Retaliation and Recall: How Today’s Political Polarization is Playing Out in North-Northeastern California

By Stephen Kulieke

American elections are not for the faint-hearted. Scorched-earth tactics have been campaign tools as long as candidates have run for office, nationally and here in California.

Lest you think the harsh and combative politics of recent presidential elections is unprecedented,  the 1876 race for the nation’s highest office is remembered as the dirtiest and most divisive ever waged.

The mudslinging between the campaigns of Republican candidate Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat candidate New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden saw the former called a vile thief and the latter a diseased drunkard. The hotly disputed election ended in a virtual dead heat and was marred by backroom deals,  stuffed ballot boxes,  and intimidation and violence against newly enfranchised black voters. Hayes was declared president in a compromise that perpetuated decades of racial segregation in the South. 

A half century later at the height of the Great Depression, the heads of Hollywood’s biggest movie studios used slickly produced, deceptive “newsreels” to derail the 1934 campaign for California governor of Upton Sinclair, the noted author, reformist, and the Democratic Party nominee who pledged to end poverty in the state. 

The famous quote attributed to President Harry Truman couldn’t be more apt: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s politics here in Northeastern California—and an area further up referred to as the “North State” —have become a blistering boiler room, with local elected officials threatened and recalled for carrying out their duties.

Like the destructive wildfires of last summer and fall, the fierce political fights have not struck Sierra County as they have our neighboring communities.  

But Sierra County officials have taken notice of the nearby escalating controversies.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist [to realize] how very tribal it’s become in this country,” Sierra County Supervisor Lee Adams told The Mountain Messenger. “I’m glad things are as calm as they are here in Sierra County.”

Schools have been a particular battleground with people strongly divided on masking and other COVID-19 policies, noted James Berardi, superintendent of the Sierra-Plumas Unified School District and the Sierra County Office of Education.  Like other school boards, the Sierra County’s board was tasked by the State of California with putting into effect and enforcing in-class mask mandates, “not a very popular opinion in the county,” noted Berardi. “A very large group of Sierra County citizens don’t want masks for their kids,” he said. 

(Note: Starting next week, the statewide schools mask mandate will cease. Here in Sierra County, schools will provide but not require masks, leaving it to the personal preference of parents and their children.)

“The bottom line is, the pandemic has been a  trying time, politically and socially,”  said Berardi.

Just last month, the current climate of anger and polarization played out in our region in unprecedented ways. The battlegrounds in February were locally elected boards that govern schools and counties.

Tahoe Truckee Unified School District

The board of the school district that educates students in the Truckee and northern Lake Tahoe area in February convened solely via online streaming after a group of 10-15 people disrupted a January meeting when opposing in-class masking and refusing to wear masks themselves at the meeting as required. 

When one school board member went out to her car after the meeting, “somebody followed her out  and she felt threatened and unsafe,” Kelli Twomey, coordinator of district communications told The Messenger. Truckee police were called.

TTUSD is comprised of 12 elementary, middle, and high schools with an enrollment of just over 4,100 students. Twomey said the sole reason for the district’s then in-effect masking policy was to prevent COVID-19 transmission among students and teaching staff. “If staff get sick from someone not following the guidelines, they can’t teach students.”

Nevada County Board of Supervisors

The current political strife in Sierra County’s neighbor to the south, Nevada County, is difficult to ignore. A recall attempt is being made against all five members of the Board of Supervisors (BOS). The effort has already sparked an altercation between recall backers and county officials. 

In late January, the county Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters Office suspended in-person services for security reasons and the safety of its employees. Three recall supporters were legally barred via a temporary restraining order from visiting the office for the entire month of February after entering the facility unmasked and demanding to know the recall status. 

Last week, the temporary order against two of the supporters was dropped when Superior Court Pro Tem Judge Angela L. Bradrick ruled that their actions while disruptive did not support a continuing Workplace Violence Restraining Order. Bradrick, however, extended the restraining order against the third supporter who had “forcefully” pushed her way into the closed office after being told she could not enter. 

Regarding the third party, the judge said “that we made our evidentiary burden for the standard in the code section,” County Counsel Kit Elliott told The Messenger.  In its ruling, the court found “by clear and convincing evidence” that the party in question “engaged in unlawful violence or made a credible threat of violence” with a “reasonable probability” that it could occur again in the future, putting a “reasonable person in fear for his or her safety.”

