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The State of California’s ‘State of Jefferson’

Good morning.

Roughly 1.7 million of California’s 22.1 million registered voters signed the petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. Many of those who signed it technically live in California but symbolically live in another state entirely.

California’s rural far north, sometimes styling itself as the “State of Jefferson,” has long viewed itself as a land apart. Its dozen or so counties, mostly north and east of Sacramento, voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

In Shasta, Lassen, Modoc, Siskiyou and other State of Jefferson-friendly counties, more than one in six voters signed the petition to recall Newsom, according to the Secretary of State’s data. And, as The Sacramento Bee and The Los Angeles Times have reported, members of a Shasta County militia have for months been threatening violence over the governor’s pandemic health restrictions. (Those rules, Newsom has said, will end on June 15.)

Last week, in a nonbinding but revealing election, five counties in eastern Oregon endorsed a plan to secede from the liberal-leaning parts of their state and take a chunk of the State of Jefferson with them. The master plan: to become part of Idaho and then add all or parts of Siskiyou, Shasta, Tehama, Del Norte, Modoc and Lassen Counties on the California side of Oregon’s southern border.

“Those of us in rural Oregon are written off,” Mike McCarter, the 74-year-old retiree leading the secession drive, told our colleague Kirk Johnson.

McCarter, who bought a gun club in retirement and now helps people get their concealed-carry permits, said eastern Oregon and California’s northern border counties had more in common with conservative Idaho than with the more liberal majorities of their states. “We just want to come alongside them and bolster the conservative support,” he said.

Last week’s vote brought to seven the number of Oregon’s 36 counties that would, if they could, join the grass-roots movement to “Move Oregon’s Border For a Greater Idaho.” The group’s website describes the California annexation as a kind of Phase Two.

Could it happen?

Unlikely, although Northern California has periodically threatened to secede since the state was founded in 1850. Mountainous and woodsy (as opposed to beachy, aggie, foggy, desert-y or glitzy), the region makes up more than a fifth of the state’s land mass but only 3 percent of its population. It is also generally whiter, older and poorer than the rest of the state.

This is the California that the rest of the country doesn’t talk about — a California where hunting and fishing, not surfing, are the signature pastimes and the jobs are more likely to be in timber than in tech. The region has felt chronically neglected and dismissed by California’s lawmakers and coastal population centers.

In fact, the modern State of Jefferson concept arose in 1941 from an effort to get more state funding. One of Oregon’s rural mayors talked the California border counties into declaring that they would all form a separate state unless Salem and Sacramento stopped taking their tax money and leaving their roads in disrepair.

A tongue-in-cheek naming contest was held by a newspaper in Siskiyou County, and “Jefferson” got the most votes (after the founding father), beating out “Discontent” and “Bonanza.” A group of young men, toting rifles, proclaimed a “patriotic rebellion” in which they would “secede every Thursday until further notice.”

The movement was cut short when the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the rebels to rethink their allegiance. But the State of Jefferson still has its own flag — a gold pan with two X’s that stand apart, conveying the region’s sense of having been “double-crossed” by far-flung state capitals.

The Jefferson state of mind has lived on, particularly lately.

Oregon’s Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, would have to go along with the proposed defection to Idaho, as would Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature — not to mention California’s Legislature and the U.S. Congress. But as polarization persists in and beyond California, it’s not completely unthinkable.


Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

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