Like so many Americans, Kevin de León experienced in waves the dawning realization that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. First confusion, then shock, then dread, fear and vulnerability. Shortly before midnight on Nov. 8, the bleary-eyed president of the California Senate began writing his first press release of the Trump era: “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land …”
To a certain extent, de León has always felt like a stranger in a foreign land. He grew up in a poor neighborhood, Logan Heights, near Chicano Park in San Diego. He never really knew his father, a cook of Chinese decent, and was raised by his mother, Carmen Osorio, a housekeeper from Guatemala. She moved the family, including de León and his two older half-sisters, back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana. One of his half-sisters died last year, after years of struggling with meth addiction and homelessness.
“Here we are organizing in the trenches. And clearly
De León was the first and only person in his family to graduate from high school and attend college. He started out at the University of California Santa Barbara, but it was a challenge. He had moxie but no organizational skills, no practice at taking notes or studying for a test. He didn't last long.
He couldn't go back home and tell his mother of his failure. Instead, he went to work for One Stop Immigration Center, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that helps undocumented immigrants fill out paperwork and teaches them English, history and organizing.
“That's where I cut my teeth politically,” de León says. “I didn't know how to do a press release, so I'd call the local Assembly member and say, 'Hey, can you fax me one of your press releases?' 'Which one?' 'Any one.'
“On the seat of my pants, I learned certain things. Just hustling.”
Eventually, de León went back to school, graduating from Pitzer College with a degree in political studies. He had no ambition to run for office until the California State Legislature passed a law banning undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses. Worst of all, the bill had been sponsored by a Democrat.
“That was the very first time I thought, well, maybe one of us needs to think about running,” he says. “Because here we are organizing in the trenches. And clearly, our power was limited.”
De León campaigned against the anti–illegal immigrant Proposition 187 and later served as campaign manager to his friend Fabian Nuñez. De León was elected to the State Assembly in 2006, besting Cesar Chavez's granddaughter, Christine Chavez, in the primary with the help of Nuñez. Three years later, de León made a play to become speaker of the Assembly but was outmaneuvered by another L.A. assemblyman, John Pérez. De León fought his way back, winning a state Senate seat in 2010.
When his Democratic colleagues elected him president pro tempore of the Senate in 2014, it was something of a coup: De León was the first Southern Californian to lead the Senate in decades, and the first Latino to do so since 1883.
De León now finds himself thrust — or has thrust himself — into the national spotlight as one of the leaders of the Trump resistance. Should Trump follow through on his promise to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities or states, de León says: “If they attempt to do that, we'll meet them in court. And we can beat them in a court of law. This is not just a tactical issue. It's about our values.”
Or, as de León's Election Night press release promised: “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”