If At First You don’t Secede…

The chatter of roughly 120 people inside the Thermalito Grange meeting house was cut short by a shrill whistle this Monday evening in Oroville. The Tea Party meeting had begun. Most of the men saluted the flag, while the rest of the room rested their hands on their hearts and recited the pledge of allegiance. Afterwards, the same spry woman who quieted the crowd led them in a prayer, thanking God for the United States, asking him to protect our troops, and hoping for a better country. The crowd then shifted their focus from The Almighty to a tall man standing on stage, wearing a blue State of Jefferson t-shirt and a camo hat.

Mark Baird, a rancher from Siskiyou county, wants to see the far northern portion of California withdraw and become its own state, “Jefferson.” For anyone who’s lived in Northern California long enough, news of an attempt to split the state is like seeing a comet caught in a wide orbit. You forget about it until it’s white-hot overhead, speeding its way back toward obscurity.

Within the first few minutes of Baird talking, someone handed him a mic. For a man hellbent on splitting the state into two, his demeanor is surprisingly collected and even-tempered. He presented his case for Butte County to join in withdrawal from California, without the usual bickering and name-calling seen in conversations on politics. The way Baird sees it, the majority of the problems facing the North State are a direct result of a State Government spread so thin that it’s unable to properly represent its constituents. Seeing that everyone wants to be represented by their government, he considers the movement to be a bi-partisan one.

The speech he gave in Oroville Monday was essentially a listing-off of past and present examples of Sacramento’s lack of consideration for the North State, so as to support his conclusion that withdrawal is the natural choice. He cited water-rights issues, complaints of bloated bureaucracy, excessive regulations—and to the poisonous jeers of all those in the crowd, he included the new Transgender-Student Law among those complaints. One woman was impassioned enough to interrupt Baird by yelling out above the crowd, “We don’t accept that here!”

Moments like that one thinned Baird’s characterization of the movement being bi-partisan as the speech went on. In addressing concerns of how to fund the proposed state, Baird outlined what Jefferson’s tax and governmental structure would look like—a question hanging heavy over the movement. When asked whether he thought Jefferson would be economically feasible, Tom Odom (CAO of Siskiyou County) said that while he would need to have all the numbers in front of him to say for sure, he doubted it. However, whether or not Odom made that statement with knowledge of how Baird envisions the state is unclear.

Baird proposes setting up incentives like “a favorable corporate tax code” as well as setting a flat income tax—if any at all—to bring business to Jefferson. In addition, Baird proposed getting rid of Cal-Trans, State Police, and a whole slew of other state offices to save taxpayer money. He also proposed having it so the Federal Government has to contract out any of their duties to the respective county’s Sheriff. Jefferson, as Baird proposes it, is a Tea Party wet-dream.

None of this is to say that the issues Baird is concerned with aren’t legitimate. They most definitely are. It’s just that the way he proposes fixing them presents problems that are just as vexing. This isn’t something that’s lost on proponents of splitting the state; not even the most devoted think it’ll be easy. So why the persistence? How is it that people in the North State are willing to get excited enough about this to convince two counties to issue declarations of independence?

A portion of the optimism that people feel about this movement comes from the historical weight that’s being tied to it. By adopting the name “Jefferson” and all the imagery that comes along with it, Baird is aligning this particular movement to split the state with an earlier one that occurred in 1941. Much in the same way that politicians liken their policies or opinions to those of our founding fathers, Baird is channeling a near-divine righteousness from the now near-mythic story of Jefferson.

Feeling the hurt of the Great Depression, portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon wanted badly to boost their local economies by pulling out more timber and minerals from the hills. The only thing standing in their way were the poor conditions of the roads, and the state governments that wouldn’t improve them. Out of frustration, they planned to create their own state, extract their own minerals, and for once get the attention they deserved. All of this was happening in December of 1941, and just as the movement was coming to a head in Yreka, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The movement was dropped, never accomplishing what it most certainly could have: putting another star on the flag. So the story goes.

It’s a good one. So good in fact that its been told again and again in the 70 years since. Even to the point that, like any good tall-tale, the truth behind it has gotten hard to separate from the myth, but easier to fit into a broader narrative of the character of Northern California. Distinctively different from the south; independent and connected in a meaningful way with its natural resources. For right or wrong, these stories are integral in constructing the personality of communities, and shape how those communities understand the world around them. In the case of the State of Jefferson, however, there doesn’t exist much of a congruence between cultural importance and fact.

When the original movement in the northern counties started heating up, the California Office of the Controller— along with a handful of other departments—looked into the claims of neglect being leveled against Sacramento. While the report admits that the roads weren’t sufficient (“Jefferson” wasn’t alone in this; roads were in bad condition all over the state), it’s made clear that California had far from abandoned the counties. In addition to the funding of all the public works, the counties were receiving an average “cash bonus” that amounted to a little more than half a million dollars a year (about $10.5 million in today’s dollars), and the “Jefferson” counties were receiving an average of $1.32 for every tax dollar paid. So to highlight what that means exactly, the report presented the numbers in terms of the two-year period of 1940–41: “State payments and direct expenditures will total $5,461,400, while tax collections will amount to only $4,142,100. The $1,319,300 difference represents a clear gain—a dividend on their investment in the State of California, whose general services the people of that region enjoy at no cost whatsoever.” While the report doesn’t compare these payments with those that other parts of the state received during the same period, it does put into question the validity of a withdrawal from the state as reaction to a perceived lack of fiscal attention from the state.

To further ruin the fun, the same department ran numbers on how plausible it would be for Jefferson to come into being. The author of the report calculated that in order to maintain exactly the same quality of life Jeffersonians enjoyed at that time, they would have to institute enough new taxes to take in roughly $1.75 million more per year from a population the 1940 census cites as being at only 60,929. The state would have to raise taxable property by “over two and one-half times the actual county taxes in 1940–41,” which, the author of the report feared, would prompt tax-delinquency by citizens of the state. Jefferson could instead raise the sales tax from a 3% rate to 10%, but the author predicted those living in the state would simply go north to Oregon or south to California to avoid the hiked-up prices.

The report makes a convincing case against the movement, but to little effect. Its story ended the same way Jefferson’s did, with the second World War—which is to really say that it didn’t. The report, without a movement to refute, got put aside while the more romantic portions of the Jefferson story got told and retold, either ignorant to the facts or despite them. What has resulted are two sides caught in a perennially unfinished argument: the North State, doomed to repeat efforts to split without critically analyzing its own history, while Sacramento politicians only feed the flames by dismissing the basis of the movement too easily.

As the meeting wrapped up in Oroville, Baird said to the crowd, “It’s a long shot,” but emphasized that with a lot of work he thought Jefferson could become a reality. With a crowd of only hard-lined conservatives hoping to split the state in the name of a movement they don’t fully understand, “a long shot” doesn’t say the half of it.

 

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A fourth year at Hampshire College, J.D. DiGiovanni is in the North State researching the history of secession movements in California as a part of his senior thesis.