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State of Jefferson: Rural California’s Struggle for Representation 

The Bay Area isn’t “Norcal.” Moving to Berkeley from my small town just two hours south of the Oregon border, I always found myself mocking the locals here for insisting they lived in Northern California. Containing around 1.7 million California residents in total, the rural counties of California have little in common with those located in the densely packed cities of San Diego, LA, or the Bay Area. My small, suburban community couldn’t have been more different from those of my friends living in San Francisco or San Jose. While they had grown up in densely populated neighborhoods vibrant with stores and restaurants, my town’s night life consisted of the Target parking lot. Even within Shasta County, one of the more populated and suburban counties in the area, demographic differences are stark. In California, median income hovers around $85,000 a year, compared with Shasta county’s average of $60,000. The citizens in these counties are also significantly less diverse than those throughout the rest of California. Around 80% of these rural communities identify as white, with 90% of households speaking only English at home. Compare this to California as a whole, where only 52% of residents identify as white and over 40% of households speak more than one language. Though both are the same state, the lifestyles and people couldn’t be more different.

Many of these rural, conservative counties feel a disconnect between their lifestyles and that which is represented in the media and state government. Since California’s inception, the locals in the northernmost communities have threatened to separate from the rest of the state. As Jeff Lalande details in his comprehensive look into the history of Northern California’s threats of state separations, less than a decade after California’s entry into the union in 1850, Northern California settlers proposed a State of Klamath, which would represent the growing population of miners and merchants settling far north of the capital. They urged the government to allow them to form this new state with the resource-rich southern territory, filled with dense forests and fisheries, that now belongs to the state of Oregon. The American Civil War, as well as the technological advances in the 1860s and 1870s forced this separation threat out of the limelight, allowing the California and Oregon governments to fully establish authority over these areas within their states. This threat remained throughout California’s history, referred to now as the “Jefferson State Movement,” after Thomas Jefferson’s urge for the Lewis and Clark expedition into the area during his presidency. Though separation has been threatened since in 1941, and briefly in the 1970s, the movement as we see it today began in 2013. California counties including Siskiyou, Tehama, Del Norte, and Modoc all put the question of separation before local governments and on ballots; in both cases, they were supported by county representatives and voters alike. 

A Fight for Representation

Within the modern State of Jefferson movement, the most pressing issue continues to be a lack of representation for their communities in California government. The residents of the rural, sprawling towns which make up most of the “Jefferson” counties often feel a great disconnect between their policy preferences and the policies being pushed by the state legislature. In the 2016 election, every county included in the Jefferson separation movement voted for Donald Trump with wide margins, and are dependably Republican when voting for representation in the House and state legislature. This contrast in political opinion only adds to the building agitation towards California’s left-leaning government and the more populated areas of the state. 

Pictured: Terry Rapoza  Source: IMDB

For Terry Rapoza, an outspoken conservative advocate for the Jefferson State Movement and local political personality, the Jefferson State Movement centers around access to fair representation for the Northern California counties his children are growing up in, and eventually, better representation for all California counties. Rapoza illustrates his discontent with the current system of representation in the California state legislature by comparing it to the state of New Hampshire. He explains in a phone interview how, despite its flaws, New Hampshire’s 1.3 million residents enjoy “400 representatives in their state legislature,” while California’s system forces 40 million people to be “represented by just 80 Assembly people.” 

The landmark supreme court case Reynolds v. Sims (1962) ruled that in state elections, electoral districts must contain approximately equal populations for all levels of state government. This ruling caused a slew of legislative rewrites for many state constitutions, including California’s. Though representation in the two levels of the U.S. Federal government is based on both land and population, Reynolds v. Sims does not allow state governments to have a similar voting system. Regardless of landmass or county lines, California is required to break apart its electoral districts based on population. This case further exacerbates the disproportionate representation that many Jefferson State advocates are protesting. Though voting based on population seems like a fair system, rural communities argue that it allows for legislation to be passed and applied to their counties without proper representation from their communities to give insight. As Rapoza mentioned on multiple occasions during his interview, the rural and urban areas of California have incredibly different belief systems and political needs. 

This issue of representation may not be one California has the ability to solve. Rapoza argues that at a minimum, there should be a guaranteed representative for every 10,000 California residents. At its current population, this would entail 4,000 representatives in the State Assembly: Rapoza believes this just isn’t realistic. For him, and many other supporters, the only way to resolve this issue of representation is to form a state with a more manageable population. This would lead to a better, more accountable representation system. Terry Rapoza continues, speculating that should the Jefferson State come to fruition, it’s likely that other counties in California would band together to form smaller states of their own. 

Finding Identity within Jefferson State

Despite the passion that many residents feel for Jefferson State, statehood is simply not a likely possibility. Critics often argue that this new state would be economically and politically unstable because of its rural population and the lack of high-income tech and service industries that dominate the Bay Area and Southern California. Rapoza does offer arguments against this, citing a 2014 piece by the Legislative Analysis Office which analyzed a policy recommendation to separate California into six different states. This Analysis deemed that the counties included in the Jefferson State plan would be viable as their own state regardless of the loss of the metropolitan areas of LA and the Bay Area. He also argues that Northern California’s forests and other natural resources will be better utilized to generate profits through domestic exports. What once was a small amount of funding that would go to all of California, would make a significant contribution to the budget of the smaller Jefferson State. 

Regardless, Californian consent isn’t all that Jefferson needs. Under Article 4: Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, any new state must also receive approval from the Federal government, as well as consent from the state from which it is separating. Throughout U.S. history, there are few examples of successful state separations under this article, and those which have occurred are typically tied to unusual circumstances, such as West Virginia’s separation during the Civil War. It’s difficult to believe that these California and Oregon counties would be able to generate enough popular support, not only within their own State governments, but also at the Federal level, for the separation movement to be successful. In past attempts of separation within California, the Federal government has repeatedly ignored any requests to create another state. 

Jefferson State has become something more than just a century long whisper of separation–it’s an identity for many rural Californians. In search for this common identity, these rural towns are filled with mechanics and barber shops that have Jefferson State seals taped to front windows, green and yellow license plate holders with “State of Jefferson” proudly printed on them, and flags hung in almost every home’s garage. These gestures, though small in practice, speak to a larger desire for change, and the hope for better representation and a better future for these rural communities. These communities have continuously felt ignored by the state legislature and by the politically dominant populations in the Bay Area and Southern California, making the label “Californian” feel constantly out of place. Instead, the area’s culture is tied to this conservative movement and a demand for its own voice to be heard by any means necessary. 

Featured Image: Bradley W. Parks / Oregon Public Broadcasting

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