Skip to main content

California Senatorial Candidate Kevin de León Talks Immigration, Health Care, and Standing Up to Trump

After authoring California's sanctuary state law and drafting its 100 percent renewable energy goals, the state senator talks with Pacific Standard about setting his sights on an even higher ambition: unseating Dianne Feinstein.
Kevin de León often frames himself as a leader of the resistance movement against President Donald Trump.

Kevin de León often frames himself as a leader of the resistance movement against President Donald Trump.

Kevin de León seems at ease. When I walk into his office's conference room, he's asking the two female staffers seated across from him if the stain on his shirt is noticeable (it's not). He laughs with them, and one of the two jokingly chides him for letting a reporter catch this behind-the-scenes moment. The former president of the California State Senate smiles it off and shakes my hand.

It's a rainy day in early October, and we're sitting in de León's campaign office in Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood. Like de León himself, the campaign office seems at ease. Everyone has work in front of them, but staffers chat casually. A group of high school volunteers sit around a table in the main room, laughing and giving each other a hard time in Spanglish as they text constituents to get out the vote.

The lack of stress is, in itself, surprising. There's less than a month before the mid-term elections, and de León is—to put it simply—trying to take down a titan. He's hoping to unseat Senator Dianne Feinstein, California’s powerful incumbent Democratic senator in what would be one of the year's biggest political upsets. The former mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein has served in the United States Senate since 1992. Her name is household in more states than just California, and her prominence makes the race seem like a David versus Goliath story—except, in this case, David is relaxed and checking for stains on his shirt as he winds up his sling.

That's not to say de León does not take this seriously. The veteran legislator is no stranger to the political battlefield. As we sit down in his Koreatown office, we're not far from where de León first ran as an assemblyman in California's 45th assembly district. In another uphill battle, de León won that race against the granddaughter of famed labor activist César Chávez. After taking office for the first time in 2006, de León rose up through the legislature, eventually reaching the state senate's top position and becoming the first Latino senate president in over 100 years. As he was sworn in, newspapers took note of his personal story: The son of a single immigrant mother from Guatemala, de León was the only one in his family to graduate high school or college.

This year, after beating out 32 other candidates to run in the general election, de León—also a Democrat—will face Feinstein. Though polls show him trailing by a wide margin, de León has already won an stinging upset against the establishment senator: In July, de León won the California Democratic Party's endorsement over the 26-year incumbent.

It's hard to assess de León's ascendence without considering the feeling of stagnation surrounding Feinstein. Though Feinstein votes consistently with other Democrats, political polarization has led many to consider her a centrist, and FiveThirtyEight's analysis of her voting record reveals she votes with Trump more than one would predict given how the president fared in the California polls in 2016.

But de León insists he's not running to the left of Feinstein. When I ask, he tells me he's more interested in "moving forward of policies that have worked for California," instead of running to the left or right.

This is an answer that might play well with California Republicans, whose votes could tip a race between two Democrats. However, the "policies" de León is talking about also read like a wish-list for the more progressive wing of the Democrat Party. As a state senator, he's been behind some of the state’s most ambitious liberal legislation, including California's "sanctuary state" law, its new net neutrality protections, and SB 100, a bill committing California to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

As I talk with de León in the conference room, we're interrupted frequently by the ding of bell and the sound of cheering from the outside office. After the interview, I ask what's going on: The high schoolers are celebrating each time they get a "yes" back from a constituent they're texting.


Today, Latinos make up the single largest ethnic group in the California's demographics. What does it say about our state and its history that, if you were to make it to the U.S. Senate, you would be the first Latino senator ever to represent California?

Our history has gone through its trials and tribulations. It's not a state that has always been progressive. We are the state that passed the Chinese Exclusion before they did it in Washington. We are the state that had the precursor lawsuit before the Brown v. Board decision—before that decision in the U.S. Supreme Court we had the Mendez v. Westminster case in Orange County. We also had Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative; and Proposition 209, the anti-Affirmative Action initiative. We've not always had a progressive, inclusive attitude in our state.

That has changed quite dramatically, because folks—children of immigrants—have assumed positions of power and have utilized their power to leverage a more just and inclusive society in terms of decision-making in the policy space. If I'm lucky to be the next U.S. senator from California, I think it would inspire a generation of young folks—and not just Latinos, but everyone across the board.

Senator Kevin de Leon delivers a speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 25th, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Senator Kevin de Leon delivers a speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 25th, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You brought up Proposition 187, which California voters approved in 1994. The law led to state-sponsored citizenship screening and cut off undocumented peoples' access to essentially all public services. It was later declared unconstitutional by a federal district court. You organized major protests against the proposition, and I understand that it was a major moment in your politicization. Can you tell me about the history behind Prop 187, and how you responded on a personal level?

