LOS ANGELES — It’s been less than a week since the California legislature reconvened for the year, and already the Number 1 issue here is emerging: what to do about Donald Trump.
In the span of three days, the Trump administration threatened California’s burgeoning recreational marijuana market, proposed drilling off the California coast and pledged to increase immigration enforcement in the state — proposing to punish cities that get in the way. That came on the heels of his signing of a tax bill that hit California harder than most other states.
Following a year of provocations, the widespread feeling among Democrats is that the nation’s most populous state once again is under siege.
“This is further proof of President Trump’s war on California,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said.
Trump — the first president since Dwight Eisenhower who failed to visit the state in his first calendar year in office — and California’s ruling Democrats have feuded since the 2016 election and remained at each other’s throats all last year. But hostilities in recent days suggest the intensity of their conflict may have no ceiling.
On Tuesday, one day before the Legislature reconvened, Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Thomas Homan ripped into California for its recently enacted “sanctuary state” legislation, telling Fox News that California Democrats are putting “politics ahead of public safety” and that ICE will “significantly increase” its enforcement presence in California.
“California better hold on tight,” Homan said. “They’re about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers in the state of California.”
Homan’s remarks came a day after state laws limiting local law enforcement officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration authorities took effect. Homan said the Department of Justice should file charges against sanctuary cities, withhold their funding and “hold these politicians personally accountable.”
California Democrats were defiant. Darrell Steinberg, a former state Senate leader and the current mayor of Sacramento, made national headlines when he told The Sacramento Bee, “They certainly know where to find me.”
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who took her place in the Assembly chambers for the first time this week after winning a special election to complete the term of now-Rep. Jimmy Gomez, said she felt a weight of responsibility to stand up against Trump for women, minority groups and Latinos, including undocumented young people.
“This is a moment of resistance for California,” said Carrillo, an El Salvador native who as a child in the United States was undocumented herself.
Not long after Homan’s warning — in fact, just days after California began allowing commercial sales of recreational marijuana — the Trump administration rolled another grenade into the state: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding Obama-era guidelines that had limited marijuana-related prosecutions in states where the drug was legal under state law.
Justice Department officials said they were unaware of any connection between the timing of Sessions’ announcement and California’s shift in law — opening up what is expected to be the largest marijuana market in the United States — but state officials were incredulous. De León told POLITICO he is consulting with former Attorney General Eric Holder about how to respond to Sessions, “researching ways that we can uphold the Constitution and the will of the people of California against an overreaching federal government that is meddling in our state’s ability to govern as we see fit.”
California lawmakers have responded to the rising tensions by issuing their own broadsides and opening the 2018 session by introducing measures to preserve net neutrality rules in California and to undercut one of Trump’s main achievements, a federal tax bill that includes provisions damaging to many taxpayers in high-tax states.
In an effort to blunt the effects of the tax overhaul, de León on Thursday introduced legislation that would give California taxpayers an end-run around limits on state income tax deductions. The measure, dubbed the “Protect California Taxpayers Act,” would let California taxpayers make charitable donations to a state government fund — the “California Excellence Fund” — in exchange for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The contributions taxpayers make can be deducted on their federal tax returns, bypassing the new limit on state and local income tax deductions and thumbing their noses at Republican-held Washington.
“The GOP tax scam offers corporations and hedge fund managers massive tax breaks and expects California taxpayers and other blue states to pick up the costs of that windfall from the super rich,” said de León, who is challenging Senator Dianne Feinstein in the Democratic primary. “California is already a huge donor state, meaning we send far more money to Washington than we get in return. So we don’t plan on bankrolling this trillion-dollar tax giveaway as well.”
The animosity toward Trump isn’t a new phenomenon. California feuded constantly last year with the new president, with lawmakers passing measures to gird against the president’s environmental and immigration policies and formally calling on Congress to censure him. Trump, who was trounced by Hillary Clinton in California — contributing to his loss of the national popular vote — did not seek to ease tensions, either. The state, he said last year, is “in many ways is out of control.”
But the new flashpoints all but ensure the relationship will remain poisoned, and California will continue to be the locus of the anti-Trump resistance.
“We’re the pot smoking state of gun regulations, and they want to criminalize pot, and they want to … let people run the streets with guns, so I think it’s a different perspective,” said Robin Swanson, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento. “I think we need to remind the federal government that one in 10 Americans lives here in California, so if they want to pretend that California is an island and push us off as an island of misfits, they’re going to be without the economic engine that is California driving it.”
Trump, said Swanson, “has written off the state of California.”
For a state heavily steeped in the tradition of the environmental movement — and recollections of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara — Trump’s proposal to open stretches of federal waters to oil and gas drilling was especially galling. Support for offshore drilling here hit a record low last year, with just 25 percent of Californians in support, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Feinstein said in a prepared statement that “it’s particularly shocking that the administration is pushing for new oil drilling off the coast of California,” while Gov. Jerry Brown joined fellow Democratic governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington in a pledge “do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action.”
On Thursday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra suggested he was considering legal avenues to defend the state against Trump administration policies on both oil drilling and marijuana. He called offshore drilling a “non-starter” and said California will “vigorously enforce our state's laws and protect our state's interests” in legalizing recreational marijuana.
For minority Republicans in the state, Trump’s aggravation of California Democrats has brought rare cause for celebration. At a debate between two longshot Republican candidates for governor in San Bernardino County this week, a saloon full of about 300 Republicans cheered Homan and calls for more stringent immigration enforcement in California.
Following the end of Senate business Thursday, Andy Vidak, a Republican state senator from the Central Valley, said of Trump’s policies that the president is “pro-United States of America. I don’t think that’s anti-California.”
For all his Democratic colleagues’ jabbing, Vidak said, “Do you really think that Speaker Ryan, [Mitch] McConnell and President Trump really give a rat’s patootie?”
Vidak, like many other Republicans, accused Democrats of training their focus on Trump to advance their political ambitions or divert attention from problems in California, including a sexual harassment scandal roiling the Democratic Party here. Democrats have temporarily lost their supermajority in the state Assembly after two Assembly members resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. Democratic Senators met privately for hours this week before a third lawmaker, state Sen. Tony Mendoza, consented to a paid leave of absence Wednesday, facing sexual harassment allegations and a potential vote in the Senate to suspend him.
Eric Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Friday that Trump’s aggressions this week would only inflame Democratic activists in the state, helping the party in pivotal congressional elections this year.
Noting public opposition to offshore oil drilling and support for marijuana legalization and protections for undocumented immigrants, Bauman said, “I think that we are going to be talking about this every day for the rest of the year.
“Trump has just handed the Democratic Party in California the ammunition that we need” to defeat Republicans in competitive House districts. “My quill is full, to quote an old expression.”