Despite being blindsided by Donald Trump’s presidency, Democratic California has rallied in defiance. Its next challenge? The business of governing.
“If Trump turns off the satellites,” governor Jerry Brown said in December to an unusually riled gathering of scientists, referring to Nasa’s climate-monitoring programme, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”
Brown is on his second stint leading the state. During his first, which began when he succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1974, he became known nationwide as Governor Moonbeam for his flighty and fanciful New Age diversions. These days, however, the 79-year-old’s space dreams are merely the most grandiose manifestation of a hard-headed pragmatism that has spread across California as a response to the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election. “Everybody’s job can turn upside down,” says lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, a sort of west-coast Justin Trudeau, whose largely ceremonial day job affords him the ability to campaign at a leisurely pace for the right to succeed Brown. “Everyone understood immediately the magnitude of the moment and stepped in. It was organic. There was not some big meeting.”
The arrival of Trump in a capital 4,400km away has upended the natural course of business in Sacramento, which has been home to California’s government since shortly after statehood in 1850. Democratic politicians in Washington, with few tools at their disposal to stop the new president, quiver in fear of lefty activists who will accept nothing less than absolute defiance. Their peers in Sacramento, however, have top-to-bottom control of the country’s largest state and an attendant sense of purpose in resistance. California, Brown pledged, would become a “beacon of hope to the rest of the world”.
Since making that promise at his State of the State address in February, however, Brown has been largely invisible in the capital and beyond (he is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer). A new generation of Sacramento fixtures, from unknown functionaries in low-profile agencies to ambitious politicians considered potential White House contenders, have rushed into the void. They are overwhelmingly focused on three issues: defending immigrants regardless of legal status, regulating emissions to fight climate change and maintaining access to health insurance through a government-run marketplace – here California represents perhaps the finest embodiment of Obama-era progressive aspirations.
To fight Trump on those fronts they are largely tuning out the vim of street protests and online rage and creatively devising new ways to channel their extant political and legal authority. As part of a strategy Newsom calls “mitigation through litigation”, California was among those that sued Trump over his so-called “Muslim ban”, helping to block implementation of the policy. Legislators have drawn up a bill that encourages local police departments not to collaborate with federal authorities looking to round up immigrants for deportation.
“We need to defend our values and we need to defend our citizens,” says assembly speaker Anthony Rendon. “Our priorities have been changed in terms of what we need to do to move the state forward.”
There isn’t consensus about what can actually be accomplished by turning Sacramento into a laboratory for the policy of defiance. Some are hoping merely to delay and stymie Trump’s most dangerous initiatives while others are concerned foremost with ensuring California retains its freedom for self-rule. Either way, nearly everyone in Sacramento has a keen sense of the moment. “We knew from day one we’d have a major adversary,” says senate president pro tempore Kevin de León. “These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary action.”
For decades there was nothing extraordinary about the capital of the country’s largest state – a pleasant riverside city in a zone of waterfront metropolises – beyond the power that resided within. Despite the fact that laws governing one seventh of the American population are made in Sacramento, news organisations from beyond California rarely covered events there. (When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, outlets from Austria and Japan set up bureaux in Sacramento but there was little to sustain their initial curiosity.) Legislators and some staff typically fled town on Thursdays, along with a number of governors who weekended elsewhere, leaving unoccupied the stately Victorian mansion offered up as the chief executive’s perk.
Politicians used “Sacramento” as an epithet, the way “Washington” or “Brussels” are used, to evoke the bureaucratic heart of a state that much of the country saw as a political basket case. In 1978 its voters passed a ballot measure that capped property taxes, limiting revenue and forcing legislators to increase income taxes and other fees to compensate. Even as California became a leader in technological innovation, Sacramento was home to a stultifying zero-sum politics. After sending both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House, California produced relatively few politicians who have found success on the national stage. “Who can possibly govern California?” asked the cover of The New York Times magazine in 2009.
The peculiarities of that system often kept California’s affairs at an unusual remove from the country’s political class. The state abolished partisan primaries – meaning that general elections can now feature two Republicans or, as is more frequently the case, two Democrats – and the most contentious electoral battles surround issue plebiscites. Those anomalies have turned Sacramento into a Galapagos of political expertise. Consultants who dominate California campaigns usually have no profile beyond the state’s borders and those who are successful nationally often struggle to break through in its large and lucrative market for political services. Unlike in Washington and other state capitals, where Republican and Democratic consultants orbit different power centres, their Sacramento peers are regularly forced to collaborate across party lines. “We’re all culturally the same here,” says Rob Stutzman, a former aide to Governor Schwarzenegger, who now has his own public-affairs consulting firm.