[At the time Prop 187 was passed] there was an economic recession that disproportionately impacted Southern California because of the aerospace industry. You had the end of the Cold War, and therefore a major, major decrease in Department of Defense spending because the Soviet Union no longer existed. People were losing jobs, and they were losing their homes and the ability to take care of their families. And to witness these major political events having a negative impact on our economy—and a disproportionate impact on Southern California—and then to witness politicians blame the immigrants for the economic downturn was appalling. It was cowardly that you couldn't have politicians explain in a very honest manner to folks, who were feeling real economic pain, why they were in this situation that they were in.

But it was easy to place the blame on immigrants. And we witnessed that with Prop 187, which was very mean-spirited: It was prohibiting any type of access to health care [for undocumented people]; undocumented children would be removed from our public school system; public school teachers themselves would be deputized in order to identify who was undocumented and then be required legally to actually report them and to have them removed from their classes and therefore the school system.

To actually see adults dehumanize other human beings because of their lack of intellectual honesty about what was truly happening was was appalling. And that's what was for me a political awakening to organize, to march against Prop 187. I came out strongly in opposition to 187. And what was very disheartening to me was to see the senator at the time, Feinstein, the Democratic senator, came out in opposition to 187 only two weeks prior to the election. She clearly didn't want to demonstrate any leadership. Because during very difficult times, your character is tested, and that's when people are looking for leadership.

You're saying that Senator Feinstein considered Prop 187 more of a political maneuver than a moral issue?

There's no question about that. There was no moral clarity, there was no moral leadership. It was a political calculation. People look for leaders during very difficult times in history. That was a political awakening for me.

You've called yourself a leader in "the resistance." What does it mean to lead a resistance against the president?

Let's wind back a little bit: During the Republican primaries, what left a deep impression of me was the way Donald Trump treated other Republican presidential candidates. He went out of his way to humiliate them, to denigrate them, to really put them down. And I thought to myself: "If he treats Republicans this way, how do you think he is going to treat Democrats? How do you think is going to treat immigrants? Members of the LGBTQI community?" And then the unthinkable happens: He actually wins the Republican presidential primary.

And then I thought that he would move more toward the center—in the tradition of presidential politics, you run to the left, you move to the center; you run to the right, you move to the center. He did the opposite. He doubled down on his very hateful rhetoric. So when he wins the presidential election, I identified him as a clear and present danger to our economic prosperity and to our values and to our people. This is very dramatically different than had Jeb Bush won or any other Republican. I'd be disappointed as a Democrat, but I'd get over it in a couple weeks and try to see where we can find common ground and move forward together. And where we can't find common ground we just debate our ideas and we fight for our ideas: It's the tradition of American politics. But I identify this as very different. Trump is an electoral aberration.

And I heard the stories after the election; on Wednesday morning, you had children in elementary school who were crying. I never had heard of children of Republicans crying out of fear because Barack Obama got elected. I don't remember any children of Democrats crying because George Bush got elected. But when we had children who were truly crying in fear, because they also project what they're feeling in the house—you know, the sense of panic and fear, deep vulnerability—I thought, we have to help lead the resistance. And perhaps that's where I departed from other Democrats, who thought they could negotiate with him.

In the last year, you've been behind many of the efforts in California that run counter to Trump's administration: You were part of the inception behind a net neutrality bill that passed recently; you authored the renewable energy bill, as well as the sanctuary state law. Did you see this legislation as a direct response to the Trump administration?

[After the election] my mindset was, "I have to do my part to protect California." And if that means preemptively moving policies that would inoculate California from Trump—in the clean energy space, in the environmental space, our working immigrant families—then that's what I have to do. My mindset was I have to get ready for litigation, and deal with him in the court of law. That's what we have to do.

You frame yourself as a leader of the resistance, countering this president, but it also seems like you haven't sacrificed the opportunity to reach out to Republican voters in a state. Are you still invested in courting conservative voters in this general election?

I have always said that I think that the policies that I have had the great honor to make into law benefit all voters whether they voted for Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders.

The right to breathe clean air and drink clear water; to have a high wage-paying job in the clean energy space; debt free college education: I think these are policies—and these are laws now in California—that benefit everybody, regardless of partisanship.

In California you authored a successful bill committing the state to a 100 percent renewable energy goal. If you head to Washington next year, the next step would be passing a goal that would commit the entire country to clean energy. I think a lot of people are pessimistic that the national legislature would ever take such action. Do you think the U.S. Congress could ever pass any legislation on climate change even close to as ambitious as California?

I think that you can't get sucked into the vortex of all of the negativity in Washington because then you'll never be able to get things done. Washington is a culture of deep-rooted dysfunction and failure. It is a culture of "No": We can't do this, or we can't do that.

Kevin de León often frames himself as a leader of the resistance movement against President Donald Trump.

Kevin de León often frames himself as a leader of the resistance movement against President Donald Trump.

