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"Sanctuary State" Bill's Backers Put Senate Leader Between Rock And Hard Place

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) speaks at a rally in support of SB 54, his bill that seeks to protect immigrants living in the state illegally from deportation.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

“Awkward” only begins to describe the spot California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León found himself in Wednesday.

At a rally outside the state Capitol for his bill that seeks to protect California immigrants from federal deportations, advocates pressured the senator not to weaken the measure.

The rally wasn’t half as big as the 1,500 people promised by organizers. But when De León (D-Los Angeles) stepped on stage, leaders seized the moment.

“Can we count on you? Can we depend on you?“ the event's MC, Fresno pastor D.J. Criner, asked De León to his face after the pro Tem had wrapped up his remarks.

“Will you be our face and our voice to hold the line against the sheriff’s union and to make sure that SB 54 is not watered down?“

Criner was referring to the California State Sheriffs Association, which is fighting the measure that would – with some exceptions – ban state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The extent of those exceptions is the subject of tense negotiations.

“Senator, can we count on you?“ Criner went on. “Can we count on you, sir?”

De León chose his words carefully.

“We’re gonna count on each other to work together,” the pro Tem said, off mic.

Criner insisted that De León return to the mic so the crowd could hear his answer.

“We’re gonna count on each other to work together,” the senator repeated.

The crowd cheered, but not everyone was convinced.

That was “a very political answer,“ a man in the crowd was overheard saying to his neighbor.

Evidently, the rally's organizers thought so too. So a few minutes later, Criner tried again.

“Senator, can we get a yes?“ the pastor cried out, after another speaker had taken her turn. “Will you represent us?“

“We need a yes!” a crowd member called out.

De León must have responded affirmatively, because a moment later, Criner called out,  “We’ve got a yes!”

Except the question De León said “Yes” to was: “Will you represent us?”

Afterwards, the pro Tem confirmed he did not agree to block further amendments to his bill.

“Flexibility is what legislators need to have space and room to negotiate,” De León told Capital Public Radio.

The political reality, he pointed out, is that bills need a certain number of votes to pass.

“We still are having very constructive dialogues with the law enforcement community, and particularly the chiefs of police,” he said.

But earlier in the day, in a blow to the bill’s prospects, the California Police Chiefs Association formally came out in opposition – after previously staying neutral in hopes of reaching a deal with De León.

The group says although police don’t have any desire to enforce immigration laws, the bill would create “roadblocks, hurdles and ambiguity” to doing their jobs.

And that shows why De León couldn’t promise the crowd that he won’t take further amendments: He simply doesn’t have the votes.

As an urgency measure, SB 54 requires two-thirds approval in both houses of the Legislature. That means every Democrat in the Senate, and all but one in the Assembly.

But although they declined to give their names to avoid upsetting the powerful pro Tem, the offices of three Democratic senators tell Capital Public Radio their members “aren’t there yet.”

That might force De León to strike the urgency clause from the bill. If so, the measure could pass with simple majority votes in each chamber. But then, it wouldn't take effect until January 2018 – and opponents would have the chance to force a referendum, which would delay the measure's implementation until voters could decide whether to uphold it in the November 2018 election.

 California Counts

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio