With the Nov. 8 general election just seven weeks away and two county supervisor seats up for grabs, Shasta County is at a crossroads.
Voters can choose to continue down the hard-right course charted by District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones and funded by Connecticut son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo to the tune of nearly $1 million during the past two election cycles. Or they can go their own way and reject the so-called Liberty Committee candidates.
To recap: Anselmo bankrolled the recall movement through the Shasta General Purpose Committee that ousted District 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty in February, replacing the experienced public servant with the political neophyte Tim Garman and granting Jones the 3-vote board majority he has openly sought in order to inflict his ultraconservative views upon Shasta County.
Anselmo then bankrolled a second political action committee, the Liberty Committee, for the primary and general elections.
In May, Jones, Garman and District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh voted 3-2 to fire Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Ramstrom. Her sacking was ostensibly without cause, but in reality she was dismissed because she dared to follow the state’s COVID-19 mandates, as required by law, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Other high-ranking officials, including the director of health and human services and the county CEO, have resigned rather than face the ongoing wrath of Jones, Garman and Baugh. Other county administrators and employees are following in their wake.
Baugh himself is leaving office after serving four terms. His District 5 seat is one of two seats up for election on Nov. 8. This is where Shasta County voters can issue a course correction.
District 5 voters who approve of the hard-right turn Shasta County has taken since the Jones Gang seized the reins seven months ago will find District 5 candidate Chris Kelstrom meets their approval. Kelstrom, a fervent supporter of the State of Jefferson secessionist movement, declined to be interviewed for this story but summed up his political views on a local podcast earlier this year.
“If you like Patrick Jones, you will like me,” said Kelstrom, who has vowed to fire as many county employees as it takes to cut the budget down to whatever the former grocery store manager imagines its ideal size to be. “If you don’t like Patrick Jones, sorry, you’re not going to like me.”
On the other hand, District 5 voters who don’t like the direction the Jones Gang has taken Shasta County can turn this clown car around, pronto, by choosing Kelstrom’s opponent, two-term Anderson City Councilman and Mayor Baron Browning.
When it comes to community service and local politics, Browning is as experienced and skilled as his six-foot-nine “head and shoulders above the rest” opponent is physically tall.
In a telephone interview, I asked Browning about Dr. Ramstrom’s firing. He said that if the board majority genuinely felt Ramstrom needed to be replaced, they could have just let her contract expire the end of the year.
Instead, Jones, Garman and Baugh transformed Dr. Ramstrom’s dismissal into a cruel, weeks’-long public spectacle that gained Shasta County more unwanted national media attention.
“I don’t like decisions where we target our employees,” Browning said. “There was too much talking out loud. They’ve created an atmosphere where we’re not going to get qualified candidates for three to five years. There are going to be long-lasting ramifications from this.”
It’s hard to argue with that, considering temporary in-house county replacement employees continue to do double-duty subbing for departed department heads, even as the pandemic drags on.
Browning said he’s already heard about one out-of-town candidate who turned down a county job offer after discovering the present board majority’s hostility to county administrators and employees.
“Sorry, I looked you up online and I’m not going there,” said the job candidate who declined the offer.
If Shasta County was a shoe, District 5 would be its rectangular heel, encompassing Anderson, Cottonwood, Shingletown and all points in between. Supervisor races are supposedly nonpartisan, but both Browning and Kelstrom are Republicans, as are a majority of the voters in the fifth district.
In current Republican Party terms, Browning is the establishment candidate, if only because he’s spent nearly two decades establishing his presence in the Anderson community, joining clubs, serving on boards, starting a business and successfully running for public office.
Raised in Dayville, Oregon, he attended Trinity Bible College in North Dakota before enlisting in the U.S. Marines in 1987. He learned logistics and embarkation during his four-year hitch, then landed a job with Anheuser-Busch Recycling in Portland in the early 1990s.
