In a four-part series, Shawn Schwaller examines why the creation of Jefferson State is not only highly unlikely to happen, but also an exceptionally bad idea from several standpoints. Throughout the series, he will explore a wide range of social, economic, and cultural issues, including racism, anti-immigrant nativism, and attacks on the LGBTQ community in the contemporary history of the proposed boundaries of Jefferson.
Today is Part 1 of Schwaller’s series, “In the Closet of Jefferson State”.
Welcome, Shawn Schwaller, to A News Cafe.
The inland portion of California north of Sacramento is not part of the state’s popular image. It is not home to year-around sunshine, beaches, palm trees, or urban sprawl. The largest city in the region, Redding, located more than 500 miles north of Los Angeles, is home to about 92,000 inhabitants. The secession movement to separate this portion from the rest of California and create the State of Jefferson was first hatched in the 1940s when a group of armed white local citizens in Yreka barricaded Highway 99 at the California-Oregon border. The protesters were angry about a lack of representation, water rights, and the spending of tax dollars in cities.
The Second Wave
The first movement to create Jefferson fizzled out as the U.S. got involved with World War II, but it returned for a second wave during President Barack Obama’s final term in office and its supporters voted en masse for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential race. The Jefferson flag, which contemporary supporters adopted from the first wave, is green and yellow and includes two x’s to signify the notion that this portion of the state has been “double crossed” by urban liberal politicians. It was common, as President Trump took office, to see pro-Jefferson flags, posters, bumper stickers, and large billboards along the region’s scenic byways and throughout its towns, as well as people wearing clothing emblazoned with pro-Jefferson images.
President Trump’s racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the expression of victimhood he fabricated against the “fake news” and non-supporters, made him popular among Jefferson staters. Some attended Washington D.C. to wave the State of Jefferson flag at the January 6 rally before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. As stated by Sally Rapoza, a leading figure in the Jefferson state movement, in a January 7 public post on her Facebook page that included several images of the flag being waved at the rally, “JEFFERSON was there!”
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, Jefferson staters were among the leading voices protesting for the opening of society and against the wearing of masks, this as virus totals skyrocketed in the region. They were also among the so-called “patriot” counter-protesters who showed up to Black Lives Matters protests in places like Redding, armed to intimidate the push for social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers in the summer of 2020.
On the most popular pro-State of Jefferson Facebook group page, “51st State of Jefferson,” one member expressed, leading up to the 2020 presidential election, with great disillusion, that Trump was “gonna win California.” After Biden won the election, another member stated that the State of Jefferson existed whether people wanted to recognize it or not, and that while supporters of the movement were being called dreamers, “I say we make the dream a reality and send California to Mexico!”
As opposed to racially coded rhetoric, a firm grasp of facts and reality are not among the central tenets of the State of Jefferson movement, something that begins with the fact that Article IV and Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution makes it nearly impossible for the proposed state to be formed.
The Jefferson State movement was, and still is, based more on a racial, cultural, and political identity than an achievable reality. As stated by Ralph Lewin, the president of the California Council for the Humanities, in the forward to Peter Laufer’s The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey Through the 51st State (2013), it is “more than a place; it is an idea, an idea rooted in the complicated, sometimes inspiring and other times painful history of our country.”
Followers of the movement can purchase Jefferson State gear at establishments like Granzella’s, the legendary restaurant, deli, and novelty shop located along Interstate 5 in Williams. A turnstile with metals signs offers a wide range of far-right commentary. One sign, with an American flag and machine gun, states, “If you can read this, thank a teacher,” and “if you can read this in English, thank your military.” The ideal décor for the Jefferson State man cave or she shed.
Within sight of these items is a birthday card that featured an old picture of a woman in a Wild West costume holding a shotgun next to the description, “I’m out of estrogen and I have a gun.”
Mapping Out the State of Jefferson
The boundaries of the State of Jefferson proposed by the second wave of supporters includes 23 counties in the northern portion of the state. The southern boundary line is flanked by Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado counties and it includes everything north of the area between Placer and Mendocino counties. The region is currently home to only a few of California’s congressional districts, due to the size of the population.