Upon his return to the Governor’s Mansion in 2011, Brown committed himself to balancing the budget through difficult cuts and tax increases. In 2013 he declared victory, announcing that the state had eliminated its deficit and had even established a multibillion-dollar “rainy-day fund”. That sense of security emboldened Democrats in the state to begin dreaming big again. Lawmakers could try to accelerate slow-moving work on a high-speed rail line linking California’s north and south and to solve the puzzle of a statewide shortage in affordable housing.
Yet Trump’s election changed everything. On the grounds of the state capitol, where palm trees share turf with pines, rail and housing have been relegated to second-order concerns. “Trump is making people talk about things they wouldn’t otherwise be talking about,” says Andrew Acosta, a consultant who advises Democratic legislators. “There’s no playbook for this.”
Shortly after the election, De León and Rendon hired Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s former attorney-general, to serve as their lawyer, with the idea that they would likely find themselves defending their initiatives against Trump’s efforts to undermine them. At the same time Brown lured Los Angeles-area congressman Xavier Becerra to serve as his attorney- general to help the state push back in court. (He replaced Kamala Harris, who now represents California in the Senate.) For Becerra, who had been considered as a running mate for Hillary Clinton and potential successor to Paul Ryan, serving as a state’s barrister would appear a demotion. But his first move, opening an office in Washington, could be read as a declaration of intent. Becerra would be bringing cases against attorney-general Jeff Sessions that stand a chance of ending up before the US Supreme Court. “We have proactively prepared to be reactive,” says Newsom.
Shortly before the Lima Climate Change Conference in 2014, Brown received a visit from the environment minister of Baden-Württemberg. The two officials represented economically formidable regions yet felt powerless when it came to climate policy. The Conference of the Parties loomed in Paris but a Republican Congress was vexing Obama’s efforts to make the US a global leader in carbon reductions. Unlike many politicians representing landlocked turf, Brown wanted to go even further than Obama: his state’s industry was never coal-based, it had a long coastline that would be affected by rising ocean levels and was already suffering a damaging drought because of changing weather patterns. California and Baden-Württemberg decided to draft their own climate pact, recruiting anyone who represented territory smaller or less sovereign than a country.
When they unveiled the Under 2 mou in 2014 – a memorandum of understanding named after its goal of shrinking emissions below two metric tons per capita by 2050 – the first signatories included Catalonia, British Columbia and Wales. Now 167 governments have signed up, independent of what their national leaders are doing. They come from every inhabited continent, representing one billion people and more than one third of the global economy.
Last autumn, to meet his state’s Under 2 promises, Brown signed legislation. It contained provisions from solar-panel subsidies to redraft building codes, designed to lower California’s 2020 emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels. “In some ways we were very timely and even prescient because our theory has been that a lot of real work is done at the sub-national level: cities, states, provinces,” says Ken Alex, director of the governor’s office of planning and research. “The fact that there is an alternative to what the federal government is now doing and saying, from the California perspective, is incredibly important.”
Since election day the most aggressive diplomacy from Sacramento has been domestic. De León and Rendon consulted their counterparts in Oregon and Illinois to share tips on Trump-proofing their laws and Becerra huddled with the attorneys-general of Pennsylvania and New York to plot lawsuits against the administration. California’s Democrats are not alone in trying to use their authority to resist Trump but have an outsized clout in doing so. Theirs is one of only six states where Democrats control the governorship and both legislative chambers, and California is the only one that can make claims to self-sufficiency. It is hard to have a conversation in Sacramento without being reminded that California represents the world’s sixth-largest economy, and – if one is chatting with the optimistic sort – the fact that it stands to surpass the UK in fifth place, depending on the fallout from Brexit. (In recent years California’s gross domestic product has exceeded that of Brazil, India and France.)
If there is a model for California it comes from Texas, another large state with a keen sense of self, whose leaders repeatedly led other Republican attorneys-general to court against Obama’s government. Their lawsuits forced the Supreme Court to reckon with the constitutionality of Obama’s requirement that Americans buy health insurance and undermined his administration’s efforts to regulate coal-fired power plants. Democrats who criticised Texas’s claims of states’ rights are now asserting them, often in a similar language of local control. “We’re closer to our constituencies,” says Rendon. “Needless to say there is a certain irony in it,” he concedes of appropriating that Texas-style logic.
