Republican legislators, including those in the Valley, are unhappy that Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have signed a deal to hire the nation’s former top legal gun “in defense of our values and constitutional guarantees” against President-elect Donald Trump’s forthcoming administration.
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, issued a statement explaining their rationale for unilaterally hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his Washington, D.C., law firm as an outside legal counsel in what they foresee as likely head-butting over policy issues between the state and the Trump administration.
“With the upcoming change in administrations, we expect that there will be extraordinary challenges for California in the uncertain times ahead,” de León and Rendon said. “This is a critical moment in the history of our nation. We have an obligation to defend the people who elected us and the policies and diversity that make California an example of what truly makes our nation great.”
The two Democratic leaders hired Covington & Burling LLP, which includes Holder among its partners, for an initial three-month term at $25,000 per month starting Feb. 1. Holder served as attorney general under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2015. He had previously been with the firm before joining the Obama administration.
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We couldn’t get Obama, but we went with the second-best option.
Kevin Liao, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon
One of the two Assembly assistant Republican leaders from the Valley, Jim Patterson of Fresno, was critical of the Holder hiring.
“The Democrats like to say, ‘We’re leading the world,’ but nobody is following us,” Patterson told The Bee on Wednesday. “Nobody is following our taxation policies, our energy policies.”
He accused de León and Rendon of “declaring war on the federal government and the rest of the country, and declaring war on 5 million people who didn’t vote for them.”
Statewide, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump by a huge margin, rolling up more than 8.7 million votes to just under 4.5 million for Trump. But the Central and Southern San Joaquin Valley went to Trump, who garnered a collective 382,107 votes from Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties, compared with 355,578 for Clinton.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Kinsgburg, was not involved in the Holder hiring, nor was he consulted by the Assembly leader, according to Arambula’s chief of staff, Hans Hemann. But Arambula expressed hope for continuing to foster cooperation with the federal government through the Valley’s representatives in Congress.
“I plan on working closely with the Valley’s congressional delegation to find areas of common interest,” Arambula said. “As the new chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, I look forward to the opportunity to work with our federal and state representatives to ensure programs better serve the people of the Central Valley.”
Holder will lead efforts “in helping the Legislature develop legal strategies regarding potential actions of the federal government that may be of concern to the state of California,” according to the firm’s engagement letter with the legislative leaders. Also on the team will be former Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat from Los Angeles, and Daniel Shallman, a founding partner of the firm’s Los Angeles office.
According to the engagement letter, three of the chief policy areas on which the state anticipates potential clashes with a Trump presidency are immigration, health care and the environment. De León and Rendon said in their statement that the firm’s role will be “advising us in our efforts to resist any attempts to roll back the progress California has made” on climate change, civil rights and other issues.
The legal bill is being evenly split between the budgets of the Senate and the Assembly, and Senate and Assembly leaders jointly said that “given the urgency, intensity and complexity of the work, these terms are eminently fair and consistent with industry standards.”
Patterson said he considers the hiring “a terrible decision” and “a waste of money.”
It’s costly as a political move; it does nothing to help California have influence with the federal government.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno
“To my thinking, it’s unprecedented. We already have a (state) attorney general’s office with a multimillion-dollar budget, but this looks to be hiring some kind of political operation,” he said.
“And it’s costly as a political move; it does nothing to help California have influence with the federal government,” Patterson told The Bee. “It unnecessarily shuts the door on California being at the table to talk about how the Environmental Protection Agency gets reformed or how federal water projects get reformed.”
State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, tried to take a more tongue-in-cheek approach to criticize the Holder hiring, comparing it to the expansion of the U.S. in the 19th century “that drove numerous outlaws, carpetbaggers and card cheats westward as the country was growing tired of these individuals who primarily thrived on taking things away from others.
“The killing of jobs in resources industries (such as oil, agriculture and mining) and the attempts to repeatedly violate the Second Amendment finally reached a point of rebellion as demonstrated through the victory of Donald Trump in many previously ‘safe’ Democrat states throughout the nation,” Vidak added.
Kevin Liao, a spokesman for Rendon, told The Bee that the speaker and de León began exploring the possibility of hiring outside counsel soon after the November election.
The hiring came without a vote of either legislative house or the Democratic caucuses, “but some members were engaged in discussions with the speaker,” Liao said. “The members were in their districts and it was not easy to communicate with them.”
Liao said other law firms were considered for the work, but he declined to identify them.
“What stood out about Covington was the diversity of both their policy and legal experience,” he said.
“And having Eric Holder, the former attorney general and the country’s top law enforcement officer, as a partner certainly doesn’t hurt,” Liao added. “We couldn’t get Obama, but we went with the second-best option.”
Republicans in other parts of the state also lambasted the two Democratic leaders.
“If the majority party continues to poke President-elect Trump with a short stick, then they better be prepared with a Plan B,” said state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. “We cannot and must not jeopardize federal funding to our state, counties and cities. They cannot afford it, especially with increasing pensions costs at the door.”
Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley said the controversy is “a distraction from the very real problems facing everyday Californians.”
“Donald Trump did not cause California’s transportation crisis, nor did he play a role in our state’s sky-high housing costs,” Mayes said. “Democrats should focus on these real-world problems instead of wasting taxpayer money to score political points before the president-elect even takes office.”