wield enormous economic clout, and are key shapers of consumer habits and cultural norms.
Why is this significant? Because California has the ability to exert enormous pressure on everything from markets and mores to politics and policy, a position it has ably demonstrated in its leadership role in addressing climate change, despite federal inaction.
Size and economic strength by themselves are not enough. But over the past 20 years, California has acquired another key comparative advantage: It has developed some of the most innovative social movements in the country – and exported them to cities across the U.S. These movements have secured rights for immigrants, boosted worker pay, protected LGBTQ Californians and pushed the state forward on addressing climate change. They will be called upon to use their organizing prowess to hold the line against Trump even as they continue to push the envelope of social and economic justice in California and beyond.
California advocates have succeeded in large part by mobilizing an incredibly diverse set of stakeholders. This will pay big dividends now, as very disparate groups of people – immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, the poor, women, communities already suffering the effects of climate change – see their interests threatened by the Trump administration. The experience of working together across racial, ethnic, geographic and class lines will lend itself to the creation of even broader alliances – so broad that California could be a key base for the biggest and most diverse progressive coalition the nation has ever seen.
While California’s anti-Trump coalition will need to develop the capacity to fight many battles at once, one initial front will surely be immigration. If Trump makes good on his campaign promises, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants will be faced with deportation, many of them DREAMers protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
The economic, social and human costs of disrupting the lives of so many Californian families are staggering. Recognizing this, state and local leaders have vowed to resist efforts targeting immigrants, setting the stage for high-stakes confrontations with the new administration.
No less dramatic will be the battles over climate change. Governor Jerry Brown has vowed to oppose any efforts to roll back the state’s pioneering environmental policies (including a promise to have California launch its own satellites to gather information on global warming!), and he will be joined by a broad-based group of business leaders and activists.
Another flashpoint will be workers’ rights. Fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder is likely to be the new labor secretary: He is on the record as opposing increases in the minimum wage and expansion of overtime pay and is clearly no ally of those who seek to rein in the abuse of independent contractors and gig-economy workers. In California, the nation’s strongest labor movement, together with community and business allies, has enacted some of the most far-reaching worker protections in the country; we will need to stand firm on what we’ve won and stand strong against an assault on labor rights.
More broadly, unions face an existential crisis under a President Trump. Just last year, the Supreme Court heard a key case initiated out of the Golden State, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which anti-labor advocates sued to eliminate the ability of unions to collect dues for collective bargaining. Down one justice, the Court deadlocked – but since a tie sets no national precedent, another version of the same sort of case is widely expected to come up once Trump fills the open seat. Californians will have to be among those opposing any Court nominee likely to ignore worker, minority or women’s rights.
Another bone of likely contention: Trump can also be expected to push hard on a law-and-order agenda that will fly in the face of efforts to reform the criminal justice system. After recognizing its own disastrous infatuation with over-incarceration, California has embraced recent initiatives to reduce the sentences of nonviolent offenders and to ban labor market discrimination against former felons. This will be another policy battleground and will provide the opportunity to showcase a national counter-example to Trump’s fear-driven attempt to strengthen law enforcement at the expense of civil rights.
The Challenges Ahead
While California is well positioned to lead the charge against Trump, the success of these efforts is not inevitable. The challenges ahead include the risks of factionalism, the rise of extremism and the need to craft a new relationship with business forces.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, left-of-center political forces fragmented badly, expediting the rise of conservatism, which in turn has dominated national politics ever since. California’s progressive movement does not appear to be headed in this direction, but Trump has proven himself a master at dividing and conquering, and he will no doubt pursue the same strategy as president. He will also attack on many fronts, creating a strain on resources and the possibility of destructive in-fighting.
And although California may currently vote progressive, it is also no stranger to extremism. The descendants of the John Birch Society are alive and well, the Tea Party has its Golden State adherents and it’s worth recalling that Rush Limbaugh got his talk-radio start in Sacramento. With Trump in the White House, the right in general and the politics of hate in particular may well get a boost. The inland and rural regions of California have been the traditional breeding grounds for white nationalism, but the alt right is also operating in the state’s urban population centers.
Finally, some business leaders, lured by tax cuts, deregulation and union-busting, will be supportive of the Trump agenda even if they are repulsed by the anti-immigrant and anti-trade rhetoric. Other business leaders have a more balanced perspective, recognizing that a strong and sustainable economy requires that wages rise, racial inclusion occurs and the planet is protected. Progressives will have to figure out where alliances are possible and effective. This is particularly important in California, where some “business Democrats” often side with corporate lobbies on critical environmental and labor legislation. While several such elected officials found themselves unelected in 2016, others may be emboldened by Trump and his brand of scorched-earth capitalism. This could pose a serious risk to progressive priorities, even with the Democratic super-majority in the state legislature.
