by President Hilary Crosby

At our February meeting we heard from two ardent Democratic activists who live in very rural California: Dolly Verrue, Chair of the Siskiyou Democratic Central Committee, and Cindy Ellsmore, Chair of the Sierra County Democratic Central Committee. They reported on a political threat to California’s Democratic legislative majority – averted thanks to effective community organizing by Keep It California (KIC).

Undoubtedly you realize that the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was only one action by a small, but determined and widely scattered, cohort of right-wing rural activists who object to Federal and state “interference” with Western land use. Their efforts aren’t confined to military-style stand-offs. Beginning in 2013 Mark Baird, a rancher in Siskiyou, spearheaded an attempt to create an insurgent State by convincing counties in southern Oregon and northeastern California to leave their states and jointly establish the State of Jefferson (SOJ). With an unknown amount of mysterious funding, he convened a governing council, hoping to convince the Boards of Supervisors in up to 20 Northern California counties to vote to secede. This would provide stimulus for legislation in California to approve the intent, and ultimately to promote the admission of a 51st State by the US Congress.

This was an unlikely outcome, but Supervisors in Siskiyou and Modoc counties passed resolutions supporting the idea.  Luckily for California and the country, the targeted counties’ Democrats – vastly outnumbered but courageous and hardy – sprang into action, organized, and formed the political action committee (PAC) called Keep It California.

An SOJ-in-reality posed no immediate danger, but those who supported the idea have other concerns such as:

  • Environmental “over-regulation” in California
  • Preference for home schooling and/or Biblical indoctrination
  • Opposition to marriage equality and equal rights for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender people
  • “Legality” of state taxes and rates
  • Opposition to labor organizing and bargaining
  • Fanatical commitment to completely unregulated gun ownership and sales

“Their basic desire is to go back to the 1950’s,” says KIC’s Verrue. “Life was simple, women were denied equal rights and protection, and ranchers and loggers could live off Federal open land without paying use fees.”

SOJ objects to California’s adherence to 1964’s Reynolds v. Sims decision in which SCOTUS required that electoral districts be based on equal populations, rather than allocating one state senator per county. There are far more rural, sparsely populated counties than there are urban counties; is it a coincidence that the rural counties are also Republican? Overturning Reynolds would completely change the partisan balance in California’s state senate!

SOJ’s target counties were: Alpine Sierra Modoc Trinity Plumas Colusa Glenn Lassen Amador Calaveras Siskiyou Tuolumne Tehama Lake Yuba Mendocino Sutter Nevada Humboldt Shasta El Dorado Butte and Placer. This map shows that KIC cadre pushed back brilliantly against it. “Our organizing relied on hard facts,” says KIC’s Ellsmore. “We presented proof that these counties received far more in state subsidies and benefits than they remitted in state taxes.  We made presentations in Nevada, Sierra, Plumas, Lake, Placer, El Dorado, Amador. We met with our Assemblymember Brian Dahle (R, AD1) who represents parts of Butte and Placer, and all of Siskiyou, Lassen, Plumas, Modoc, Shasta, Nevada and Sierra Counties – over 13,000 square miles!”

But finally the county by county campaign must elicit support from county governments, not for a fantasy “51st state” but for the critical current issue of improved representation. Evenwel v. Abbott, currently before SCOTUS, contradicts Reynolds – and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act – by alleging that “one person one vote” should count only voters instead of total population to determine district sizes. Since so many inhabitants of urban California are children and immigrants, changing this eligibility could have a negative impact on the Democratic majorities in state legislative houses – which our Club obviously works to preserve.

“The secession movement should caution residents of the Nine Counties that we must be attentive to the issues and dissatisfactions of rural Northern California,” says President Crosby. “We get a lot of food and water from those counties, and recreational opportunities from some of California’s most beautiful lakes and mountains. We should return the favor by helping to develop economic engines for the dispersed populations in our rural counties, including better access to broadband internet and better management of flammable biomass in our forests.”

Democratic activists should support and organize around retroactive Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) that is owed to these counties to compensate for revenues lost when Fish and Game took over habitat and migration management.  The state stopped the PILT payments in 2002, and 36 counties are owed a total of $8 million for unpaid PILT. “In this and many other areas,” concurs KIC’s Ellsmore, “rural Democrats can make a huge difference even against pretty daunting odds – especially if we can link up with fellow Dems in the cities and suburbs.”

This visit from the chairs of two counties in the SOJ target catchment area taught our El Cerrito Democrats a lot about the reality of Democratic organizing in the red, rural counties to our east and north. Thank you, Cindy and Dolly! We’ll stick with you as you battle to keep it California and get it bluer. (Be sure to go to KIC’s website, and even give them a donation.)