Senate and Assembly Democratic leaders clearly are taking seriously the notion that they should never show up at a showdown underprepared.
Speaker Anthony Rendon of Paramount and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles have retained former Attorney General Eric Holder and his high-end law firm, Covington & Burling, to defend the state against what they see as a likely domestic enemy – Donald Trump.
As Democrats prepare to face down Trump, who better to hire than the lawyer who until recently headed the Department of Justice and some of his partners? Holder, the attorney general for much of President Barack Obama’s tenure, would be a worthy opponent for President-elect Trump’s nominee as attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Other lawyers written into the Senate and Assembly’s agreement with Covington are no slouches, either. One is former Rep. Howard Berman, a Los Angeles Democrat. Another is Dan Shallman, the brother one of de León’s top political advisers and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who led a significant Southern California public corruption prosecution.
The move is not without risks. Some Democrats worry that Rendon and de León are being too pugilistic and too public in their willingness to fight. Republicans warned that Democrats risk finding the fight for which they seem to be spoiling, and losing.
“If the majority party continues to poke President-elect Trump with a short stick, then they better be prepared with a Plan B,” Sen. John Moorlach, a Costa Mesa Republican, said in a statement. “And, as far as I can tell, there is no alternative plan should these combative moves not be received well by the incoming Trump administration.”
There’s also a question of duplication. Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated Rep. Xavier Becerra to replace Sen. Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general. Becerra, who is expected to be confirmed later this month, had been the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in Congress and is steeped in Beltway issues. The California attorney general’s office has plenty of fine lawyers who can defend the state’s interests.
But the Legislature is its own branch of government. And Rendon and de León are well within their rights to hire their own counsel.
For now, their move is more bluster than blunderbuss, as evidenced by the amount of taxpayer funds the Legislature is earmarking for Covington: $25,000 a month for three months starting Feb. 1, with a limit of 40 hours per month.
The $25,000 is a blip to a firm of Covington & Burling’s size, and it represents a fraction of the Legislature’s $300 million annual budget. The contract is written so that billings could rise, and lawyers’ fees can add up quickly – Holder reportedly bills at $1,700 an hour. The stakes are huge.
Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have made clear their intention to unravel the Affordable Care Act. That could cost California $21 billion and upend health care coverage for nearly 5 million Californians.
In addition to having expertise in government-funded health care programs, Covington lawyers are steeped in immigration and environmental law, and in the issues surrounding firearms – all topics near and dear to California Democrats. At a minimum, Covington litigators could slow efforts to unwind Obama administration policies that benefit California.
Rendon and de León no doubt are confident that the electorate is on their side. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in California by 4.2 million votes. Although some Trump supporters say he should be taken seriously but not literally, de León and Rendon are wise to take Trump at his word. Their decision to hire Holder and Covington carries some risk. But the risk would be far greater if they were caught flat-footed if and when Trump starts to make good on some of his promises.