A separatist state of mind

In the era of Trump, rural discontent settles in the state of Jefferson.

It was a pleasant day for September in California’s Central Valley, sunny and hot but not unbearably so. Kayla Brown sat cross-legged on the grass under an oak tree in a public park, surrounded by friends and family, including her husband, parents and two sons. Brown, who is 27 and sprightly, with a blonde ponytail and blue eyes, was holding court on 19th century American history and the run-up to the Civil War. A lot of Californians “actually sympathized with the Confederates,” she said.


Brown was in Marysville, just north of Sacramento, to take part in a Civil War re-enactment, a hobby she’s had since she was 11. Today, as usual, she was dressed as a Confederate. “I’ve been dying epically, valiantly, for the South for three days,” one member of the group said, smiling, as they took a break from the day’s skirmishes. Brown added: “The North was morally right, but somebody’s got to be a Confederate.”

Brown’s youngest son, 18 months old, toddled by, swinging a slice of apple tied to a string, making swooshing airplane sounds. “I hate public schools,” Brown said, moving the conversation from history to contemporary politics. The Common Core curriculum is a sham, she said; grade-schoolers are forced to learn about topics like contraception and gender identity. That’s why she is homeschooling her children. Gun laws are too strict in California, and mountain lions are over-protected. “We have more lions than anywhere else in the country,” one member of the group said. “That’s because we’re not allowed to shoot them for eating our livestock,” another added. (California residents can, in fact, shoot a mountain lion that is killing domestic animals, though they need to obtain a permit from the state.)

People here call far Northern California — the 20 or so counties north of Sacramento — the Northstate. The region is largely rural and white (though the Latino population has risen in recent years and there are several Native American tribes), and its politics are mostly red (only four counties went for Hillary Clinton in 2016). But the Northstate is also an idea that encompasses a shared regional identity for people like Brown, who has lived here her whole life and never wants to leave. “You have a lot of rural folk, people who have been here for three, four, sometimes even five generations,” she told me at the re-enactment. “We’re literally tied to the land.”

Brown and her compatriots feel trapped behind enemy lines — rural conservatives in a state led by liberal urban Democrats. The election of Donald Trump and the rise of the California progressive “resistance” have riled conservatives anew. Libertarian-tinged sentiments are deeply rooted here. Poor policy is squandering natural resources, such as agriculture, timber and minerals, Brown said, making rural life increasingly difficult. And now, more people from coastal, urban parts of the state are moving in, bringing liberal values that chafe local sensibilities.

Meanwhile, so many of Brown’s friends have moved away that hardly any of her high school classmates are still in the area. She says they’re defecting to Western states with less regulation or more conservative values, though many of those leaving California are in search of a new home with a lower cost of living. No matter the cause, for Brown and others this out-migration amounts to a slow bleed, a gradual emptying of the place they love. The only way to stop this, Brown believes, is for the northern counties of California to renew their separatist efforts — to secede from California and create a 51st state of the Union, traditionally called “the state of Jefferson.” So enthusiastic is she about the prospect of the state that she convinced her husband to hold off on looking for jobs out of state, at least until the end of this year. After that, though, if Jefferson can’t break away, they’ll leave. It may seem like an unlikely dream, but poor odds have never deterred Jeffersonians, and the movement today is as zealous as ever.

Kayla Brown talks with Jerry Jennings (green hat) and Todd Hogan at the Redding Patriots meeting in in early November. Brown, often one of the only young people in the room, says most of the people she went to school with have left the area.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

California achieved statehood in 1850. Since then, there have reportedly been over 200 attempts to break it up. Efforts in the north often have the same core grievance: a lack of representation, thanks to an 1862 state law that capped the number of representatives at 120. Fewer than a million people lived in California then, compared to 40 million now. Today, a single assemblyman represents 488,000 people and a state senator 980,000. The Los Angeles area has over 20 state assemblymen, while Jefferson, which is the size of Iowa, has three. Political analysts see this as an inevitable outcome of burgeoning urban areas. Jeffersonians call it tyranny.

The most famous uprising against this political reality took place in 1941, when a coalition of Californians and Oregonians became fed up with their state legislatures’ inability to maintain roads, among other grievances, and declared their intent to form a new state. A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane, who later won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the uprising, described it to readers this way: “Folks wanted roads up here and if they didn’t get them pretty soon, there was no telling what they might do.” He described the separatists as “gun-toting citizens” who were “partly mad, partly in fun, partly earnest about this new state.”