Former Oklahoma attorney-general Scott Pruitt, one of the state officials active in the anti-Obama charge, is now director of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. In Sacramento Pruitt’s appointment was read as the start of a White House assault on California’s unique status as an environmental leader. Many of its accomplishments were tied to a 1970 federal law granting the state a unique waiver to enforce clean-air laws even more restrictive than federal standards and to let other states adopt them. That exemption has had a powerful multiplier effect: because California represents such a significant share of the national market, carmakers have long set specifications for their entire production run to meet Sacramento’s standards rather than Washington’s.
Trump could move to strip California of that authority. For California’s environmental regulators there is little to do but wait and see what comes from Washington. “We’re in uncharted waters here,” says Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board. “Procedurally, governmentally and psychologically.”
“Obamacare is a disaster,” Trump likes to say. Its insurance markets are “in a death spiral”, house speaker Ryan (inaccurately) asserted when making the case for a replacement bill. But when the two men cherrypick examples to support their claims – places where little competition among insurers has led to rising premiums for the now mandatory plans – they never talk about California. As one of 19 states that chose to launch its own insurance exchange, California offers an Obamacare success story. One-and-a-half million people have bought insurance there since the marketplace opened in 2013 and they are disproportionately younger than elsewhere. “We’re a big, diverse state,” says Peter Lee, executive director of the Covered California exchange. “The fact that we have the healthiest risk mix is a testament to marketing.”
Starting in 2011, Covered California budgeted to aggressively promote insurance in a combination of traditional and digital advertising, with specialised campaigns in nine languages, including Hmong and Tagalog, and deployed recruiters to coach people through the process. “We’ve been figuring out not how to be clever, not too out-of-the-box, but the message that will motivate the consumer,” says director of marketing Colleen Stevens. “How do you take a very complicated law, explain it to people, let them know it’s available and encourage them to sign up?” Research showed Spanish-speaking families were, amid a spike in deportations, unusually wary of sharing information with a stranger over the phone. Covered California agents responded by offering “free, local, confidential help” through face-to-face meetings.
Republican proposals to “repeal and replace” Obamacare threaten to undo all that work. Ryan’s plan may have failed but a new version could return during Trump’s term. It would have stopped mandating that individuals buy insurance and yanked many of the subsidies that helped them afford it. The debate on Capitol Hill inspired Californian officials to think about what they would do if Trump were able to sign such a bill into law. Is there enough money in the state’s rainy-day fund to replace the subsidies? Or should California use the moment to think even bigger and impose a Canadian-style single-payer system for its residents?
Such grandiose thoughts do at times seem like an enjoyable distraction from the normal lawmaking slog or even an opportunistic deflection. “There is a reason Democrats don’t want to talk about their record here,” says Jim Brulte, a lobbyist and former legislator who chairs the California Republican party. “They promised us high-speed rail from LA to San Francisco, except that it’s not high-speed and it doesn’t go from LA to San Francisco.”
Sacramento’s new status as de facto capital of the resistance is already enlivening life in this city of half a million, reversing the brain drain that often parches life in seats of state and regional government. Many had anticipated that a Clinton presidency would pull heavily from the Californian political class, from senior politicians filling Cabinet posts to recent college graduates seeking out internships in federal departments and agencies. “When Obama got elected a lot of our California people moved to DC,” says city councilman Steve Hansen. Under Trump, he predicts, “a lot of our talent will stay here or start coming back”.
For the first time in a while, the country’s largest state is being seen as a potential source of national leadership. Several of the state’s Democratic office-holders, namely Newsom, Harris and LA mayor Eric Garcetti, are now being mentioned as potential challengers to Trump in 2020. All of the incentives are aligned to define themselves in opposition to Trump. “I just think there’s no downside,” says Newsom, the current frontrunner to be elected governor next November. “He was overwhelmed and wiped out here in California.”
State officials have received warnings, including from house majority leader Kevin McCarthy, the rare Californian close to the White House, that their flamboyant attacks on the White House risk provoking the wrath of a president who proudly calls himself a “counterpuncher”. But the real fear among Democrats in Sacramento is that they have grown too intoxicated by the Trump-era miasma to focus on anything else.
“We’ve spent a good amount of time pissing on Trump and that’s fine. But we need to do the stuff that we need to do,” says Rendon. “I keep telling people that even if Hillary Clinton had been elected president we would have woken up the next day with a lot of the same problems. Two-and-a-half million Californian kids living in poverty, people commuting too far, people paying too much for housing.” Few in Sacramento appear to have time for such ordinary action.
Share of population born outside US: 27%
Language other than English spoken at home: 44%
Share of vote won by Donald Trump: 31.6%
Film stars who became governors: 2
Democrats in the California senate: 27 (out of 40)