REDDING, Calif. - The far right is rising in the ranchland of Northern California, using special elections and veiled intimidation to spread political influence across a historically conservative region of this deeply liberal state.
The movement is rooted here in Shasta County and includes the support of a roughly decade-old militia. The gains it has achieved have come at the expense of moderate Republicans, who for generations fit the small-government, light-regulation ethic that guided political life here.
The combination of California’s pandemic-prompted mask regulations and President Donald Trump’s re-election loss have fused together a conservative group of angry mothers, militia leaders and disaffected Republicans adrift in a blue state. Trumpists are voting out Trumpists. Veteran Republican politicians are seeing their terms cut short.
Last month, the movement successfully recalled a Republican member of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, a Redding native and former police chief. Supervisor Leonard Moty’s ousting means that the five-member board now has a far-right majority. Two open supervisor seats are up for election later this year.
What the movement will do with its increasing power remains unclear. But, just as it has across the country, its leaders have pushed against public health mandates and brought a sharp edge to once-civil local politics. Members, backed by the militia, have paid particular attention to Black activism, gun rights and rules preventing businesses from operating as they have wished. Homeless programs are also on the block.
The architect is Carlos Zapata, a retired Marine, militia member and restaurateur who raises bucking bulls on his ranch just outside this city, a hub of what locals refer to as “the north state.” Zapata filmed and podcast much of the recall campaign. He called his project “Red White and Blueprint,” a pointed invitation to neighboring conservative counties and others across the west to follow suit.
“This is a weird pie we’ve baked and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the flavor is,” Zapata said during a recent interview in his light-filled living room on his ranch about 10 miles east of this city. “But we’re going to keep documenting this and look to help others because all government for us right now is local.”
The effort is already spreading.
In Nevada County, southeast of here, an angry electorate has accused its Board of Supervisors of “crimes against humanity” for imposing mask mandates and using coronavirus-infection tracing. A petition drive is underway to recall the entire five-member board.
At the state level, a self-acknowledged member of the Proud Boys, some of whose members subscribe to a white nationalist philosophy, is running for an assembly seat. The candidate, Jeffrey Erik Perrine, was expelled from the Sacramento County Republican Party.
Here in Shasta County the movement that successfully secured the board majority is backing two supervisor candidates later this year and others for sheriff, school superintendent and district attorney.
The group also plans to contest the office of registrar of voters, a normally unchallenged clerical position that because of Trump’s false election-fraud claims has taken on new importance.
“But there is no real policy plan and that’s really what terrifies me,” said Supervisor Mary Rickert, who was an original target of the recall until organizers failed to collect enough signatures to get her name on the ballot.
Rickert, 69, has lived in the county for nearly half a century. She and her husband are successful beef ranchers, devout Catholics, and, in her words, “the most boring people in Shasta County.” She has six grandchildren. She voted for Trump.
She was first elected to the board in 2016. But in the past year, Rickert has received graphic death threats, including an image of her face smashed in with a rock, for her role on the board and her support of mask mandates. She is not sure whether she will run again in two years.
“People are not paying attention,” she said. “I don’t think they understand the consequences of what is happening.”
Rickert is not the only one uncomfortable with the county’s direction. Within days of the recall, Donnell Ewert, head of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, resigned after nine years on the job. He cited the political tumult as one reason.
“What is going to happen to all the programs we have put in place when this takeover happens?” Rickert said, referring to housing for the homeless, mental health and fire-protection policies the board approved before the shift. “And now who in their right mind would get involved in politics here as a moderate Republican?”
A changing divide
Once split between north and south, California is divided now more along an east-west line that takes in large parts of the restive north.
The coastal cities are among the most liberal places in the nation. Sacramento, the capital, is controlled by Democrats, who hold veto-proof majorities in both State House chambers. Last year, nearly 70 percent of Shasta County voters supported Gavin Newsom’s recall, which the Democratic governor defeated easily statewide.
This region has a history of angry, anti-establishment politics with roots that long precede the rise of Trump. It has viewed the cosmopolitan coasts with suspicion, minority populations as possible threats, and Sacramento as an obstacle to the frontier-freedom they believe once defined the state. Nearly 9 in 10 Shasta residents are White.