The Siskiyou Daily News held a state-naming contest that year, soliciting such entries as Discontent and an amalgamation of three counties: Del Curiskiyou. Someone suggested the state of Jefferson, by most accounts after the third U.S. president, and the name stuck.

On Nov. 27, 1941, a group of men blocked off U.S. Route 99, which runs through Siskiyou County. They were armed with hunting rifles and a proclamation of independence calling for “a patriotic rebellion” against California and Oregon. “They’ve got the votes,” one miner told Delaplane, referring to Los Angeles County, “but we’ve got the copper.” By then, the northern counties had $3 million to $4 million in copper “blocked out in the mines in the hills, and no way to truck it to the coast,” Delaplane reported. Citizens staged a roadblock, stopping drivers and informing them they were entering a new state. Delaplane lionized the movement in the paper, calling this “the last frontier and the hard stand of rugged individualism that is not a political slogan.” Delaplane and others in the media whipped up the fervor around the separatists with their sensationalist writing and publicity stunts. Nevertheless, the spirit of the people he described created a compelling narrative that has endured among their ideological descendants today.

A state of Jefferson sign in Redding, California, in the heart of the proposed 51st state.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The California uprising unraveled in the face of America’s entry into World War II, but the underlying grievances remained. Today, the idea of “Jefferson” is often invoked to describe a regional identity. Across the Northstate and southern Oregon, there are beers, a public radio station and at least one band named after Jefferson. There’s also the Jefferson Three Percent, which combines the name of a national militia network with Jefferson. It’s not officially tied to the efforts to split the state, but is co-led by a Jefferson movement organizer, Red Smith. “(The state of Jefferson) has wonderful cachet for romanticizing that wild sense of Old West individuality that I would imagine on some level all of us west of the Mississippi embrace,” Peter Laufer, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and author of The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey Through the 51st State, told me.

As a child, Kayla Brown was unaware of the sporadic efforts to create the state of Jefferson. Growing up in Redding, a small city 120 miles south of Oregon, she spent her time playing sports and hanging out with friends. She didn’t have a strong interest in politics, though her father, a scanner technician for Kodak, watched World News Tonight and Fox News and listened to Rush Limbaugh on the car radio. In middle school and high school, Brown watched news coverage of the Iraq War on television. “I had a lot of friends, a lot of Civil War re-enactors, that have gone over there,” she said. “You keep up on it because you have people there. That’s how I remember politics.”

Brown spent a week every summer at a nearby Bible camp, where she met her husband. They bonded over their mutual passion for early U.S. history and kept in touch via email during the school years. At 20, Brown became the first in her family to finish college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history from a state university. She kept up with the Civil War re-enactments and enrolled in a master’s program for American history. She didn’t give much thought to the idea of a separate state. And then she met Mark Baird.


The new district attorney for Shasta County, Stephanie Bridgett, speaks to the group. The crowd, including some sporting the state of Jefferson green and gold, asked questions about immigration, jails, homeless people, taxes, marijuana, Jefferson and more.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

In August 2013, Brown attended a meeting a few minutes from her home, organized by the Redding Patriots, a grassroots political group spun off from the local Tea Party. The featured speaker was Baird, the visionary behind the modern State of Jefferson movement in California. Baird, 6-foot-4 with white hair and a full mustache, spoke for 40 minutes, telling the roughly 200 attendees that the northern counties were underrepresented and ought to break away from the rest of the state. The talk floored her. “In this area, when you get rednecks who are talking, sometimes they can sound pretty illiterate,” Brown, who was 23 at the time, told me recently. “Not to be mean, but that’s just the way it is. But Mark started laying out the Constitution and everything, and I was impressed at how articulate he was.” She too thought that the Northstate was underrepresented and that the locals’ way of life was under attack. Her friends would have agreed as well, if they had been around to hear it.

A few weeks later, Brown went to a Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors meeting, down the road in Yreka, a former gold-mining town once proposed as the capital of Jefferson. The board’s chambers were packed when Brown testified in favor of a county declaration to separate from California. She told the five supervisors that she, her husband and their new son were living at her parents’ house; that her husband was struggling to find a job in the area; that they were broke. “All we wanted at the time was to take care of ourselves without handouts from the government,” she told me later. “And California’s not letting us do that.”

The new state declaration passed 4 to 1. For Brown, she said, “it was like throwing tea in the Boston Harbor.” She was hooked on the idea of Jefferson. But her husband, whose identity she has asked to keep private, had been looking for work in Idaho and Wyoming. A few weeks after the county meeting, she convinced him to give her time to help the new partitionist movement work. He said she could have three years; she bargained him up to five. “I knew that Jefferson was going to be a big deal,” she told me. “So I wasn’t willing to just up and leave my home quite yet.” If there was no Jefferson by 2018, the family would move away.

