For those who’ve kept abreast of nearly two years of Shasta County’s toxic political upheaval and unrest, the American Legion Post 746 in Cottonwood was the place to be Thursday night.
There, six men connected to the ultra-conservative movement called Red, White and Blueprint interviewed five ultra-conservative men who have their sights set on three Shasta County Supervisor seats currently occupied by incumbents Joe Chimenti (District 1), Leonard Moty (District 2) and Les Baugh (District 5).
Chimenti and Baugh’s supervisor seats will be up for grabs next year because both men chose to not campaign for re-election when their terms expire in June. Conversely, Moty’s in danger of losing his supervisor seat against his will in a contentious Feb. 1 special recall election that’s already splitting political hairs between “regular” Republicans and extreme conservatives. The recall election is funded in part by billionaire Reverge Anselmo.
The setting: rural Cottonwood, CA
Outside the American Legion Post in Cottonwood, the parking lot was packed with vehicles, many of which were pickups. Up a few steps, through the wide doors and inside the spacious old structure with its worn wood-planked floors, visitors found an interior parted like an old-timey mullet: party on the right, complete with a fully-stocked bar, the sound of wise-cracking pool balls and raucous peals of laughter; business on the left with a standing-room only forum hosted by Red, White and Blueprint.
Inside, a ceiling-to-floor accordioned partition bifurcated Cottonwood’s American Legion building into its left and right sides; much as Shasta County has been divided since the start of the pandemic.
Because of the room’s bowling-alley-like length, and the dim lighting at the far end of the space, it was difficult to determine the precise number of people who attended Thursday’s event.
That said, there were two groups of chairs facing each other with the large table in the middle. In total, taking into account seated members of the audience, and an undetermined number standing at the far end of the hall who watched the action from a TV monitor, in total, there appeared to be approximately 100 people in attendance, perhaps more.
The deep, narrow meeting room was transformed into a movie set by the Red, White and Blueprint production team. Signs posted on the walls informed the audience that yes, they were on camera. Smile! Indeed, the filming was for future Red, White and Blueprint episodes.
A towering pair of glaring free-standing lights shone down upon the money shot: a massive distressed-wood round table that held microphones for the evening’s hosts, panelists and Shasta County Supervisor candidate hopefuls. Multiple tripods surrounded the table with stationary cameras, while a pair of young, Red, White and Blueprint videographers captured random shots with hand-held cameras.
The audience: Look, Ma, no masks
When this reporter and cameraman Alan Ernesto Phillips first entered the American Legion Post in Cottonwood Thursday, District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones – a Red, White and Blueprint member – loudly said hello, followed by his spoken observation and a chuckle.
“I see you’re all masked up!”
True enough. Aside from a pair of mask-wearing media people, not a single other face was covered in the entire room.
COVID-19, meet rural Shasta County; rural Shasta County, meet COVID-19.
In addition to the crowd’s collective shun of face coverings and the absence of social distancing, it was apparent that most of the people in attendance — panelists, candidates and the audience alike — shared common political preferences, beliefs and disbeliefs.
Most people were casually attired, with no shortage of baseball caps, sweat shirts, flannel shirts, sweaters, big belt buckles and boots. Overall, the audience was made up of white men and women, from 20-somethings to senior citizens. Some children were present; two of whom asked questions of the candidates later in the evening about mask mandates.
For the most part, this simpatico, uninhibited, vocally demonstrative audience was in lockstep with respect to their applause, laughter, boos and even a few heckles. Clearly, the majority were fans and admirers of the Red, White and Blueprint movement and its representatives, especially Carlos Zapata, Woody Clendenen, and RW&B’s director, Jeremy Edwardson.
Judging by the audience’s responses, reactions and questions, one could make some other general assumptions: They’re politically far, far right. They have a disdain for most Democrats. Case in point, one of the biggest laughs of the night came when District 1 candidate Kevin Crye said he got himself a gun after Hillary Clinton became a presidential candidate. Lots of hoots and guffaws over that one.
What’s more, they deeply resent government mandates, even during a pandemic, about which many suspect COVID-19 is a hoax at worst, and a grave exaggeration at best. Many want bigger jails. They want transients and the homeless off the streets, and believe there’s a plethora of programs available to helped the addicted and unhoused, if only that population would take responsibility for themselves: stop using drugs, stop committing crimes, work hard, accept a hand up, rather than a hand out, and seek assistance from one of the county’s many existing programs.