As Trump and his allies wage war on all fronts, a weariness may set in – and along with it a tendency to take refuge in California’s different political reality. That would be a very costly mistake. Not only must California help the country fight back, it must not take its own prolific advances for granted.
After all, it was only two decades ago that we were convulsed by our own anti-immigrant hysteria in the form of Proposition 187, a law that sought to strip all services, including education, from undocumented immigrants. It passed with an overwhelming majority, and the state soon followed with an electoral attack on affirmative action and aggressive efforts to criminalize black and Latino youth. And even as the nation voted for Obama in 2008, California voted for Proposition 8, stripping the rights of same-sex couples to marry.
We’ve come out of our political morass, not just because time has passed and demographics have shifted, but also because of a new hard-fought and hard-forged politics and social compact. With the nation now experiencing its own “Prop 187 moment,” we have a responsibility to help others avoid our own mistakes and accelerate the country’s path to a more inclusive future.
We will also need to lead by example. For all of California’s political progress, we still have one of the highest levels of inequality in the country, some of the most polluted communities, huge shortages of affordable housing, a massive homeless population, ongoing police brutality and one of the nation’s highest number of people caught up in the criminal justice system.
Even in the Trump era, California can tackle these problems – but it will require old relationships and new allies, solid institutions and innovative strategies, long-standing-values and a fresh and compelling vision of our future. All this will require a clarity of purpose, a level of passion and strength of resolve that few of us have been called on to summon.
So get ready. The battle begins now.
State of Resistance: Ten Californians Who Will Take on Trump
Over the next four years these California leaders will be in the forefront of opposing the Trump administration on immigration, the environment, labor rights and other issues.
At 78, Governor Brown remains a pugnacious yet mercurial politician whose career path is unlike any other in California history. He has already put Donald Trump on notice that there will be no retreat from his crowning achievements, including far-reaching climate change policies, and in the last two years of his final term, Brown has nothing to lose and a legacy to burnish.
Maria Elena Durazo
The longtime labor leader, raised in a family of migrant farm workers, will be a formidable opponent of Trump’s immigration policies. A chief architect of the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, Durazo brings passion, authority and personal experience to the immigrant-rights movement, along with a track record of taking on and defeating powerful adversaries.
The charismatic successor to Barbara Boxer may be a junior U.S. Senator of a minority party, but she will command national media attention, and use it to fight the Trump agenda at every turn. Some believe Harris could be a future Democratic presidential standard-bearer, and her ability to eloquently yet forcefully convey progressive values could pave the way for a White House run – perhaps sooner rather than later.
California’s labor commissioner is known for her principled and unrelenting defense of exploited workers. Su will serve as a dramatic counterpoint to Trump’s labor secretary, Andy Puzder (should he be confirmed), underscoring the vast chasm between vigorous labor law enforcement and the new administration’s corporate approach to workers’ rights.
Appointed by Brown to replace Harris as state attorney general after her election to the Senate, the veteran congressman is widely expected to do unto Trump what Texas’ attorney general did to President Obama – use the power of law to obstruct. As the top law enforcement official of the nation’s most populous state, Becerra will wield substantial influence and, if his past is any indication, will not shy away from even the most controversial battles.
Kevin de León and Anthony Rendon
The state Senate President Pro Tem and Assembly Speaker, respectively, drew a line in the sand with their defiant post-election statement, which went viral with its vow to oppose Trump on everything from immigrant rights to inequality. Products of the state’s remarkable political transformation, which has seen young leaders of color rise quickly to power, de León and Rendon are both highly skilled legislative strategists who will use their clout to push back hard against the White House.
A legendary community organizer, Thigpenn is the founder of California Calls, perhaps the most effective low-income voter mobilization operation in the country. He is regarded as a visionary in the field of voter engagement and expanding the electorate, and his skills will be in heavy demand both inside and beyond California.
Billionaire activist and political donor Steyer has both the resources and the appetite to take on Trump – not only on his signature issue of climate change but also on economic inequality. Look for him to invest heavily in efforts to expand the Democratic electorate, as well as challenge every Trump effort to thwart California’s climate-change policy.
Head of the powerful Service Employees International Union’s California State Council, Butler is a force to be reckoned with in one of the few states in the country where unions are growing rather than contracting. She and SEIU California have racked up a string of impressive victories, and played a key role in the passage last year of a statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage law, and though far from doctrinaire in her views on labor and business, she will be a thorn in the side of Trump for as long as he is in office.
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