In early 2014, she approached Baird and a few other Jefferson organizers, offering to help. By then, Brown was preparing to write a graduate thesis on separatism and statehood, and she thought her research skills and interests could prove useful. For the next year, she traveled with Baird and his colleagues, as they held dozens of town hall meetings. They stuck to California, leaving the Oregon counties out, since dealing with two states would prove too complicated. The idea of a separate state spread “like wildfire,” Brown told me, through social media and word of mouth. They visited 20 counties that year. In city halls and granges, Elks Lodges and veteran halls, they drew crowds that were in the hundreds.

Lynn White shows his support for the State of Jefferson at his family’s gas station in Loyalton, California, which sells Jefferson flags and merchandise and is painted Jefferson’s colors, green and yellow.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The idea crossed a few political lines, too: Tea Party, Republican, Libertarian and even a Green Party group invited the Jefferson partitionists to be guest speakers. Whoever had a room, we were in that room and we were talking,” Brown said. Brown, often the youngest in the crowd, went first, giving a short lecture on California history, beginning with statehood and ending with the promise of rural renewal. Her message resonated. She asked people whether their kids or grandkids had moved to another state. Almost everyone raised their hands. “If you create a state that actually gives them hope,” Brown told them, “then kids and grandkids can come back, and families can be whole again.”

Brown heard from dozens of people who felt that California was pushing them too far. A trucker said he was moving to Utah because he couldn’t afford to update his vehicle to comply with pollution regulations. One woman said her children had refused to take over the family winery and would “rather start over somewhere else than deal with California,” Brown said.

The new 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which California implemented in November, is a common gripe among Jeffersonians. They say it’s unfair because it disproportionately affects rural people, who have to drive farther to get basic services. (It takes almost six hours to drive from corner to corner of Assembly District 1, which covers most of the Jefferson region and has just one representative.) “I’m a big supporter of the gas tax, but I wonder if the state Assembly and state Senate debated the disparate impact it was going to have in rural communities,” Lisa Pruitt, a University of California-Davis law professor who studies rural life, told me. “If you have a state where a larger percentage of the population live in rural places and there’s a greater sense of rural-urban interdependence, the state Legislature is less likely to write off the rural concern. California is particularly urban-normative, because we are an overwhelmingly urban state.”

Many conservative Northstate residents also see the $150 fee for rural Californians to help pay for wildfire prevention as another tax that hurts rural communities — an abusive measure inflicted on them by Democratic lawmakers. Republican legislators said the money ended up in a state general fund and didn’t actually help rural areas. (The fees were recently suspended until 2031 as part of a deal to extend the state’s cap-and-trade climate program.) The Northstate “is so much more rural and frontier than any other region of the state,” Pruitt said. Its geographic size and remoteness make it “a world unto itself in terms of the degree of rurality.” Pruitt thinks one solution to the problem could be a version of Australia’s “rural-proofing” practice, which requires legislators to consider impacts on rural communities before passing legislation. The practice works like an environmental impact statement for rural cultures and economies. “It’s a way of acknowledging rural is different,” Pruitt said. “It would be good for the Legislature to have to confront that.”


Mark Baird erects a Jefferson flag on a barn on his ranch outside Yreka, California. Baird, the leader of the modern-day Jefferson movement, wants to reduce regulations and bring back the natural resource economy that once thrived in the Northstate. The flag bears an image of a gold pan adorned with the seal of the state of Jefferson. The two Xs represent the idea of being “double crossed” by the state governments of California and Oregon.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Mark Baird has firsthand experience with California’s urban-rural divide. A third-generation Californian, a Vietnam veteran and a reserve deputy sheriff, Baird makes a living as a pilot, flying planes to fight wildfires. He also has a small cattle and horse ranch outside Yreka. When he decided to try for a state of Jefferson, Baird had been fighting state water authorities and California Department of Fish and Wildlife over regulations affecting his ranch for years. Baird also bristled at the decline in security and economics around him. “Crime in my county is going through the ceiling,” he said during a Jefferson town hall in Williams. “We have no police protection whatsoever between midnight and 7 a.m. because my sheriff can’t afford people.” Baird and others have indeed seen crime rates increase. In Siskiyou County, for example, the Public Policy Institute of California found that between 2015 and 2016 the overall crime rate went up 14 percent between 2015 to 2016. The county’s timber production, once an economic engine, has declined dramatically since the 1970s. The town of Montague, a small community not far from Yreka where Baird once patrolled as a deputy sheriff, was vibrant in his youth, with five gas stations and three grocery stores. “Now it is a crackhead wasteland.”