Furthermore – perhaps most of all, with regard to Thursday’s forum – most of the people in attendance are vehemently against mask and vaccine mandates, especially for children. Their goal is to “take over” elected positions, from school boards to water boards. Many are disgusted with public schools, places they accuse of spewing, beginning in kindergarten, everything from critical race theory to pornography. Finally, they believe the Shasta County Board of Supervisors could have/should have “done something” to protect North State citizens from the state’s pandemic-related public-health mandates. This belief is despite the fact that the three rational Shasta County Supervisors have repeated the same refrain for more than 20 months: The county has zero authority over state pandemic mandates.
The candidates who accepted Red, White and Blueprint’s invitation to attend the forum were Dale Ball (District 2), Kevin Crye (District 1), Chris Kelstrom (District 5), Tarick Mahmoud (District 2), Colt Roberts (District 5) and Tim Garman (District 2), not to be confused with Gorman.
Other candidates not present, who declined the invitation, were District 2 Supervisor Moty, District 2 candidate Tom Hayward, and District 5 hopeful Baron Browning. The crowd laughed when told the candidates had prior commitments.
Over the course of the evening, after many questions and many answers and lots of talk, for the most part the five candidates sounded nearly ideologically identical. Any variations boiled down to such nuances as delivery, appearance, speech, finesse, vocabulary, experience, occupation and temperament.
However, one candidate, District 2 hopeful 34-year-old Tarick Mahmoud – a New-York-born pharmacist who was raised in Egypt – proved himself an outlier in the meeting’s sea of predominantly Christian-identifying white men, women and children. On the one hand, Mahmoud espoused many similar viewpoints as his fellow candidates. On the other hand, some ideas, such as those regarding his proposed solution for homelessness, as well as science-based ideas about vaccines, were not crowd-pleasers, setting him apart from the evening’s four fellow candidates.
Foreign names: so difficult!
A cringeworthy moment occurred early in the evening, after District 2 hopeful Mahmoud told about himself prior to hearing the panelists’ questions. But first, the moderator, a young woman who introduced herself simply as “Jessie, the master of ceremonies” asked, in a voice that seemed to jump a few octaves, if Mahmoud could say his last name one more time.
Mahmoud complied, speaking and enunciating clearly and slowly.
Jessie then asked the entire audience to say his name, together.
Mahmoud applauded his approval.
You can watch the entire embarrassing display here.
The panelists and their questions
The evening’s panelists were Jon Knight, Lani Bangay, Carlos Zapata, Katie Gorman, Woody Clendenen, and Josh Watkins.
The six panelists each repeated their one special question for each of the five candidates. The order in which the candidates were interviewed was determined by an audience member chosen to draw a name from a container. Each selected candidate was then directed to, as panelist Bangay called it, “the hot seat” to listen to and answer each panelist’s question.
This was one situation in which the last candidates selected for the hot seat had the advantage to see and hear audience reactions to previous questions, thus having an opportunity to gauge audience responses and adapt answers to elicit predictable, favorable crowd reactions.
Jon Knight was the first panelist to introduce himself. He started with a “howdy”. Knight identified himself as a patriot, business owner and constitutionalist. Knight is also Red, White and Blueprint’s producer. He owns Northern Roots Indoor Garden and Hydroponics Supply, a company that caters to customers who grow a variety of agricultural products, including cannabis. Knight’s also locally renowned for his attendance in the Jan. 6 marches in Washington, D.C., where one photo shows a grinning Knight flashing a white pride sign.
Lani Bangay is also part of the Red, White and Blueprint movement, and a frequent participant in Red, White and Blueprint episodes and podcasts.
He owns a Palo Cedro gym, Country Strong Fitness. Earlier this year he announced plans to open a public-school alternative, Country Strong Learning Center, but in the months since it appears that educational venture has yet to materialize.
Carlos Zapata, head of the Red, White and Blueprint movement, spins a number of business plates. He owns a Palo Cedro bull-related business, a Red Bluff restaurant, and had ties with the Players Club, a Florida strip club.
Most recently Zapata starred in a Shasta County trial in which he was found guilty of disturbing the peace at a Redding restaurant.
Katie Gorman, a Shasta County teacher and the only woman on the panel, is known for organizing Shasta County school walkouts. She’s married to Authur Gorman, a Redding nurse who’s openly protested state pandemic mandates, including those for healthcare workers.
Josh Watkins is a healthcare provider who starred in Red, White and Blueprint Episode 6 following his comments at an unauthorized Oct. 19 Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting. According to citinews.com, Watkins’ job as a perfusionist was in jeopardy because he has refused to be vaccinated.
