Biden Cabinet Picks Show California’s Clout Is Again on the Rise

After four years on the outs in Washington, California is roaring back.

The Golden State, a favorite target of President Donald Trump, is regaining its stature as a source of policy ideas and personnel under President-elect Joe Biden.

He’s recruited prominent Californians for key jobs in his administration such as Senator Kamala Harris as his vice president and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Biden is also considering environmental regulator Mary Nichols, labor secretary Julie Su, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Republican tech executive Meg Whitman, all Californians, for other cabinet posts.

And they would bring with them distinctly Californian policy perspectives on the environment, health care, criminal justice reform and immigration.

“In the past California was breaking new ground on policy and pointed to where the country was headed directionally, and I think we’ll see that resume now,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates. “Measures on controlling climate change and efforts to reduce the cost of health care are great examples of that.”

California was the epicenter of the resistance to Trump’s policies. Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against Trump’s administration, defending the state’s right to set pollution limits stricter than the federal standard and challenging Trump’s use of federal funds to build a wall along the border of Mexico, among other fights.

Trump, in turn, sought to revoke the state’s cherished authority to independently regulate auto emissions, criticized its immigrant sanctuary policies and blamed its forest-management practices for wildfires.

California’s environmental policies have helped reduce some of the worst air pollution in the country and created a technology-led boom that made the state’s economy the fifth-largest in the world. But it’s also known for its high taxes, extreme income inequality and a wave of deadly wildfires and widespread power outages intended to prevent them.

Too close an association between Biden and the western state in the early going could damage Biden’s moderate, aisle-crossing political brand, some strategists say.

A too-liberal approach — which progressives across the U.S. are pushing him to embrace — could make it even harder for Democrats to depend on the House majority that was eroded by the Nov. 3 election.

“If he tries anything that’s too far to the left or totally unpalatable to Republicans in the Senate, it will get shot down,” said Jim Innocenzi, a Republican political consultant. “He needs to show some moderation early on, or it will become gridlock.”

Biden himself has signaled policy differences with California over key issues, such as his threat to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields technology companies from liability for what users post online.

On many issues, though, Biden is expected to quickly reverse Trump’s agenda and enact policies that embrace or echo the state’s priorities.

“California is a laboratory for showing that progressive policy can also be a recipe for economic growth. On environmental policy, getting to a renewable energy future, paid sick leave, health care,” said Democratic U.S. Representative Ro Khanna, who represents a district that includes Silicon Valley.

Here’s a look at California policies that may influence Biden’s agenda and vice versa, and also where they differ:


California first set reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democrat Jerry Brown set a goal of 100% carbon-free electric generation by 2045, and the current governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, pledged to eliminate sales of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035.

Last year, the Trump administration revoked California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set auto emission standards that were stricter than those mandated federally. Biden is expected to quickly restore the state’s waiver authority, allowing California, 15 other states and the District of Columbia that follow its standards to reimpose them.

General Motors Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has already withdrawn her company’s support for the Trump administration’s auto-emissions policy and has embraced Biden’s plan to push a move toward electric vehicles.

California this year also became the first state to impose rules to force automakers to sell more electric delivery vans and trucks. It needs federal authorization to execute the regulations, and its officials expect Biden to support that.

“California is a fun target for Republicans, but people around the world on climate issues are interested to see how California is doing it,” said Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of theCalifornia Environmental Protection Agency. “Frankly we’ve kind of been the federal government in exile on environmental issues for the past four years.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Biden and Harris, who was California’s attorney general before she joined the U.S. Senate, have vowed to work for criminal justice reform. After the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Harris introduced legislation in the Senate to ban police chokeholds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants and make lynching a federal crime – an effort that stalled.

California has taken steps to curb police violence that may serve as a model as Biden and Harris try to address the issue.

California voters last month rejected rolling back sentencing reforms and supported restoring parolees’ voting rights. The California legislature this year passed bills that ban chokeholds, provide for independent review of police shootings by the state Justice Department and give counties more oversight of sheriff’s departments. Last year, the state enacted a law requiring officers to use lethal force only when necessary to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

As a presidential candidate, Biden said he would bring together “peaceful protesters, police chiefs, police officers, police unions as well as civil rights groups” forWhite House meetings about reform. He has also supported banning chokeholds and curbing legal protections for police accused of excessive use of deadly force.

Health Care

As HHS secretary, Becerra will be tasked with leading Biden’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, while building on the Affordable Care Act, which Becerra co-authored as a member ofCongress. As California attorney general, Becerra led a multi-state court challenge to Republican efforts to weaken the act, while joining with attorneys general from both parties to increase access to Remdesivir, a drug used to treat Covid-19.

Newsom has proposed Medicaid eligibility for elderly undocumented immigrants, a new agency designed to reduce the health-care costs and a state-run generic prescription drug label to lower medication costs. While Biden and Becerra are unlikely to adopt all those ideas, they are expected to focus on expanding benefits even as they look for ways to reduce the cost of providing care.

“Care expansion is popular and good politics in aging states,” said Adrian Hemond, chief executive of the Grassroots Midwest consulting firm, based in Lansing, Michigan.

Newsom calls Becerra’s HHS perch “a game changer” for his state and says the likelihood that other Californians will take roles in the Biden administration will help the state bounce back from years of being targeted by Trump.

“We’re going to take advantage of this moment and these relationships,” Newsom said. “Everybody needs to be treated fairly, but California as the largest state has more at stake.”

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