Secession Pushers Once Again Taking Center Stage

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught public policy at USF, UC Berkeley and other institutions and is Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors

Secession is a word we do not bandy around lightly. The last meaningful attempt was in 1860, when within three months of President Abraham Lincoln’s election; seven states lead by South Carolina decided to leave the Union. Ultimately 11 states took that path thus helping to trigger the Civil War.

Before the outbreak of the war, southern Californians sympathetic to the Confederate cause actually approved a plan to secede from northern California, though the drive fizzled.

But a growing number of modern day variations on the idea of secession have taken root once again and some adventurous social engineers and politicians are advocating radical revisions of the American map.

Counties in Maryland and Colorado have made proposals and Texas often acts as if it has already seceded. An aspiring Attorney General candidate who happens to be the chief regulator of the states’ energy industry recently proclaimed, “our energy resources, fossil and otherwise, and our own independent electrical grid (make the state) uniquely situated to operate as a stand-alone entity.”

S.F. Chronicle columnist, Carl Nolte, suggested a few days ago with churlish humor that the Bay Area might want to consider seceding from the nation to form its own “grand duchy” complete with the peerless Willie L. Brown, Jr. the former “Ayatollah of the Assembly”, San Francisco Mayor, and celebrated political scribe, as its first Grand Duke!

Given the low esteem in which the region is viewed by many others in the nation who see the City and its liberal environs—especially Berkeley—as a historical accident needing correction, it would not be too surprising if a few enterprising souls were not already drafting a breakaway constitution.

This would certainly bring cheers to southern Californians and particularly Los Angelinos who have grown tired of being served up Silicon Valley-fomented hype about our prosperity and the regular trouncing they receive at the polls by statewide candidates from the northland.

And, as Nolte alludes, given the region’s wealth, unlike other sections of the nation, we would not be a drain on the economy and more likely would be competing with it.

Secession fever has actually caught on elsewhere in Northern California with mixed results. In last November’s elections, voters in tiny Tehama County voted by 55.74% to part from California and form the new Republic of Jefferson.

Several other northern counties including Del Norte also debated taking leave of the motherland but lacked the votes for passage. Siskiyou County, another rebel outlier, could only muster 44%. They were joined in the movement by Glenn, Medoc, Yuma and Butte Counties.

All told the seven counties contain about 467,000 residents for an area approximately the size of Vermont and Rhode Island together who are represented by one State Senator. Los Angeles County comprising a much smaller territory has 13 Senators who must represent nearly 10 million.

A much more ambitious plan to break up California into six separate states could be headed for the ballot in 2016 if enough signatures are collected by July which seems plausible. The brainchild of Menlo Park venture capitalist, Tim Draper, it is drawing fire from many quarters left and right as well as constitutional scholars who question its feasibility.

The prevailing view is that creating new states would require affirmation by three-fourths of the state legislatures as well as a two thirds majority in both houses of Congress—a daunting challenge.

The impetus for these movements is the feeling of under-representation both in Sacramento and Washington.

It is natural for such small entities to have acquired something of an inferiority complex as they watch the urban goliaths from San Diego to Stockton getting the biggest bites of the economic pie.

Still it is unclear though how a change in status would improve conditions, and might only serve to further dilute their authority while endangering the patronage they now enjoy with the State’s ruling factions.

One thing such wholesale remaking of the cartography would certainly do is throw a big wrench in the state’s redistricting scheme — a decennial exercise necessary to adjust for a growing population and geo-demographical changes. It was given over in 2011 for the first time to a nonpartisan Citizens Commission that labored mightily to cure the process of the unmistakable political taint when it was in the hands of the legislature.

The results were not perfect, but it is an improvement over the previous system. These arrangements and the hard fought efforts to create acceptable boundary lines and geographically compatible districts would be in some jeopardy if the secessionists have their way.

And this is only the beginning of the problems: These are primarily rural counties with skimpy tax bases which, presumably, would still want to have their children educated, their roads repaired, their electric and water needs met, and law breakers arrested and put in jail.

In short, these breakaway fiefdoms would need all the services and resources that contribute to more livable communities which state governments are expected to provide.

Of course the underlying schisms that are propelling secessionist movements run far deeper than the rural-urban splits which we see in California and other states. In some areas the federal vs. states’ rights issues are the principal cause for the dissension—a controversy that goes back to the beginnings of the nation.

These was brought home vividly by the controversy currently raging in Alabama where a federal judge’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriages and upheld by a majority of the nation’s highest Court has been rebuffed by the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Some are likening this to former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s attempt to block federally ordered school integration 50 years ago.

Alabama, a deeply conservative state, was home to the “Republic” of Winston, a secessionist county so violently opposed to joining the Union that it is said to have declared its independence even from Alabama in the midst of the Civil War.

We may be seeing the first salvos in a much larger battle.

As usual, California’s trend setters could lead the way.

However dissatisfaction appears to be nation-wide. In a just completed Reuters poll of 9,000 respondents a surprising 23.9% indicated they would be inclined to separate from the U.S.  More Republicans than Democrats support it; more right than left leaning independents; more lower than higher income earners. The biggest fans were from the Rocky Mountain States, the Southwest and the Deep South.

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