Woody Clendenen’s question: Homelessness solution?
Clendenen asked one of the few questions that didn’t seem to lead the witness to the “right” answer. His question was posed with a note of compassion; without judgement or disdain for the homeless.
“We’ve all seen them, as they walk among us, the homeless. Are they a problem? And is there a county solution to their physical, mental and social needs?”
Every candidate said there are existing programs to help the homeless. Every candidate made some distinction between homeless who’ve just temporarily fallen on hard times, and more problematic transients, street people, vagrants or criminals.
Although Mahmoud’s response to Clendenen’s question proved unpopular with the American Legion/Red, White and Blueprint crowd, Mahmoud was the only candidate to offer a single original solution regarding the homeless.
Lani Bangay’s question: How to fix an inflated county budget?
Bangay said that Shasta County’s budget has doubled during the last 20 years, but in many areas things are worse now in Shasta County than they were 20 years ago.
“If you become supervisor, how do you fix this problem, and what will you do to ensure our hard-earned tax dollars will go towards making Shasta County a better place to live?”
Every candidate suggested a fiscal audit by an outside agency.
Katie Gorman’s question: What’s required from an elected official?
Gorman’s question was the shortest, and most direct: She said supervisors would be required to take an oath of office. She asked candidates what they believed was required from an elected official.
Every candidate said in various ways that an elected official’s duty was to represent the people.
Josh Watkin’s question: How to protect personal health freedoms?
Watkins, a healthcare worker, asked candidates about “personal health freedom” for residents and healthcare workers alike regarding mask and vaccine mandates.
“How important is this to you to have people have their own freedom, and to what length are you going to go this end?”
Every candidate said the government shouldn’t push public health mandates. And while many candidates expressed the belief that citizens should be free to get “jabbed” or not, Mahmoud was the lone candidate who expressly voiced support for vaccines.
Jon Knight’s question for each candidate
Knight focused on whether it was a good idea for Shasta County to keep $34 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, considering what Knight referred to as potential negative state and federal consequences via strings attached and what the government had up “its sleeves” if mandates are not followed between now and Dec. 2026.
Knight added that those counties awarded the money who hadn’t followed all the mandates could unknowingly face state and federal retributions.
When Knight asked why or why not Shasta County should keep that money, every candidate said Shasta County should not keep the money.
Carlos Zapata’s question: Does the county spend too much on salaries?
Zapata asked a multi-pronged question: Is the county too generous with its salaries? Would candidates be willing to eliminate county jobs, if necessary, to save the county more money?
Every candidate said that yes, the county pays its employees, especially managers and directors, far too much. A few candidates made the distinction between low-level county workers, many of whom don’t earn a large salary, and top-tier employees, who earn much more. But overall each candidate believed the county was too extravagant with its salaries.
Candidate in the hot seat: Chris Kelstrom
Kelstrom, whose attire included a dress shirt and Western-cut sport coat, said he was an NRA member, born and raised in Shasta County; a member of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce. Before he got much further into his statement, Jessie asked his height. Kelstrom said he was 6’9″.
Kelstrom said he didn’t think the pay of “working class” county employees was excessive, but that the salaries of many middle managers and directors’ pay was. Kelstrom said he’d rather see more funds invested in a new jail.
When it was Clendenen’s turn to ask his question about homelessness, with a grin, Clendenen briefly went off script and asked Kelstrom where he would recommend someone get a haircut; a question that resulted in laughter throughout the room, as everyone knows Woody the Cottonwood barber.
“I went today to a little barbershop in Cottonwood,” Kelstrom said with a chuckle, adding, that because of his height, “Woody makes me sit on the floor for a haircut … pretty embarrassing.”
Kelstrom concluded by saying he wasn’t beholden to anyone, that he answers only to the people. Regarding gun rights, he said he didn’t renew his CCW license when it expired, as he didn’t see the need for a permit. Four words summed up his logic behind his decision: “Shall not be infringed.”
Most of Kelstrom‘s statements were echoed by the rest of the candidates, with only slight variations.
Candidate in the hot seat: Kevin Crye
Kevin Crye, who owns a gym called The Ninja Coalition, also wore a sport coat, dress shirt and tie. Crye grew up in Shasta County. He gave the impression of a high-energy guy when he jumped in and interrupted a question that began with, “If you become supervisor …” with a quick laugh and the word, “When!” Once, when a question was posed to the group, Crye quickly answered first, out of order, a move that earned him a rebuke later by State of Jefferson leader Terry Rapoza.