Baird wove these concerns into the Jefferson message, and he worked with a man named Terry Rapoza and his wife, whose organizing skills earned her the nickname of “Rally Sally,” to spread the message to like-minded folks throughout the Northstate. The Rapozas had started a local Tea Party branch in their hometown of Redding, within the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. By 2012, they’d helped establish over a dozen chapters across the region. Most of those have faded away or consolidated, Rapoza told me, but some morphed into more general interest “Patriot” groups that support the state of Jefferson. “They had this great email list,” Brown said. “I’m pretty sure they know 70 percent of Northern California.”

The combination of Baird’s vision and the Rapozas’ network worked well. In 2013 and 2014, supervisor boards in Siskiyou, Modoc, Glenn, Yuba and Sutter counties all voted in favor of a new state, and voters in Tehama County passed a ballot initiative to support it. Six other counties across the Northstate voted down similar resolutions, however. Baird was unfazed: In the counties that failed to vote for them, they collected signatures. “We got 51 percent of the population in Plumas County,” Baird said. “We got 40,000 signatures. We don’t need their board.”

A map on the state of Jefferson’s website shows 21 counties that purportedly support the idea, including Plumas and others where Baird created his own tallies. This kind of informal accounting makes it hard to get a real idea of the size of the support network. In some ways, Jefferson activity is still more a loose collection of like-minded individuals than a movement. Professor Laufer disputes Baird’s claims that a robust movement is underway. “Mark Baird, he’s an organizer and a leader of a faction,” Laufer said. “There is no State of Jefferson movement that he’s leading. There’s him and his buddies.”

There is also some organized opposition to Jefferson. In response to the 2014 pro-Jefferson wave, Kevin Hendrick, a resident of Del Norte County, started a political action committee called Keep It California. Rural counties need more attention, yes, he told me recently, but a state of Jefferson provides false hope that distracts from real solutions. “It simply defies logic that you can take all the poorest counties and have a prosperous state,” he said. Besides, most northern counties get more back from California in services than they pay to the state in taxes. Hendrick and others would rather see Northstate counties work on specific issues through the state Legislature, such as better broadband and rural healthcare — efforts that may draw businesses to the region and revitalize depressed local economies.

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Baird believes the best way to improve the economic prospects is through opening more land to mining and timber. This, he says, would revive the extractive economies that have declined across the region in recent decades, in part due to federal environmental policies but also in response to market trends. (Baird believes that the land-transfer movement, led by the national nonprofit, the American Lands Council, could help Jefferson gain control of federal public lands. That puts his movement in line with the current Sagebrush Rebellion, although land transfer is not its main goal.)

Brown was on board with the financial vision for Jefferson, though she had certain political disagreements with the movement’s leadership. Northstate counties contain major marijuana-growing operations, and the question of how to regulate them became a source of tension between the younger Jeffersonians and the older generation. Brown disapproves of the violent crime and lawlessness that surrounds the industry, where armed men guard illegal grows on public land. But she says people in her generation don’t mind the idea of marijuana being legal if it’s properly regulated. Baird, on the other hand, said that no matter their personal views on marijuana, counties in his vision of Jefferson would decide how to regulate the industry for themselves.

“Any social issue, honestly, has been a problem,” Brown said. “They want the young people involved, but at the same time, I don’t actually think they want us involved.”

In 2015, Brown took a break to spend more time at home with her young son. She began working as an assistant at a medical insurance company to help pay the bills. By the summer, she and her husband were expecting another child. In 2016, she tried to rejoin the core Jefferson group and become active again. “But when I tried to go back, I was told I was no longer needed,” she said. (Baird and Rapoza disagree, saying she’s always welcome in the Jefferson movement.) Regardless, Brown decided she would help the cause from the outside.


A car parked outside a Patriot Meeting in Redding, California, displays the “State of Jefferson” seal as well as other conservative and separatist sentiments.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

During the 2016 presidential campaigns, the people of the Northstate found a kindred spirit: an outsider, scoffed at by the liberal media and the establishment. Trump won 14 of 18 northernmost California counties. In its first year, Trump’s administration has affirmed Jeffersonian views on issues like immigration, gun control and environmental regulation. But Trump has also invigorated California’s liberal majority, which considers itself “the resistance,” and California’s Democratic Legislature has pushed back against Trump’s hard-line stances.