In the early 2000s, Browning met his wife Susie, an Anderson native, in Portland. They have one daughter, Brianna. The couple made their way to Anderson in 2005, where today, Browning, in addition to being mayor of Anderson, is the CEO of Spherion Staffing, a local temporary agency, and co-owner of Ardent Security, which provides security at concerts and other venues.
Browning joined the Anderson Rotary and Kiwanis clubs when he first arrived, and has served on numerous boards, committees and associations since then. He said that growing up, his family always “encouraged community service.”
Currently he’s chairman of the Airport Land Use Commission and Friends of the Redding Rodeo. He’s the past chairman of Shasta County Continuum of Care and current board member of both the Salvation Army and Anderson Community Economic Development.
The long list of public chairs and memberships places Browning solidly in the local political establishment, but the place where he’s shined the most has been on the Anderson City Council.
In the months before Browning took his seat on the Anderson City Council in 2014, more than a dozen butane honey oil labs had exploded and started fires across Shasta County, including several in Anderson. Instead of waiting for the next BHO lab to explode, Browning decided to do something about it.
“I researched how butane honey oil was made, with highly refined butane,” Browning told me. It turned out the labs were using 10 percent to 15 percent refined butane, which has fewer contaminants and is used mainly to refill butane lighters. Hundreds of butane cannisters were used in the process; dumping of the cannisters became an environmental hazard in itself.
Browning and the Anderson City Council took the obvious route and passed an ordinance limiting the number of butane cannisters that could be sold to an individual within a 30-day period. It worked on the local smoke shop level, but much of the refined butane was being purchased online from Amazon and other e-commerce vendors and shipped to customers by the U.S. Post Office, FedEx and UPS.
It was a valiant first effort locally for a statewide problem. Then-First District Assemblyman Brian Dahle and Elk Grove Assemblyman Jim Cooper, inspired in part by Browning and the city of Anderson’s ordinance, carried a similar bill to the floor of the Assembly, AB 1120 in 2017. It passed but was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
“I’m looking for an effective leader at the county level,” said Trish Clarke, who held the District 5 seat for four terms until she retired and Baugh took office in 2007. Clarke has remained a keen observer of the local political scene.
“Baron has proven leadership,” she said. “On that BHO lab issue, he didn’t wait around; he was the one who went out and sought the information. He saw an issue and he brought that forward.”
Browning helped establish the Anderson Community Economic Development agency four years ago and remains a board member. Among other efforts promoting Anderson to out-of-town businesses, ACED runs a website that helped bring US-Offsites, which manufactures constructed housing for multi-unit developers, to Anderson.
“There are two subdivisions being built above WalMart,” Browning also noted. Business is relatively booming in Anderson, and since he’s the mayor he’s entitled to take some of the credit. In one recent victory worth a fat sales tax haul, NorCal Tractor and Trailer was invited to move from Redding to Anderson and accepted.
Asked what three things he’d like to accomplish during his first year should he get elected District 5 supervisor, Browning first said he’d seek to grow the number of building inspectors in Resource Management from one inspector to two or three, depending on available funding. One new inspector would be dedicated to working with law enforcement to evict squatters and eradicate illicit marijuana grows.
Browning has been endorsed by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Association and the Shasta County District Attorney’s Association. He’s also been endorsed by Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson, who Browning formerly worked with when Johnson was Anderson police chief.
Browning is an enthusiastic booster of Sheriff Johnson’s “wagon wheel of justice” concept which consists of a new jail as the wheel’s hub with separate facilities providing mental health treatment, drug and alcohol recovery and vocational programs jutting out from the hub like spokes. The estimated cost for the tentative project is $200 million, not counting future operating costs.
At a debate between the two District 5 candidates sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Redding Area last Tuesday night, Browning once again supported the project and urged starting it as soon as possible. “The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost,” he said, hinting at the current rate of price inflation.
At the recent debate, Kelstrom supported the less ambitious 256-bed stand-alone jail facility that’s been proposed as an affordable alternative to the wagon wheel of justice concept. He apparently forgot to utter his signature punchline, “I want to put the punishment back in crime and punishment.”