With controversy already swirling around it , the attempt to recall the entire Nevada County BOS presses ahead with proponents having until May 31 to submit sufficient qualifying signatures.  The petitions urging county residents to vote out the board use the same language against all members and cite an array of reasons, many focused on pandemic health and safety policies. Proponents assert that the board “promoted lockdowns, prescribed untested medical procedures, omitted use of lifesaving therapeutic medications, neglected natural immunity, increased county liability, and directly violated religious freedom and individual liberty.” They say the board “enabled crimes against humanity.”

All five board members filed official responses to the recall. District 3 Supervisor Dan Miller who is not running for reelection cited his strategies that “allowed businesses to stay open despite over-reaching shut-down orders from the state” and his efforts “to protect citizens’ health in the face of a deadly virus.” He called the recall a “desperate effort by a fringe minority.”

District 4’s Susan Hoek, chair of the board, said recall backers are making “claims that are false and misleading. The County has a duty to follow the rule of law in its implementation of public health mandates. We have done so while providing unprecedented support to local businesses, nonprofits, and cultural institutions to help them survive this pandemic.” 

Hoek called the recall “divisive, expensive and unnecessary,” noting that the seat she holds will be contested in June when voters can vote for the candidate of their choice in a regular election.

This week, Calvin Clark, a leader in the recall campaign announced that he will be a candidate in the District 4 supervisor race against Hoek. 

Shasta County Board of Supervisors

Dubbed a “recall war zone,” the North State’s Shasta County on Feb. 1 held a strikingly contentious special election that saw District 2 County Supervisor Leonard Moty turned out of office by voters by a 56 to 44 % margin. Moty was one of three incumbents on the Shasta County BOS that the “Recall Shasta” group sought to oust but the only one on the ballot when organizers failed to submit sufficient  petition signatures for the other two.

The successful vote to oust the four-term supervisor and former Redding Police Chief Moty was marked by half-million-dollars in campaign expenditures by recall proponents (in a district that has 22,000 voters) and credible threats against Moty and the other two targeted supervisors, according to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. 

A flashpoint for recall backers were COVID-19 protocols imposed by the state and Moty was harshly criticized for not resisting pandemic restrictions strongly enough, an assertion he disputed.

“We were one of the most open counties in the state during this process,” he told The Mountain Messenger. “We never passed more restrictive guidelines and only did what the state required. We didn’t cite businesses or issue fines to try and bring people into compliance.”

Although supervisory races in California are technically non-partisan, Moty is a registered Republican who describes himself as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate.” He accused recall backers of “trying to take over our community” with an “alt-right” extremist viewpoint.

The fractious nature of Shasta County politics is likely to continue. Emboldened by the Feb. 1 special election’s success, recall advocates who now hold a 3-2 majority on the BOS are seeking to reshape local government by backing like-minded candidates for various county offices—including district attorney, sheriff, and school superintendent.

A well-funded and sophisticated video and podcast initiative that accompanied the recall election also provides a prototype for other communities to follow suit. Its name? “Red, White, and Blueprint.”

By their nature, elections are adversarial. Anyone seeking election can inspire strong support and equally strong opposition.

“A third of people vote for you no matter what and a third won’t vote for you no matter what,” observed Supervisor Adams. “You’re fighting for the other third.”

In the current climate of scathing polarization, political opposition may actually worsen once a candidate is in office. In the course of carrying out their duties, elected officials find themselves today in a battleground more real than they could have imagined: some are harassed and threatened; others are targeted for recall—removal from office before their term is up.

As Part One of this article described, our neighboring counties of Shasta and Nevada in 2022 face intense political strife, exacerbated by the sharp divide over COVID-19 pandemic policy.

Although Sierra County has avoided similar rancor this year, there is history here of divisive ballot battles.

Let’s look back at several Sierra County special recall elections held over the decades:

  • In September 1980, Assessor William “Bill” Copren overcame an attempted recall by a better than 2-to-1 margin. “We had a good campaign crew on both sides of the county,” remembered Copren in a phone interview with The Mountain Messenger this week. He was in his first term as assessor at the time of the recall and went on to hold the office for some 30 years until 2006.
  • Two years later in March of 1982, two-term Second District Supervisor Earl Withycombe narrowly survived an attempted recall, according to the Sierra County Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters.
  • In July of 1993, District Attorney/Public Administrator Wesley Travis was recalled by county voters by a margin of 667-455 votes, according to election data from the Clerk-Recorder’s Office.
  • In August 2001, Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District Area 4 Trustee  Anne Eldred kept her seat after a recount in a close but ultimately unsuccessful recall election. 

