Will the Trump era fuel the Jefferson separatist movement’s efforts to split off into a new, 51st state?
Almost anywhere you drive through Northern California, you’ll see green and gold signs, flags and banners heralding the arrival of the state of Jefferson, a separatist movement that nearly succeeded in 1941 and, more recently, has grown significantly in the era of Trump.
The signs feature “The Great Seal of the State of Jefferson,” a gold pan emblazoned with two X’s—Jeffersonians have long believed they’ve been double-crossed by big-city politicians in Sacramento who take their money but ignore their concerns.
Over the last two years, the signs have popped up on billboards, front yards and haystacks, sometimes next to Confederate flags and anti-immigrant slogans.
They also can be seen at county fairs and frequent rallies featuring supporters, some in camouflage fatigues, outside the Federal Building in Sacramento, where the secessionists have taken their fight all the way the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jeffersonians argue that, since Southern California has 111 elected state reps (74 Assembly members and 37 senators) and Northern California above the San Francisco Bay Area only nine (six in the Assembly, three in the Senate), the courts have “a legal, moral and constitutional” obligation to fix this imbalance by adding more state legislators, especially in far-flung rural counties.
“Taxation without representation,” the rallying cry of the American Revolution, now resonates with tens of thousands of Jeffersonians in 23 counties from Stanislaus to the Oregon border—nearly all of which voted for Trump. The “double cross” dates back to 1941, when residents of five counties, sick of paying taxes and not getting needed roads in return, joined forces with rural Northern Californians to secede and then formed their own border patrol.
Today, they reflect a growing sentiment that California should be carved into anywhere from two to six states in order to adequately govern its 40 million people and their conflicting political views on a broad range of issues, including immigration, gun control, water rights and environmental regulations.
Just this summer, a measure to ask Congress to split California into three states, backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Tim Draper, qualified for the November ballot. It was eventually invalidated by the California Supreme Court, which questioned the measure’s constitutionality.
The legal setback didn’t discourage Jeffersonians.
Indeed, this unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants has joined forces, seemingly impervious to criticisms.
While Jefferson’s leader, Siskiyou County resident Mark Baird, claims the movement is nonpartisan, Baird admits he, and many other Jeffersonians, voted for Donald Trump—“He wasn’t my first choice, I wanted Ted Cruz”—because they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. He also acknowledges Trump’s victory empowered thousands of disaffected voters in Jefferson country, and noted that the more federal judges Trump appoints in California, especially to the decidedly liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the better Jefferson’s chances.
Critics across California and the nation have called Jefferson a harebrained scheme, a disaster in the making. But Baird and others argue that Jefferson’s time is now.
“Our window of opportunity is here,” he said.
The Jeffersonian movement has recently re-ignited and spread across California. Now, supporters as far south as San Bernardino want in, even though it’s not practical to admit counties that aren’t contiguous, Baird said. But he understands why impoverished rural Californians statewide want to join.
“California has become a totalitarian nightmare of social engineering, and people are bailing out. We’ve lost 9,000 businesses and nearly a million productive people,” Baird said.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence opens with a Trumpian-sounding rant that claims leaders such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom “have openly and publicly declared war on the government of the United States.”
“Is this or is this not a nation of laws?” it reads. “[We] Declare the 51st State, Jefferson, to free us from tyranny!”
The language and ideas date back much further than the 45th president.
In 1941, Jeffersonians captured attention when they formed a rebel militia and even stopped drivers on Highway 99 in Siskiyou County at gunpoint, handing out their declaration of independence and bumper stickers letting them know they were entering the state of Jefferson.
Stanton Delaplane, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, could smell a great story 300 miles away. He headed into Siskiyou County and won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for reporting for his coverage of the “mountain men” rebellion.
“Gun-toting citizens of these rebel counties are partly mad, partly in fun, partly earnest about this new state,” Delaplane wrote then.
The rebels—then comprising four counties in California and one in Oregon—demanded the state build promised roads into the mountains containing millions of dollars of copper deposits, “and if they don’t get them pretty soon, there’s no telling what they might do.”