In 2013, Boards of Supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou County passed declarations of support for the creation of Jefferson. Sutter, Lake, Lassen, Glenn, Yuba, and Tehama County Boards of Supervisors followed in 2014 and 2015. In addition to the declaration, Lassen County supervisors allowed residents to decide whether they supported secession in 2016 with Measure G, which was rejected by 57 percent of the vote. Residents in Del Norte and Siskiyou counties rejected similar measures. Humboldt, Mendocino, Shasta and other County Boards of Supervisors did not pledge support. However, by January of 2016, representatives of the State of Jefferson movement in 21 counties sent declarations of support to the state capitol.
Some proponents of the movement want to include a portion of Southern Oregon, but no Oregon counties, and only a very small portion of the population have pledged support. Per its creation, Jefferson State would cut more than 70,000 square miles out of a state that is currently 164,000 square miles; 45 percent of California’s current land base. The region is home to 1.7 million people, out of a state population of 40 million.
Pro-Jefferson secessionists argue that they desire smaller localized governments; this even while state and federally funded jobs, like employment in the prison-industrial complex, offer the best paying jobs in parts of the proposed state. In 2016, for example, 65 percent of jobs in Lassen County were on a government payroll.
Trump won nearly 55 percent of the votes in proposed boundaries of Jefferson during the 2016 election race. He won several of the counties – and many voting precincts within them – by a supermajority of 20 or more percentage points.
In the 2018 gubernatorial race, at 63 percent, John Cox collected even more votes than Trump in the region while running against Gavin Newson. This, while 62 percent of voters in California supported Newsom. The movement to recall Newsom has found broad support among Jefferson staters.
Trump visited the Redding Airport during the election race and spoke to a cheering crowd that had waited all day in very hot summer weather to see him. In his introduction at the Redding rally, State Assemblyman Brian Dahle called the region “Trump Country.” It was the infamous rally where Trump pointed out to the only — or at the least, one of the only — African American attendees and stated, “Oh, look at my African-American over here. Look at him,” followed by, “Are you the greatest?”
The individual Trump pinpointed was Gregory Cheadle, an aspiring politician who ran for the California Representative District 1 seat a few years earlier, losing to incumbent and conservative favorite Doug LaMalfa. Neither pledged support for the creation of Jefferson, but both expressed affinity for the central tenets of the movement. LaMalfa gained national attention after a December 2020 interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN when he argued that the 2020 election was fraught with voter fraud.
“You got any proof, that anything that was done was fraudulent in any election?” asked Cuomo.
“You know, I don’t have proof that men landed on the moon in 1969 because I wasn’t there,” answered LaMalfa as he chuckled.
Conspiracy Theories & the Far Right
Supporters of secession are representative of the rural conservative white Americans who were unhappy with the Obama administration, even while many are unable to provide evidence for such anger. Many adhere to far-right views on immigration, liberalism, U.S. foreign policy, the 2nd Amendment, and social justice issues, and their political beliefs intersect with libertarianism. Generally speaking, the State of Jefferson belief system and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is based in the same notions of a traditional, and romanticized, white male patriarchal Cold War America.
It’s not uncommon across rural Northern California to find pro-Jefferson staters who believe in chemtrails and the QAnon movement. Many supporters are also anti-United Nations, believing its “Agenda 21” program to improve living conditions throughout the world is actually a plan to control and oppress Americans. As the Carr and Camp fires ravaged through Redding and Paradise in 2018, local conspiracy theorists attributed the fires to Direct Energy Weapon (DEW) attacks waged by proponents of “Agenda 21” and other secret governmental and non-governmental entities.
Older & Whiter
Upon breaking away from the most populous state in the U.S., Jefferson would rank near the bottom among states in overall population totals. The population in the region is more than 70 percent white, and approximately 30 percent nonwhite, flipping overall state numbers. The population of residents age 65 years and older is nearly 10 percent greater than that of the rest of California, and the population of residents less than age 18 is smaller.
Lower Household Income & Less Manufacturing
While California’s median household income was $62,000 in 2016, households in the region that would compose Jefferson had a household income of approximately $48,000. California’s total retail sales in 2012 reached $482 million. The counties that would compose Jefferson accounted for only 22 percent of those earnings.
These counties also accounted for only a small fraction of manufacturing in the state. California had the highest gross domestic production in the U.S., but the counties in what would comprise Jefferson accounted for only a fraction of that in the greater Bay Area and Southern California alone in 2017.
Trinity County, the poorest in California with an average median household income of only $35,000, and a poverty rate of 20 percent, would call Jefferson home. In 2016, 13 of the counties within the boundaries of Jefferson had poverty rates higher than the overall state total of 14 percent. Dollar Generals, a small-box retail chain that offers a limited supply of items, and low-wage employment with little to no benefits, line the streets of small towns in the region, along with check-cashing centers and pawn shops.