The county helps form a crescent of rural communities, including some in southern Oregon, that have pushed at various times for independence. The goal over decades has been to form “the state of Jefferson,” and even today, some churches here conclude end-of-service prayers with the invocation, “Lord, please grant us our 51st state.”
This region of dry rolling plains is carved by the Sacramento River, the area’s lifeblood, and ringed by a tonsure of snow-tipped peaks. A frontier ethic prevails among many here, and that explains in part why the region is out of sync with the state’s prevailing strictness on gun control.
More than 12,000 residents of Shasta County, population 182,000, have conceal-carry permits. Local officials say that is among the highest proportions of any county in the state.
“You have here this truly rebellious group of people, who can’t stand the government, until of course they need the government for anything,” Ron Hughes, a justice-system employee who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said on a smoke break recently.
“It’s so frustrating to see this divide over issues that don’t seem to matter to many of us,” said Hughes, a 57-year-old Redding native. “And now so many relatively radical conservatives are gearing up for some weird political war that we’re not interested in.”
Freedom to do what you want
Moty is 68 years old and, for most of his life, he has held public office here in Shasta County.
His hair is light gray and neatly groomed, his crisp polo shirt bears a small crest of the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater. Everyone at Corbett’s, a downtown diner, knows his name. Many whispered condolences one recent post-recall morning.
The most striking aspect of his appearance, though, might be the sky-blue rubber bracelet he wears around one wrist: “Covid-19 Vaccinated.” The message is both a statement of pride and the reason, in large part, he lost his office.
About half of eligible Shasta County residents chose to get vaccinated, 30 percentage points below the state average. The county never truly enforced the state-mandated business lockdowns and, Moty said, never cited a single business for staying open against the rules.
Yet the conservatives here felt government oppression, an infringement of personal liberty that first a few, then many more, organized to roll back. Newsom lifted the statewide mask mandate earlier this month, but that has done little to slow the conservative push.
“I think you see it all over the nation - that Trump changed people’s behavior. He made it okay to say things and do things no one ever did,” said Moty, a self-described Reagan Republican, which he defined as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate.”
“This is a movement now that wants to be in charge of everything and to make sure there is no one to tell them what they have to do,” he continued.
Moty served for more than three decades in the Redding Police Department, including six years as its chief. This is a region with higher-than-average drug-overdose and suicide rates, where homelessness is prevalent, and where wildfire in recent years has become a threat as tangible as Mount Shasta rising in the near distance.
In 2008, Moty ran for a Board of Supervisors seat and won. He was serving his fourth term, although the recall cut it two years short. The board position is technically nonpartisan, but all members are Republicans.
Initially, Rickert and Supervisor Joe Chimenti were also targets of the recall petition drive. But not enough signed on to recall those two, and “Recall Shasta,” as the group is known, focused all its attention on Moty. Neither Chimenti nor Supervisor Les Baugh will run for re-election in November.
The recall got outside help - a lot of it. A former Shasta County resident, Reverge Anselmo, gave more than $400,000 to the recall effort. Anselmo used to own an eponymous winery and popular restaurant here. He wanted to build a chapel so he could host wedding ceremonies and receptions, but the county said he did so without proper permits.
“Shasta County is just not a place people like being told what to do,” said Doni Chamberlain, 65, who is editor-in-chief of a fiery online news site called A News Cafe. “When you take all these groups together, at the center of the Venn diagram is freedom, a freedom to do whatever they want.”
Anselmo’s project fell apart - the chapel had been at least partially built already - and the millionaire sold off the property and returned to Connecticut. The grudge, however, remained firmly in place for years. The amount he gave to the recall is roughly 10 times what a Shasta County supervisors race usually costs to win.
Anselmo is hard to pin down. A man answering a cellphone that previously rang through to his voice mail told a Washington Post reporter “f--- you” when asked why he is sending money to Shasta County. He hung up and did not answer a second call.
Some of Moty’s critics say they voted to recall him in part because a grand jury found that he improperly received law-enforcement escorts into his neighborhood during the 2018 Carr fire. The grand jury concluded that Moty did not break the law.
But conservatives acknowledge that the reason for the recall was that Moty, like several of his board colleagues, did not do enough to oppose Newsom’s lockdowns and mask mandates. The board’s shift to virtual meetings during coronavirus surges also infuriated conservatives, who felt locked out of their government even though the meetings were streamed virtually.
