Upstate, downstate

The ‘Upstate California’ campaign is déjà vu all over again for Stan Statham

FEELING THEIR PAIN Former Assemblyman Stan Statham knows firsthand why rural Californians always feel like the poor stepsister to the north.

FEELING THEIR PAIN Former Assemblyman Stan Statham knows firsthand why rural Californians always feel like the poor stepsister to the north.

photo by Jill Wagner

Stan Statham, president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association, has one of the best views in all of Sacramento. His office, on the 11th floor of a building across from the Capitol, faces north. On a clear day, he says, you can see the Sutter Buttes, the isolated and improbable mini-mountain range that rises from the middle of the Sacramento Valley near Yuba City.

It’s appropriate that Statham has this view. In the early 1990s, Statham, then an assemblyman from Redding, embarked on a quixotic campaign to split California in three. While his quest eventually failed, Statham, who was born in Chico and was a TV news anchor here for many years, became identified with rural California’s seemingly perpetual feeling of inadequacy in a state that’s more closely identified with sunny beaches and cable cars than endless farmland.

Now, the feeling is manifesting itself again, this time through a marketing campaign.

In September, state legislators and business leaders from California’s northernmost 20 counties—from Placer to Siskiyou—banded together to rebrand the region “Upstate California.” The group hired a public-relations firm to build a targeted advertising campaign that will eventually cost about $100,000 a year. The goal? To promote “Upstate California” as a place to where companies should relocate their businesses. The kickoff to the advertising campaign was on Sept. 10. But once again, rural California’s quest to be heard above the din was denied, this time by the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s a familiar pattern, says Statham. Rural Californians always have felt like the poor stepsister to the north. And sure enough, he says, every 13 to 15 years another group takes a crack at dividing the state geographically.

“Up there they feel strongly because we don’t give them road money, they don’t get as much money for schools per capita, we take their water and we don’t even want them to walk around with a gun on each hip,” Statham says.

When Statham first thought of taking up the quest to divide the state, he’d been in the Assembly for about 15 years. This was in 1989, before term limits, and with the nation teetering on the brink of a recession. He prepared for his bid by studying state division movements in other states and in California. To his surprise, there had been 26 other attempts to break California in pieces.

Most of the attempts at dividing the state had taken place in the mid-1800s, shortly after California was admitted to the United States. The most serious attempt was by Assemblyman Andres Pico from Los Angeles, who in 1859 introduced a bill to divide California into two states at the Tehachapi mountain range. The Pico bill passed both the Assembly and the State Senate and was signed by Governor John Weller. After a public vote in the south in which southerners voted to divide the state, Governor Weller informed the U.S. House of Representatives that the state had authorized the division. A bill was then introduced before the House, but it never came to a vote. The Civil War had begun.

When Statham began to publicly push the idea again in 1991 and 1992, he knew he was fighting an uphill battle. “People would either see it as fighting a windmill or as a joke,” he says.

But before introducing a bill, Statham’s first task was dealing with then-Speaker Willie Brown, at the time the state’s most influential official. But Statham wasn’t seeking his help—he simply didn’t want Brown to “Speakerize” the bill, which means “just leave it alone; let it fly or let it die.” To his surprise, Brown offered to help Statham get his measure through the Assembly. Statham even says Brown offered to help.

With that, Statham was off to the races. His bill would only authorize California’s 58 counties to put the question of whether the state should be split on the ballot. It would be a non-binding vote, meaning whatever came back from voters would be used only to gauge public interest in dividing the state. At first Statham called for only two states, but he realized he didn’t have the votes in the Assembly to get that proposal passed, so Statham switched to a three-state proposal and the bill passed with votes to spare. But after it went to the State Senate, it died when then President Pro Tempore David Roberti wouldn’t let it out of the rules committee.

“Roberti thought that if this question was on the ballot no one would pay attention to the bond measures for schools and the candidate elections,” Statham says.

In the end, the campaign became a kind of national running joke about the wackiness of California. The movement was targeted by monologue assassins like Jay Leno, editorial cartoonists, and even seeped into popular culture clearinghouses like game shows—one night Jeopardy quizzed contestants on Statham’s measure. Did he ever feel like the constant ribbing marginalized his effectiveness?

“Had I been in the Legislature two years or four years, that would have been the emotional and intellectual reaction, but I had been there a long time and was assistant Republican leader,” Statham says. “I hadn’t embarrassed myself to that point.”

But, it’s clear that the bid to divide California died with Statham’s bill, perhaps indefinitely. The people who are behind the new “Upstate California” branding campaign are quick to distance themselves from any bid to start a two-state movement. They say that the reason for the new slogan is to attract the kind of jobs and growth that the rest of the state has benefited from for the past decade. But still, if you dig deeper, they say the two movements are related.

“You could see a connection with the Statham movement and us,” says Robert Berry, president of the “Upstate California” campaign. “The area is unrepresented and we’re going after the same kind of things that people who wanted to split the state were going after, which is recognition.

“But we still want to be part of California," he adds. "It’s not like we called ourselves ‘Upstate Nevada.'"