Increase in Homelessness
Counties across what would make up Jefferson also witnessed an increase in homelessness in the early 21st century. The homeless population of Tehama County increased by 127 percent between 2017 and 2019. With a population of around 14,000, Red Bluff, the largest city in the county, had a few well-known homeless individuals in the 1980s and 1990s.
The homeless population in Shasta County doubled in 2016 and 2017. As homelessness increased throughout the region, conservative groups mobilized to push law enforcement agencies and city and county officials to criminalize the homeless and protest against the creation of shelters and other helpful measures. By the end of the first two decades of the 21st century, makeshift shelters under bridges and in other locations were a common sight as homeless people huddled around power outlets in the region’s strip malls to charge their smartphones.
Poverty, Social Services, & the Labor Force
The high level of poverty in the region results from decades of economic changes as counties witnessed the decline of the lumber industry, the loss of manufacturing, and the transition into a white-collar and service-oriented economy. Supporters of Jefferson argue that secession would remedy these problems, despite the fact that the poverty rate would equal that of Mississippi, while the median household income is only slightly higher. None of the counties met or surpassed the 2015 state average of 63 percent for the population 16 years and older in the labor force. At 36 percent, Lassen County was the lowest, but several ranged between 40 and 55 percent.
Most of the counties that would compose Jefferson benefited more per capita from social services than those on the outside. Nearly half of the top-20 per capita tax dollar-receiving counties are in the 21 proposed counties, yet it is only home to 36 percent of counties in the current state. In 2010, counties that provided the most revenue tended to elect Democrats who supported policies that collected more tax money, while the counties that received more funds elected Republicans who support tax cuts and cuts in social services.
With this, urban California is a social-service lifeline for white rural poverty in the state’s Republican spaces. Despite this and the other economic problems, vocal supporters of the movement, like Mark Baird, speak regularly about wanting to be released from Democratic control. Baird described the reliance on state money as “social engineering,” and he, like others, expresses the belief that if the region could – in addition to controlling its water – simply revitalize the timber industry and ranching, and attract new businesses, it would succeed. In reality, earnings that came from timber jobs in Trinity County – an epicenter for the industry – declined decades ago and were only a quarter of earnings in the county at their modern peak in the 1970s and 1980s.
Highest Opioid Prescription & Death Rates
In addition to a low median income, high rates of poverty and homelessness, a weak economy, and no manufacturing sector to speak of, the counties that would make up Jefferson were home to the highest per capita opioid death rates in California in the first year of the Trump presidency. Counties in the region were home to 10 of the 14 highest rates for opioid deaths in California. At a rate of just over 17 per 100,000, the opioid death rate in Lassen and Mendocino County was nearly six times that of Los Angeles, and three times that of San Francisco County.
Rural northern California was also home to the highest rates of non-medical prescription drug usage, as well as opioid prescriptions per 1,000 individuals. In 2017, the highest opioid prescription and death rates in California matched the proposed boundaries of Jefferson. Small-box retail outlets like Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS are thriving in the region, and the most lucrative departments in these establishments oftentimes is the pharmacy.
Few Colleges & Universities
Institutions of higher education would also be severely under-represented in Jefferson. Out of 114 community colleges in California, only 11, or roughly 10 percent, sit in the proposed region. Out of 22 California State University campuses, only two would call Jefferson home. Because of this, many who seek college degrees in the region would be forced to pay out-of-state tuition rates. College-readiness is also an issue in the region.
In 2017, only 25 to 30 percent of young adults eligible for college in much of what would become Jefferson were college-ready. While the state average for bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016 was 31 percent, all but two of the counties that would fall within Jefferson were well below this, with several as low as 12 to 15 percent.
High Suicide Rates
Like those which highlight opioid usage and death from overdose rates, the counties with the highest suicide rates in the state was nearly identical to the proposed boundaries of Jefferson in 2013. *Between 2008 and 2010, the region witnessed 20 suicides annually per 100,000 inhabitants, more than double that of Los Angeles.
Per its creation, Jefferson would face serious economic and social problems that would be an extreme challenge to overcome. However, it will never come to fruition, for it is more of an idea, and a racial and political identity than anything else.
*“Suicide Rates in California,” Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9737.html (accessed 15 July 2019).