Legislating the Resistance Where It Counts

For Democrats in the nation’s capital, being part of the “resistance” is difficult: the best one can do is obstruct bad policy wherever possible and attempt to exert leverage wherever it becomes available, such as using the necessity of passing a budget to ensure a solution on DACA.

But for state legislators in blue states like California the resistance can be a much more tangible thing. One prominent example is in California, where leaders in the Assembly and State Senate have been making strident moves not only to stymie the Trump Administration but to advance the progressive agenda in spite of revanchists in the White House. Perhaps the most aggressive of these statewide resistance leaders is California State Senate Leader Kevin De Leon, who has become the chief architect of moves against Trump’s immigration and tax policies, among others:

Mr. de León, along with almost the entire leadership of California, has been a bulwark against the Trump administration. Mr. de León introduced the so-called sanctuary state legislation — the California Values Act — that restricts state authorities from cooperating with federal immigration agents, and places limits on agents entering schools, churches, hospitals or courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants…

Also this week, Mr. de León introduced legislation to limit the impact of the new tax bill on Californians by essentially allowing residents to pay their state taxes in the form of a charitable contribution, which could then be deducted when filing federal income tax.

Mr. de León also said he was working with Eric H. Holder Jr., an attorney general under President Barack Obama, to push back against attempts to enforce federal marijuana law, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he would allow federal prosecutors to do.

This sets up an interesting dynamic for Democratic governors and state legislators in primary contests with national ones. Almost every major current Democratic contender for the 2020 nomination is a Senator: Gillibrand, Harris, Warren, Sanders and Booker headline the list. But if resistance is the name of the game, governors, mayors and other state leaders may also emerge from the back with a more solid case for their accomplishments, even if they don’t quite have the name recognition of their Senate counterparts.

The same can be said for Kevin de Leon, who is himself in a primary battle for U.S. Senate with incumbent Diane Feinstein. Feinstein has long made a point of annoying the left on everything from entitlements to the death penalty to healthcare to foreign policy, and despite being a thorn in Trump’s side on Russia policy has little to show for her recent Senate tenure due to Republican control. De Leon will look to make the case that he has been an accomplished leader in not only blocking conservative policies under Trump, but actually advancing Democratic priorities in the nation’s largest state. De Leon has a long road ahead to catch Feinstein’s formidable machine, but it seems unlikely that Feinstein will reach the 60% of the California Democratic Party delegates required to secure the state party endorsement at its convention in late February (in a victory for progressive activists, state party bylaws were just recently changed to force incumbents to meet the 60% threshold rather than the prior 50% level.) With the official Democratic endorsement likely unreachable for either candidate, it could be a long contest going into June and then probably into November due to California’s top-two primary allowing the top vote getters to advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. And De Leon will be arguing every step of the way that he represents not only a fresher face for the Democratic Party, but the more accomplished leader of the resistance.

Expect to see similar dynamics in blue states from New York to New Mexico to Maine. And that’s a good thing for Democrats: the party is sorely in need of newer, younger faces, and of a revitalization at the local level in large parts of the country. The burgeoning possibilities for responsive action means that state and local legislators have an opportunity to make a name for themselves on the way to becoming the next generation of leaders.

Don’t be surprised if some of them win some unexpected victories during primary season as well.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.