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Leave the U.S.? Effort to cleave Calif. faces own split

Mark Z. Barabak
Los Angeles Times

If there’s one thing Jed Wheeler and Marcus Ruiz Evans agree on, it’s that things in California need to change.

The state sends too much money to Washington, they say, and is both politically and culturally out of step with a country that lacks its openness and vitality.

“We can solve our own problems and don’t need to wait on a government 3,000 miles away,” said Wheeler, echoing Evans’ suggestion that Democratic-leaning California would be far better off going it alone as a separate country.

They sharply disagree, though, on the matter of how and precisely when California should seek a divorce from the other 49 states.

Evans supported a failed ballot measure that would have put the question of secession before voters in 2018, believing the time has never been so ripe to form a breakaway nation. Wheeler is working to create a pro-secession political party, looking a dozen or more years down the road when its candidates hold office, and fears that a premature vote would undermine the effort.

In short, the effort to cleave California faces a crackup of its own.

At least three proposals are floating about to reshape the state in some fashion. All work at cross-purposes, and the result is varied degrees of hostility among proponents; none of the plans seems likely to reach fruition anytime soon, if ever.

That is something they have in common. Since 1849, when the state was remade in a rush of greed and ambition, there have been more than 200 efforts to split apart, pull away or otherwise reimagine the vast empire known as California. Not one has succeeded.

The most conspicuous attempt, a proposed ballot initiative fueled by anti-Trump sentiments and titillated national media coverage, was abandoned Monday after one of its leaders announced that he plans to make Russia, not the Golden State, his home.

“I have found in Russia a new happiness,” Marinelli wrote, “a life without the albatross of frustration and resentment towards ones’ homeland, and a future detached from the partisan divisions and animosity that has thus far engulfed my entire adult life.”

Marinelli’s partner, Evans, acknowledged the effort was dead, but told fellow separatists to fear not. Evans said Monday that he was joining the California Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit that formed two weeks ago, and that he will file another petition as part of that group on May 1.

“It’s coming together faster than protons move,” he said in an interview.

The effort, uphill from the start, has not been helped, he said, by reports linking the Calexit movement to Russia, which Evans called preposterous. The co-leader of Yes California is Louis Marinelli, a former San Diego-area Assembly candidate teaching English in Russia, where, among promotional activities, he appeared last fall at a Kremlin-backed pro-secession conference in Moscow.

“It has definitely been damaging to us getting big donors and hurting our ability to bring on new members because of clouding the issue without accurately reporting all the facts,” Evans said, citing the organization’s 44,000 “likes” on Facebook as just one example.

Nor, he said, was it beneficial when Nigel Farage, a leading proponent of Britain’s exit from the European Union and a prominent Trump supporter, recently flitted into California to talk up a vague plan to split the state down the middle, creating a coastal “West California” and interior “East California.”

“They’re trying to confuse people,” Evans huffed. “Classic Trump.”

It seems Evans and his pro-secession movement might have found an ally in Wheeler and others working to form a party dedicated to achieving state independence. Many tenets of the left-leaning California National Party — the state needs to keep more of the money it sends to Washington and establish home-grown policies on issues such as immigration and healthcare — echo those propounded by Yes California.

The nascent party has taken no official position on the 2018 secession drive. But Wheeler, the party’s vice chairman, believes the initiative would lose, damaging the independence movement. Better, he said, to elect sympathetic lawmakers under the National Party banner who could then work to bring about California’s eventual departure.

“We’re trying to be very pragmatic and realistic where we are as a movement,” said Wheeler, 36, who works for a digital media company in San Francisco. While “the idea of having a ballot initiative is seductive and appeals to a lot of people,” he said, “you can’t harvest the crop without the work of planting the seeds, then tilling the soil and all that stuff first.”

In California’s far north, a determined group of dissenters have done that labor for decades — so far to no avail. Efforts have been underway since before World War II to break off more than a dozen rural counties and combine them with a chunk of southern Oregon to form Jefferson, the nation’s 51st state.

The impetus is the same that drives backers of secession: the notion of a far-off government (in this case, Sacramento) ignoring local sentiments and a sense of being outnumbered and outvoted by a population whose social and political views are at odds with the prevailing (in this instance, conservative) culture. The proposed flag — a pair of Xs, or double cross — captures the animating sentiment.

“We really don’t have fair representation,” said Terry Rapoza, 67, a leader of the Jefferson movement in Shasta County, where he sells souvenir clothing in Redding. He cited recent passage of a 10-year, $52 billion road repair and transportation bill; the hike in gas taxes, he said, will have much less impact in urban California than in rural stretches, where people might drive 20 miles to the grocery store.

But he has little use for secession, which strikes him as bizarre — would the new California nation have its own nuclear arsenal and U.N. representative, he wonders — and fruitless in ending the urban-rural divide he blames for persistently short-changing his part of the state.

There’s something wrong and even vaguely un-American, he suggested, about trying to break the country apart. “We want to add a star to the flag,” Rapoza said. “Not take one off.”