The board did write several letters to Newsom expressing concern that the blanket restrictions would not work in some rural counties, such as Shasta, which are more lightly populated and reliant on small businesses. But the conservatives here wanted defiance, a board statement that the mandates in this region were null and void.
“That’s what’s such a farce about all of this - you can’t tell the state what you are going to do,” Moty said. “This is no longer the place I grew up and that is not for the better. I grew up in a place where you could disagree civilly.”
He will be replaced by Tim Garman, a proudly unvaccinated member of the nearby Happy Valley Union School Board.
The Marine and the militia
A week after the recall, Zapata appeared before the Board of Supervisors on his best behavior. Moty’s chair sat empty.
“We beat an adversary, not an enemy,” Zapata told the board, reading from a script he said was designed to “make sure I get this right.”
“Yelling at supervisors and gloating in victory may feel good for a minute and I am certainly not without fault,” he said. “But we can do better. Let us be gracious in victory.”
The short remarks, designed to set a modest tone for an audience in star-spangled cowboy hats, “Let’s go Brandon” T-shirts and MAGA caps, marked a sharp departure from his first comments before the board.
Those comments were made during the open forum for public remarks. They amounted to a defiant warning at a time when the state and local supervisors were considering new public health regulations as the pandemic lingered, a note to supervisors that they had been put on a watch list for recall.
“Right now we’re being peaceful,” Zapata told the board in August 2020, his first appearance in the chambers. “But it’s not going to be peaceful much longer.”
The comments made him the face of the movement, even though “Recall Shasta” emphasizes that the grass-roots work was done primarily by “moms and grandmoms.”
Among his first moves that first pandemic year was to gather local business leaders and agree to defy the state’s restrictions and mask mandates. His business, the Palomino Room, a 75-year-old bar and restaurant south of here in Red Bluff, would set the example.
“We became a magnet for people, a kind of cry for freedom,” Zapata said. “The word ‘patriot’ gets thrown around a lot but it was kind of a patriotic duty, keeping someplace open where people could be normal.”
Zapata was born in Los Angeles, a Peruvian American who moved to Shasta County more than 25 years ago. He attended college here, then joined the Marines, where he said he served six years of active duty stateside and overseas, including in Iraq.
He lives along a lovely stretch of rolling ranchland. The drive along Silver Bridge Road to his place is lined with churches, homes with American flags flapping from front-yard poles, some also flying “Trump Back in 2024″ banners.
In his home of white brick and blond wood, Zapata acts the self-effacing rogue, the guy who has the courage to say what everyone, in his view, is thinking.
His documentary-style Red White and Blueprint project, which he calls “the media arm of the recall movement,” is simply a lesson plan, as he explains it, to other conservatives fighting for notice in a blue state. There is marketing merchandise for sale, too.
The charm masks an edge.
Last August, as an increasing number of Shasta residents were reporting businesses breaking state pandemic rules, Zapata appeared next to Woody Clendenen, who heads the local militia and who referred to those notifying authorities as “ratting” out their neighbors.
“Go move off down to San Francisco,” Clendenen said. “Or somewhere where your kind live because I don’t want you here.”
Zapata spoke next, warning those watching that “we also are collecting intelligence, we also have people on the streets.”
“We know where you live, we know who your family is, we know your dog’s name,” Zapata said. “So if you think for one second we are going to let you spy on us without us doing our due diligence and spying on you, you’re absolutely wrong.”
The remarks, coming amid the recall effort, were chilling.
Zapata said they were a pointed response, in part, to the fact that his own personal information had been put online by opponents. A few months later, voter turnout for Moty’s recall was about 40 percent - nearly half the turnout rate for the Newsom recall - and local officials here say some voters probably stayed away out of fear.
“Scared of what? I’m scared of losing my rights,” he said. “I’m scared of losing my means of making a living, of taking care of my family.”
Zapata acknowledges his sins - “I love to fight, ever since I was a boy,” he said - and admitted that there are “too many skeletons” in his closet to ever run for office.