“This is the last frontier and the hard stand of rugged individualism that is not a political slogan,” Delaplane opined in his piece penned on Dec. 1, 1941.
Jeffersonians appeared on the verge of getting approval from Congress to break away until it was blown out of the water by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.
Many politicians, academics and journalists dismiss Baird and his fellow Jeffersonians as a bunch of gun-toting, right-wing rednecks, Trumpies and neo-Confederates whose chances of launching the 51st state are slim and none.
Tim Onderko, vice mayor of Loomis in Placer County, empathizes with Jeffersonians—to a point.
“I understand people feel underrepresented or misrepresented and want to make a change—I totally get it, I’m all about local control,” Onderko said. “But we have to have a statewide constitutional convention. How would Jeffersonians support themselves?”
Onderko’s skepticism was amplified by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan think tank, which last year issued a 13-page report on secession outlining a wide range of potential problems, including who will pay for and operate public schools, courts, prisons, water, welfare, transportation, parks and state agencies.
If the measure was approved by voters and the federal government—and until California and Jefferson came to an agreement on how to split the state’s assets and liabilities, the report reads, “all tax collections and spending by the existing state of California would end.”
Baird is used to not being taken seriously.
When he and his finance expert, Steven Baird (no relation) of Sacramento, showed up for a scheduled appointment with Gov. Brown to present their secession plan, for example, a CHP officer outside the governor’s office told them the state’s chief “had more important things to do.”
“We couldn’t even get the guy who brings them coffee to take our papers, so we dropped them off in the mail room,” Steven Baird said.
Mark Baird is equal parts Don Quixote, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. He lives in Scott Valley, a staunchly independent community 30 miles southwest of Yreka, now the provisional capital of Jefferson.
Baird said he and several other ranchers took on the California Department of Fish & Game a decade ago, “when they were trying to charge us $25,000 per ranch for our water rights and unfettered access to our land.”
“We told them not only ‘no’ but ‘hell no’—if you want our water, be prepared to take it.”
Ultimately, Baird and company never had to brandish their weapons; Fish & Game just cleared out. That victory set the table: On Sept. 3, 2013, the modern state of Jefferson was born when Baird and about 100 supporters presented the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors with their Declaration of Independence and won approval by a 4-to-1 vote.
Baird, a walking encyclopedia of California history and constitutional law who’s fond of quoting Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederick Douglass, has sold his dream across a vast expanse of California.
“We’ve raised more than $500,000—$2 at a time—and I’ve been reading legal cases like a crazy law student for the last five years,” he said.
Teachers, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, clerks, small-business owners, farmers, ranchers and survivalists have all contributed.
“While most of us are gray-hairs, we have a strong Facebook presence in all our counties, and young people are turning out for our fairs and events.”
Whatever their age, background or profession, Jeffersonians share a common distrust of big-city, heavy-handed government, Baird says. He knows plenty of folks who “hate California, they hate the taxes, rules and regulations.”
Baird and many other Jeffersonians have a distinctly libertarian flavor. They say their new state largely would be governed by individual counties that would enforce their own laws and fund their own police, courts, fire departments, schools, public officials and indigent medical care.
“Spending, except in rare cases such as the state Supreme Court, education above K-12 and prisons will be handled at a city/county level,” explained Steven Baird, the finance expert, who ran for the sprawling state Senate District 1 in 2016 on a pro-Jefferson platform and lost. Now, he argues that that one district with 11 counties shortchanges almost every constituent.
“It is up to the people in those communities how they want their taxes and money to be spent. We will not force any county to fund any particular action.”
A new independence
Here’s what Jefferson would look like based on census records from the 23 counties that have signed on and two others on the fence, either through referendum or a vote of their board of supervisors: 2.5 million people, 69 percent Caucasian, 21 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, about 3 percent multiracial, 1.6 percent Native American and 1.6 percent African-American. Nineteen counties voted for Trump; four (Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Stanislaus) went for Clinton.
If secession happens, Jefferson would hold a constitutional convention to draw its own legislative boundaries.
Jefferson’s governor and courts would have less power to authorize or veto legislation—that responsibility would fall squarely on the Legislature. Nearly all services—from police to fire to schools—would be run by individual counties, Baird said.