Like a general election, a recall has factors that drive the debate. For Copren in 1980, it was the passage two years earlier of California’s Proposition 13 that was a key instigator. While Prop 13  ultimately limited allowable annual property tax increases across the state, benefiting long time homeowners, it required that taxes on California properties first be assessed at their 1976 value. Because many of Sierra County properties hadn’t changed in value since the 1950s, many residents saw their tax bills go up substantially after Prop 13’s enactment. Animosity from voters, and a couple members of the Board of Supervisors, was directed at then Assessor Copren despite Prop 13’s impacts “being out of my hands,” he said.

“Some of it was personal,” remarked Copren. “Sierra County is small enough that it can be personal. But there was not the overwhelming animosity between people like there is now,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s a direct result of Donald Trump.”

There’s no denying that today’s political animosity is at a fevered pitch. That was especially evident in the Feb. 1 recall of longtime Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty. “It’s very difficult and stressful for an officeholder and his family to be verbally attacked like this,” he told The Messenger, describing the highly bitter election. “I’m worried about good people running [for office] in the future, considering what they and their family have to put up with on a daily basis.” And he’s concerned too about a silenced general public, “good people who stay on the sidelines and remain quiet, afraid of retaliation.”

The Los Angeles Times spotlighted the issue in coverage earlier this year. In a January editorial (“The Vitriol in Politics is Driving Good People Out of Public Service”), the Times recounted incidents of members of the public “routinely swearing at and insulting” LA City Council members and LA County Supervisors during meetings. In some cases across the U.S., violent words have become violent threats against elected officials.

And it’s not only elected officials: From school administrators to classroom teachers, educators have found themselves at the epicenter of  intense debates over mask mandates and pandemic protocols. James Berardi, superintendent of the Sierra-Plumas Unified School District and the Sierra County Office of Education, noted that “schools have become political pawns in the overall vitriol we have in the country. We can’t agree to disagree anymore. Liberal or conservative, we still have to work together.” He fears a coming “mass exodus” of educators.  

After the “longest three years I’ve had in education,” Berardi says he wants to work with the local school board on “implementing curriculum, sports, music, and expanding opportunities for kids—rather than having [another] mask discussion.”

 And what of California’s no-fault recall law itself that allows the removal of an officeholder without any specific grounds required: Should the law be revisited, revised? That’s a question being asked by some who claim that the procedure, while a worthy example of direct democracy, has been weaponized to drive elected officials out of office without sufficient justification. 

Nineteen states (including California) plus the District of Columbia permit the recall of state officials.  Most of us remember California’s two recent gubernatorial recalls—the September 2021 failed attempt to remove Governor Gavin Newsom and the October 2003 successful removal of Governor Gray Davis, with Arnold Schwarzenegger elected as his replacement. The Newsom recall effort carried an estimated price tag to taxpayers of more than $200 million.

More than 30 states (including California) allow recalls of elected officials in local jurisdictions—and it is at this level where the great majority of efforts occur. California’s most controversial recall provision that critics say needs revision is the same at the state and local level: If the majority of voters approve the recall of an official, the second vote on who gets to replace him requires only that the successor get a plurality of votes cast. In Shasta County that meant that the candidate who replaced Moty as Supervisor won election in a crowded field of hopefuls with just 38% of the vote. In a typical California election, falling short of a majority would require a runoff between the top two vote-getters—but not in a recall.

Today, California’s recall law remains a powerful political tool being wielded across the political spectrum. In February, San Francisco voters voted overwhelmingly  to recall three board members of the Board of Education; in June, San Franciscans also will decide whether to recall their District Attorney, with a similar effort being proposed against the Los Angeles District Attorney.

The fierce political winds now sweeping California pitting citizen against citizen have yet to impact Sierra County. Perhaps we can thank our relative isolation, low population, and undeniable friendliness. 

“In Sierra County we have the advantage of knowing each other,” observed Sierra County Supervisor Adams. “We share a place. At the end of the day we’re [each other’s] neighbors and friends.”

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