In conversation, he also casts his own politics in a not-what-you’d-think sort of way. He sends his children to a nearby Christian school but said he is “anti-church.” He said he supports gay rights and is interested in an on-again-off-again single-payer health insurance plan in California.
When the talk shifts to race, though, the message changes.
“What has Black Lives Matter actually done for the Black community?” Zapata said. “I want to know what progress are they actually making?”
A week or so after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, a relatively small Black Lives Matter demonstration took place here, setting much of the almost entirely White community on edge. The event unfolded peacefully and, among the Shasta County deputies and city police, scores of armed members of the 1st California State Militia Regiment watched.
“That was the militia’s coming out party,” said Chamberlain, the journalist. “I had no idea how many there were.”
Nathan Pinkney, a local chef, is one of the few Black residents in the county. He said, laughing, “I know all the others.”
He is also one of the county’s few Democrats, and amid the rise of the recall movement, he decided to begin producing satirical videos that he hoped would expose what he called the racist underpinnings of the movement.
“The BLM protests really set these people off,” said Pinkney, 33, who has spent most of his life in Shasta County and rides around Redding on a scooter. “They just went into this tantrum.”
In response to some of the local activism, Pinkney created Buford White, a redneck caricature who starred on his YouTube channel.
He said that, while their politics diverge, he had always gotten along with Zapata. But when he called to ask Zapata what he thought of his Buford White character, Zapata told him they would discuss “how funny it is” the next time they met.
That next time ended in a fight outside the Blade and Barrel restaurant where Pinkney then worked.
“I was just tired of hearing about all this ‘God-fearing Republican’ stuff and what patriots they all were. Now I hear the word ‘patriot’ and laugh,” Pinkney said. “All of this because they wouldn’t wear a little square of cloth over their faces to prevent killing old people.”
What comes next
Clendenen, who heads the local militia, has a barber shop on Main Street in Cottonwood. It is a collection point for the committed conservative and the simply curious.
The conservative paraphernalia is everywhere, cluttering his shop.
On this day, Clendenen, too, has trimmed back the decor following the recall just as Zapata had toned down his speech to the board. His Confederate flag, for one, remains furled in a corner. It commonly holds a pride of place in the shop - a conversation starter, Clendenen says, about states’ rights.
But he keeps his half-humorous price list in a prominent place. While a buzz cut will regularly cost you $10, if you are a liberal, he charges 10 times that. Any customer who has been vaccinated is charged a $5 penalty fee.
Clendenen, who is 55, said militia members played little role in the recall except as voters. Frequent acts of resistance to state rules, though, helped keep the movement energized. On one occasion, the militia helped stage the Cottonwood Rodeo two months into the state-ordered restrictions, drawing 4,000 maskless cowboys and fans to the town in direct defiance of state public health orders at the time.
But the place to find the outlines of the movement’s future is in Jones’ Fort, a guns and ammunition shop run by Shasta County Supervisor Patrick Henry Jones, elected in 2020 with a $100,000 financial boost from Anselmo.
One campaign ad featured Jones in a shin-length duster, wearing a cowboy hat and gripping a rifle in one hand, with the words “The 2nd Amendment Matters” written above a rippling American flag.
In one of his first acts as supervisor, Jones unlocked the board chambers doors, which his colleagues had closed for covid-19 quarantine reasons, to allow in residents who had been clamoring to get in for months. It was the day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“They were not listening to the people who hired them,” said Jones, who served for nearly a decade on the Redding City Council. “And they didn’t realize how destructive this would be to Shasta County.”
The large shop is busy early on a weekday.
“This is Shasta County,” Jones, who carries a 9mm pistol, said with a laugh. “We’re always busy.”
A large portion of the front counter has been turned into a display for political pamphlets, bumper stickers and posters, featuring the next batch of candidates backed by the evolving recall movement.
There is a waiting area in the shop, too, a nook where a pair of comfortable chairs sit under a buffalo head.
On the coffee table, along with a few gun-related magazines, is a book by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch titled, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” Jones is not particularly impressed by the conservative justice, whom he believes has softened his once staunchly conservative values, like many of his neighbors.
“What you are seeing right now is a course correction,” Jones said. “This is a conservative county and the local government hasn’t reflected that for years.”
“They had their chance,” he continued. “And now it’s mine. If they don’t like it, fire me.”