Critics both inside and out of Jefferson’s boundaries, including chamber of commerce officials and park rangers, fear a state made up of California’s poorest counties won’t have the resources to provide quality services—they say the state sends more money back to those counties than it collects from them.
But Jeffersonians argue that without having to pay income, sales or corporate taxes to the state, their financial model shows an aggregate county surplus without reducing current spending for schools, roads, public safety and infrastructure, according to their website.
The Jefferson movement welcomes all independent parties, and the Green Party, which has scored few victories elsewhere, would have a better chance running in freshly drawn rural districts, Mark Baird said.
Not all Jeffersonians are crazy about their namesake, but Steven Baird says it fits.
“I guess we adhere to Thomas Jefferson’s principles of limited government. We would like to reboot the core beliefs of our Founding Fathers.”
America’s Founding Fathers believed every American would have the opportunity to succeed, but there’s no guarantee of success: You will succeed on your own merits and resources.
The state of Jefferson has sparked plenty of opposition within its boundaries.
As soon as you hit Mt. Shasta, local public radio stations proclaim themselves “Jefferson Public Radio,” which according to its website includes 10 public stations and 22 affiliates covering 60,000 square miles from Redding to Roseburg, Ore., Mendocino to Coos Bay.
Keep It California, a nonpartisan group based in Sierra City, is also staunchly anti-Jefferson. The group claims the actual costs to Jeffersonians, ranging from having to pay out-of-state tuition to California universities to having to buy their way out of California’s $778 billion debt, means Jefferson’s projected $3.16 billion annual budget will be sliced to $840 million.
“This proposal would create a very weak, Balkanized state with little uniformity throughout creating confusion and uncertainty,” declares Keept It California’s website. “It wouldn’t even guarantee that the few comparatively prosperous counties [Eldorado and Placer, both Jeffersonian bastions] would choose to help the poorer counties.”
Placerville’s Jamie Beutler, chair of the Rural Caucus of the California Democratic Party, said Keep It California was formed in 2015 to counter Jefferson after its leaders began persuading county after county to join up.
“I think it’s crazy—I understand their frustration,” she said. “But they get more money from the state for roads, schools, hospitals, infrastructure than they would get if they broke away.”
While Mark Baird says Jefferson would liberate mining, timber, farming and energy from California control, Beutler notes, “most of the water and forests are federally controlled, so nothing would change there.”
Baird hopes that Jefferson can become a reality in five years; Beutler counters that notion.
“I think there’s no chance of this passing, but there’s a populist mood sweeping the country and they have been emboldened, all these hate movements have risen up,” he said. “These are the same people who have been infused with fear by Trump, Rush Limbaugh and alt-right media. They listen to what they want to hear and don’t listen to reason.”
Voters, lawsuits and true grit
While Jefferson’s plans to create a special Native American Senate seat has generated support from some of the many tribes within its boundaries, Jessica Jim, an elder with the 5,000-member federally recognized Pit River Tribe who sits on the enrollment committee, said, “the problem is, who is going to get control of that seat?”
Jim, who lives and works in Burney, said she feels Jeffersonians are simply pandering.
“We have Karuk, Hoopa, Susanville and Pit River among the 37 tribes in Northern California. We all have different dances and beliefs. They’re trying to pacify us,” she said. “We said no, you treat us on a government-to-government, face-to-face basis.”
Mark Baird, who agrees many details need to be worked out, nonetheless insists they’ll be successful. “We are picking up steam in the face of some pretty serious opposition from both political parties.”
Though Jefferson’s two U.S. senators likely would be Republicans, he says, there’s no real alliance between the political party and secessionists.
“Republicans hate us more than Democrats, because they have literally more to lose,” Baird said.
In fact, three U.S. representatives would shift from California to the new state, and those seats tend to be held by Republicans, who Baird says often ignore rural Californians.
Despite some 200 attempts to divide California into two or more states even before California entered the Union in 1850, including one effort that that was on the verge of succeeding when it, too, was blown up by a war—in this case, the Civil War—these efforts have been derailed by political and legal opposition.