In 2016, Jeffersonians launched a monthly digital newsletter, which railed against liberal policies like gun control and carbon emission cap-and-trade. In January 2017, they began holding public conference calls every other Sunday, almost always discussing an issue central to the California “resistance.” They were angered, for example, by California Gov. Jerry Brown’s conflict with the administration over climate change. (After Brown traveled to China to meet with President Xi Jinping to discuss climate policy on his own, Baird sent a letter to the California and U.S. attorneys general calling Brown’s actions “criminal behavior” and a violation of the Constitution.)

Baird, Rapoza and others in the movement continued to deride the resistance, but by September 2017, California legislators had introduced 35 bills to thwart Trump policies, the Los Angeles Times reported. One of those bills made California a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants, by limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Jeffersonians say the sanctuary state concept is an affront to the rule of law. In one newsletter, they also described it as a financial threat to rural counties, which earn much-needed income renting jail space to ICE. “California continues to exuberantly boast its progressive bad policies, laws and regulations in a celebratory manner while the rest of the state feels dark, helpless and abandoned,” a Jefferson newsletter from last October said.

Trump has reignited local political activity, too. More than one Jeffersonian told me they were so discouraged after Obama won a second term that they stopped attending Tea Party meetings, only to become politically active again after Trump’s election. “The one thing Donald Trump did do is he took the gloves off to say what you mean,” Terry Rapoza told me. “I think it gave some people courage to speak out on issues.”

What all this will add up to for the State of Jefferson movement isn’t yet clear. Most outside observers say the likelihood of a new state is slim to none. “It’s absolutely impossible,” Laufer said, “because it requires a vote of the state Legislature and U.S. Congress — neither of which will happen.” Nevertheless, for four years, Jeffersonians have lobbied counties to pass resolutions of support and hounded state representatives to consider taking up the cause. And the partitionist ideal has slowly poked its way into local politics. In June of 2016, for example, Placer County resident Steve Baird (no relation to Mark) ran for California Senate on a state of Jefferson platform. He lost in the primaries, but still earned 40,000 votes, at 14 percent of the total.

Meanwhile, the Jeffersonians are now suing the state of California for better representation, arguing that the current apportionment is unconstitutional. They hope to either gain more representation or force lawmakers to seriously consider their separatist demands. The primary plaintiff on the suit is Citizens for Fair Representation, a group Baird and Rapoza helped start. Baird said he hopes to force California to consider increasing the number of senators to one for every 6,000 voters, and assemblymen to one for every 2,500. That would boost the 120-seat Legislature to over 22,000 representatives. If the state doesn’t agree to that wild demand, perhaps it will offer a consolation prize: a state of Jefferson. As of late November 2017, supporters had raised $376,000 of a million-dollar goal in part for legal fees.

As for Kayla Brown, she says she isn’t bitter about her disagreements with the movement’s leadership. She still supports Jefferson by sharing posts on social media and attending meetings when she can. Most weekdays she’s homeschooling her two sons. The deadline she and her husband decided on five years ago is fast approaching, so Brown is watching the movement closely, hoping it makes progress soon. In the meantime, her husband has been checking out real estate prices near Boise and Idaho Falls. Her parents are thinking about moving, too.

One afternoon last fall, Brown took me to see a group of historic buildings just outside Redding, now a state park and museum commemorating the 19th century settlement of the town. Brown pushed her younger son in a stroller while the older one scurried ahead, as we wandered the grounds, looking at old mining and farming equipment. Brown wore a pink baseball cap that displayed a Second Amendment rights catchphrase and shielded her eyes from the sun. We talked about what life must have been like a century ago. “You just had the basics,” she said. “There wasn’t a mall. There wasn’t an electronics store. It was more how the community helps each other out, rather than everybody sitting in their living room. When you look around, driving nowadays, nobody sits on their front porch anymore. You’re losing that as we become more industrialized. You’re actually losing that sense of community.”

At the old general store, Brown lifted her son out of the stroller and left it there as we walked into the woods to see a historic mine site. When we returned, the stroller had been taken and a car was speeding out of a nearby parking space. Brown wasn’t remotely surprised at the theft. “See,” she said. “That’s what towns like Redding have become. That’s why we need the state of Jefferson.” 

A hay barn is painted to advertise the State of Jefferson movement along Interstate 5, just south of Yreka, which was the proposed state capital during the original movement in 1941.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Associate Editor Tay Wiles writes from Oakland, California.  

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.


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