Do you think your opponent is part of that culture?

I think that she subscribes to country club rules that no longer work for this country, especially for an innovative, creative state like California that disrupts the status quo and doesn't just push the envelope, but tears the envelope apart. We are a restless, energetic state that does not look toward Washington for any type of leadership because, to date, they haven't proven that they have any leadership that is worthy of us following.

But that being said, there exists a pessimism, which is understandable. We need to export California values to Washington, and not the other way around. I think by having a voice, an energetic voice, for the policies that we care deeply about, and to elevate them to a national platform, even if we are in the minority—the very fact that you can elevate these policies and organize around these policies and have the debates even with Republicans and Republican constituents around the country about why these policies matter in your life, and why they will improve your life. [These policies] don't have to be ideologically and highly partisan.

So you're saying it's not about winning culture war, it's about selling solutions, policy solutions, to people?

It's about breathing clean air and having a job. Because it doesn't look like the Republicans are doing either, or they're failing in both cases. If coal consumption is decreasing dramatically, what are the politicians in those areas doing to transition the working men and women in these fields to other jobs? [Republicans] are out there doing nothing.

How would you describe your political and idealogical background? Who are some of your political role models, for instance?

Well, I've never worked for a politician before. I've never been a congressional fellow or a Senate fellow, or an intern. I never aspired to political office. I was never a young college Democrat. So I was never infected with the political bug. I'm not really a political junky either, I don't live for the game of politics. Politics is just a means to get to your end, which is to get to a position of power and exercise that power to move policies that help people. So it might sound crass, but I don't really have political role models.

I've heard you say that, if Trump ran as a Democrat, he would've adopted an entirely different set of political stances and beliefs, and this is because he lacks a set of coherent political principles. I'm wondering, what are your political principles? What gives coherence to your beliefs?

It's very simple. It's one word: opportunity. It's about providing real opportunities for all families that have been marginalized in our country and our state. It's very simple. It just goes on opportunity, and it is the intersectionality of so many of these issues: It's the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and who has that right and who doesn't. It's about the right to have green grass under your feet: Who gets it, and who doesn't. Access to parks and open space: Who has it, who doesn't. It's about the right to higher education: Who has it? Just look at the zip codes.

The way you talk about your work on climate change, it sounds like creating policy to address climate change is also about the issue of inequality. Do you see climate change and inequality as inherently related issues?

Absolutely. It's about opportunity and equity. On the issue of climate change, there are folks who would be much better prepared and much more resilient because they have the financial wherewithal. Yet there are others who will be incredibly vulnerable, and who will be devastated by the extreme weather patterns and consequences of climate change, who won't stand a chance.

That's why with climate change and clean energy, these policies have to be democratized so everyone can benefit. But the free market forces, left to themselves, will not do that. The Sierra Club, and everybody else, have not democratized climate change [policy] benefits. They care deeply about the environment, but they haven't moved forward on policies—they've been supportive of policies that I have moved forward on. But left to their own devices, the market forces are not going to correct these inequities. That's why you need to move policies with a sense of intentionality, with a sense of purpose. Until you have folks codify these ideas, these concepts, to help correct these inequities and etch them into stone and make them into law, these deep rooted inequities will continue to exist in every way imaginable. Ultimately it's about poverty. And it's about race too.

You've used the word "intersectionality" a few times now.

I learned it from my daughter; I had no idea what she was talking about. I did not learn it in school, and I did not learn it as a lawmaker. I actually learned about it from my daughter. At first I did not know what the hell she was talking about. But the word intersectionality: I've always been thinking that way. Because I've always thought to myself, it's not just about elevating the minimum wage, or just about creating more parks and open spaces, or more resources for higher education.

[For example,] if you deal with the issue of climate change, you just can't think about climate change in the abstract. If you have a market-based mechanism, what can you do to make sure that everyone gets access to the latest and greatest in clean technology? They may not get access to a beautiful product like a Tesla, and they may not have their own charging station in their own garage. But if we bundle the rebates, and distribute those rebates in a means-tested way so that folks in low-income neighborhoods can also access that type of technology, and they can also participate in reducing our carbon footprint.

It's not about a feel-good, "I'm helping poor people" goal; it's scientifically based: That if only those with high educational attainment and the financial wherewithal can access the latest and greatest in clean technologies, we will never meet our macro climate goals.

Early voting is starting in California. What do you need to do before November to win this race?

We're going to travel up and down the state. We're relying on young voters to really come out in larger numbers during a non-presidential year. We're going to really rely on voters of color, and all voters to get out their vote and to have a voice of change, a progressive voice on someone who will be on the front lines, not on the sidelines, of the issues that we care deeply about: the values of health care for all, not health care for some; for our children to breath clean air and drink clean water; for immigration reform; and to really speak truth to power and to elevate these issues to a national level.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.