At a previous debate during the primaries, Kelstrom suggested Shasta County could solve jail overcrowding by emulating disgraced former Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and sheltering the excess prisoners in tents. Browning thoughtfully pointed out that Arpaio’s methods have cost Arizona millions of dollars in lawsuits.
Born and raised in Anderson, Kelstrom was managing a grocery store by the time he was out of high school. He did that for a number of years before transitioning to corporate sales. He’s the director of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce, a former Teamsters shop steward and an exuberant pitchman for the State of Jefferson movement.
The State of Jefferson affiliation puts Kelstrom squarely in the anti-establishment camp. Most local establishment Republicans don’t openly favor cleaving off the rural counties of northern California and southern Oregon and forming a white Christian ethnostate.
In the runup to the primary election in June, Kelstrom received support from the Anselmo-funded Liberty Committee, which included Kelstrom in its slate of right-wing anti-establishment candidates promulgated locally in fliers, mailers and internet, radio and television ads.
Anselmo, perhaps sensing the more connected and experienced Browning is bound to win Baugh’s seat, also gave the Anderson mayor a $4900 maximum donation earlier this year. Browning declined to return the unsolicited donation, and like Kelstrom denies any affiliation with Anselmo or the Liberty Committee.
In Browning’s case that appears to be true. But Kelstrom has clearly imbibed in the Liberty Committee’s election-denying Kool-Aid.
What’s it take to become a member in the Liberty Committee’s anti-social club, besides all your disposable time and income? Three things:
Right now, denying that former President Donald Trump is in fact the FPOTUS will get you in the door.
Claiming COVID-19 is just the flu even though you’ve had it twice (like Baugh, Garman and Kelstrom) and have no idea what the long-term health effects will be also qualifies for admission.
Finally, it helps enormously if you’re thoroughly convinced that you alone have the answers because you do your own research.
As I was working on this story this week, a rumor began circulating that Reverge Anselmo had donated another $200,000 to the Liberty Committee as the 2022 midterm election heads down the stretch. So far, no donation has shown up on the Shasta County Registrar of Voters database.
But should that donation roll in, the Connecticut-based Anselmo will have given way more than $1 million to local wingnut extremists during the past three years.
An ultraconservative libertarian with a hypertrophied sense of individual freedom, Anselmo has funded a posse of disinformed anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-government malcontents who managed to change the course of Shasta County politics by recalling former District 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty last February.
Yet Shasta County voters totally rejected the Liberty Committee’s slate of candidates in the June primary.
Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett, Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen and Schools Superintendent Judy Flores all easily defeated the Liberty Committee’s inexperienced anti-establishment candidates.
What are Kelstrom’s accomplisments?
I asked Browning if it would make a difference if Anselmo dropped another $200,000 on local election advertising. Would Browning, for example, feel compelled to agree with constituents who insist Trump won the election in order to get the Liberty Committee vote?
“I don’t see any difference,” Browning said, referring to the nearly $1 million Anselmo has poured into county elections. “I make myself available to all the people of District 5. I have no problem speaking my voice. The  election is over, I’ve already told them that.”
“I’m very hopeful that people are paying attention,” Clarke said. “Baron has a proven track record. He accomplishes what he sets out to do. He’s a very productive and effective leader; he’s very involved in his community. I hope people vote their minds and their conscience.”
As for Kelstrom, Clarke, who has spent the past 32 years on the local political scene, wonders why she hasn’t bumped into him until recently.
“I was everywhere, and I never ran into him until he started running for something,” she said. She’s pretty sure her son may have worked for Kelstrom at a grocery store he managed, but other than that, nothing.
“I don’t have anything against Chris Kelstrom,” she said. “He’s had a lot of jobs. But what has he accomplished?”
It’s a good question, and one I surely would have asked Chris Kelstrom, had he replied to my inquiries.