Crye seemed nonplussed. He joked that he’d been in politics all of about 19 minutes.
To Zapata’s question about county salaries, Crye said Shasta County doesn’t need exorbitant salaries that lack oversight, claiming situations of “one manager for every three employees.”
Candidate in the hot seat: Colt Roberts
In his long-sleeved white shirt and red tie, Colt Roberts, whose Facebook page said he worked as a mixer/driver at Shasta Redi-mix, described himself as a conservative. Roberts, who isn’t believed to have served in the military, mentioned a few times that he was ready to fight for what needed to be done to help Shasta County.
Asked during the audience Q&A about Second Amendment rights, and permit to carry requirements, Roberts said, “I will carry my firearm wherever I want!”
Roberts’ social media posts bear witness to his embrace of weapons as an option.
Roberts was rewarded with audience applause with his response to Zapata’s question about county salaries, and whether some county employees were making too much, and whether Roberts could cut jobs if needed.
“We’re giving the most money to people who are creating the most problems for us; people in ivory towers who make demands and make people below do what they say,” Roberts said.
When Zapata asked whether the county was “too generous” with pay, Roberts replied, “Yes! For a specific example I’ll have to get back to you.”
To Knight’s question regarding possible strings attached to relief money, and what mandates the state and federal government “had up their sleeves”, Roberts’ answer delighted many in the audience.
“They can keep their damn money,” he said.
He concluded by saying he was willing to fight to ensure the security of people’s “natural God-given” rights.
Candidate in the hot seat: Tarik Mahmoud
Mahmoud, in a full dark suit, white shirt and red tie, was in agreement with his fellow candidates regarding most topics. No, the county shouldn’t accept government relief money, no don’t force mask and vaccine mandates, yes, the county is too generous with its pay, etc.
However, at least three times Mahmoud replied in ways that may have ensured a thumbs down from many potential voters who attended Thursday’s forum. In some ways, his offending answers seemed borne of naivete, combined with an inability to accurately read the crowd.
The first incident was when Mahmoud shared his unique solution to homelessness: a special registry for the homeless and average citizens. Mahmoud’s idea amounted to an “adopt a homeless person” project. In short, citizens would sign up with a county database, complete with a voluntary background check (to ensure nobody’s “a Ted Bundy”). Then, the registered citizen would take pity upon a person on the streets, for example; someone who was also registered with the county system. The Good Samaritan would contact the county and let someone know they were taking care of that homeless person’s basic needs. It would be win-win, because not only would the homeless person benefit, but the regular citizen would receive money from the county for their efforts, thus saving not just a fellow human being, but saving the county money, too.
There was stunned silence followed by a few murmurs in the crowd as Mahmoud enthusiastically forged ahead and described his idea, seemingly oblivious to the incredulous looks upon peoples’ faces.
The second time Mahmoud’s words were met with obvious disapproval was when a pair of little girls participated in the audience Q&A time, and one asked why they had to wear masks. While the other candidates’ responses related broadly to government overreach and greedy, money-grubbing schools, Mahmoud took the girl’s question literally. He launched into a clinical description of virus droplets, and how schools ask children to wear masks to keep them safe because mask help prevent the spray of droplets and subsequent infection.
The third time was also in response to another girl’s question about the mandates, to which Mahmoud excitedly told about two new drugs on the horizons by two drug companies that might put an end to having to wear masks altogether.
The final nail in Mahmoud’s campaign coffin, at least at that Cottonwood forum, was when he offered encouragement to the unvaccinated.
“If you’re not comfortable with the vaccine now, maybe you will be later,” Mahmoud said in all seriousness.
Those kinds of responses, though earnest, may have sealed Mahmoud’s fate with this crowd.
That said, earlier in the evening Mahmoud hit a home run with audience cheers when he suggested that Shasta County become a “sanctuary Second Amendment city”.
Candidate in the hot seat: Tim Garman
Happy Valley School Board President Tim Garman and District 2 candidate, husband and father of five, said he ‘s someone who thinks outside the box. As it turned out, Garman wasn’t out of the box in the least, since most of Garman’s replies mirrored his fellow candidate’s positions on nearly every issue. For example, when asked if the county should accept relief money, Garman said no.
“They can keep their money,” Garman said. “We will take care of ourselves. We don’t need government over-reach.”