In January, Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist—claiming 40 million Californians were not adequately represented either in the state Legislature or Washington—collected more than 400,000 valid signatures to split California into three states, qualifying it for the November ballot. Draper also launched failed campaigns to break up California into six states in 2012 and 2014.
Draper’s current bid fizzled when the California Supreme Court unanimously concluded “that the potential harm in permitting the measure to remain on the ballot outweighs the potential harm in delaying the proposition to a future election.”
Even if voters had approved Draper’s proposition, it couldn’t become reality without congressional approval—the same obstacle Jefferson faces, assuming it can persuade the California Legislature to go along with it. But in the era of Trump, the possibility of giving California—the bluest of blue states—more Republican seats in the Senate and House of Representatives may not be that far-fetched.
Meanwhile, without mentioning the state of Jefferson, Citizens for Fair Representation sued California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, arguing that Californians have the worst proportional representation in the nation—each of the 40 senators represents about 1 million people, while each of the 80 Assembly members represents about half a million. California’s 53 U.S. representatives each represents nearly 740,000 people.
The plaintiffs, which include the American Independent Party of California, the Libertarian Party of California, several northern counties, Mark Baird and other Jefferson leaders, have made a fairly strong case that the California Senate and Assembly need to increase their membership “so we can all have access, not just the lobbyists,” Baird wrote in his supporting document.
The plaintiffs sought to get the U.S. Supreme Court to have their case heard by a three-judge panel, but the court rejected the request. They lost that round, but they’re hoping the Sacramento federal judge who handled their case, Kimberly Mueller, can still be persuaded to let them argue it in court. If not, they will appeal to the 9th circuit, Mark Baird said.
The Jeffersonians have no quit in them.
Baird said California has historically kept the number of state senators low to keep minorities from being represented.
“In 1879 there were six different African-American representatives when the Legislature held a constitutional convention that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act,” Baird explained. He said Californians took up the chant, “The Chinese must go,” leading to deportations that could have been prevented had Chinese communities had the right to elect state representatives.
The same thing happened to disenfranchised Mexican immigrants, Baird said. Between 1929 and 1936, the U.S. launched the Mexican Repatriation program, which deported anywhere from an estimated 400,000 to 2 million Mexican Americans, the majority of them from California.
That “tyranny” continues today, he said, adding that the Jefferson movement embraces people of all races.
A growing base
Despite its rebel beginnings, Jefferson has attracted an increasingly diverse following.
Lisa Pruitt, a UC Davis law professor specializing in rural and urban differences, said she has seen Jefferson signs in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties.
“I saw a Jefferson decal on a Prius in Fair Oaks, and on I-80 near Davis,” she said. “It’s all over rural California and creeping into urban California. I’ve seen their stickers on cars in Target parking lots.”
The farther north you go, the bigger the signs, Pruitt said.
“There’s a lot of agitation on the part of rural Californians who feel their interests are not being heard or taken seriously in Sacramento,” Pruitt said. “The example is the state gas tax: People in rural areas who drive long distance don’t feel they get anything for their buck.”
Baird argues that there’s a historic precedent for Jefferson: Vermont left New York and New Hampshire in 1791, Kentucky left Virginia in 1792, Maine bolted from Massachusetts in 1820 and West Virginia—which argued that Virginia committed sedition by breaking away from the union to join the confederacy—got its independence in 1863.
Pruitt, however, disagrees.
“It’s not a winning analogy,” she said, adding that West Virginia’s split happened more than 150 years ago.
“People are intrigued by it, but peeling themselves into a separate state would not solve their economic woes, and might make them worse,” she said. “I’m not convinced they would be in a better situation if they got more representatives; rural interests would still be greatly outnumbered by urban interests in Jefferson. Legislators represent people, not cows and trees.”
But Baird, Jefferson’s leader, is convinced its time has come. His conversations with everyday people have made it clear that the state of Jefferson’s future holds promise.
“The oligarchy that runs Sacramento doesn’t care what the voters think,” he says. “We have been over-taxed and over-regulated, and more and more people every day are willing to stand up and fight.”