What did set Garman apart is, as he pointed out, was in his position as Happy Valley School Board President, and the fact that he and his board “took action against mandates and masks for the kids.”
That statement drew loud applause.
Candidate in the hot seat: Dale Ball
Dale Ball, co-founder of Shasta Support Service, sees himself as the heir apparent to Moty’s seat, since Ball lost to Moty in the previous District 2 election by just 258 votes.
Thursday, Ball was the most casually dressed candidate, with a well-worn blue T-shirt and a baseball cap. He spoke in a relaxed, unfilterd manner that resulted in a moment that seemed to take even the most outspoken people by surprise as he described the lead medical officer for Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency as an “abortion doctor … not a real expert”.
Regarding the county’s fiscal matters, Ball, like the rest of his colleagues, said salaries are too high, and that the “worker bees” aren’t getting enough and county employees in top positions are getting too much. Asked if he would be willing to cut jobs, he laughed and said, “I can think of two off the top of my head,” a statement that caused the audience to laugh along with Ball.
About the relief money that Knight warned has strings attached, Ball said that keeping the money would just result in more bloated programs.
“The goal posts keep moving,” Ball said.
To Watkins’ question about health mandates, Ball said he would do everything humanly possible to ensure citizens’ freedoms are protected. Ball, like some other candidates, said he had no problem with those who choose to get vaccinated.
“You want the vaccine?” he asked. “Fine.”
In response to Clendenen’s question about homelessness, Ball said the homeless who commit crimes need accountably. He doesn’t buy excuses that claim the homeless have no place to go, because he said the Good News Rescue Mission always has empty beds. He said the area behind the Redding Police Department features acts of various acts of crime, such as prostitution and drug dealing.
He said he has personally picked up literally thousand of pounds of trash throughout the county over the years. He said he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves to “fight the good fight to make things better in Shasta County.”
The audience’s turn
Following the panelists’ interviews with the candidates, audience members who wished to ask questions raised their hands and then lined up for their turn. Terry Rapoza, a Shasta County State of Jefferson leader, and a supporter of the Red, White and Blueprint movement, as well as efforts to recall Moty, was in charge of this portion of the evening’s program. He clarified that this was the time for questions, not statements or speeches.
Since a video is worth more than a thousand words, you can watch the entire audience/candidate Q&A session in the YouTube video below.
There was one particularly poignant moment when a man in a black-and-white checked shirt stepped up to to the mic. He prefaced his question by saying that he’d heard a lot of the same answers to a lot of the same questions. He gave the candidates the benefit of the doubt, and said he had no doubt the candidates would make fine supervisors. He described himself as a former Marine, and one of Zapata’s recruits, someone the man said he’d “followed into war” because of Zapata’s personal convictions. That led to one of the deepest questions of the night.
“The words that you guys are using, about defying the government, you’re talking about leading us into war,” he said. “I want to know, what are your personal convictions? It’s an open-ended question, and it’s going to require probably some different answers. But what are you personally passionate about? … I’m talking about anything. What tugs at your heart? What makes you tick?”
To summarize the candidate’s replies to the former Marine’s question, Ball said he’s been fighting to make Shasta County a safer, cleaner place where people want to raise their kids. Crye said that for him, it all comes down to protecting kids. Garman agreed with Crye, and talked a bit about how, as a school board member, he protected kids from the mandates. Mahmoud said he lives a blessed life, and he wanted to give back to the community. Ball said that he’s fighting to make Shasta County a safer, clearer place where people want to stay and raise their kids, rather than move away. Kelstrom said what moves him is wondering what kind of place he’s leaving for the children and grandchildren, and that he could move away, as others have, but he chooses to stay and make Shasta County a better place.
Roberts looked directly at the former Marine as he replied.
“Personally, I don’t want war,” Roberts said. “I like sleeping in my own bed at night. It’s really comfortable. But I will give my life for the Constitution and the United States and all the principles this country was founded on. I will live and die for not only my children, but all the kids in here.”
The crowd applauded and cheered. The Marine returned to his seat.
Eventually, all the questions were asked and answered.
All in all, it seemed an evening of like-minded Shasta County residents who’d gathered to learn more from like-minded candidates running for three different supervisor seats in two different elections.
As the young Marine observed earlier, there were lots of the same answers to lots of the same questions.
Meanwhile, the biggest question of all remains: Come 2022, which Shasta County candidates will prevail?
The answer is up to us.
Alan Ernesto Phillips contributed to the photos and videos.