In Shasta county the pandemic intensified political divisions, and many officials quit or were pushed out amid bitter tensions
At some point in the last two years, Janine Carroll started avoiding certain grocery stores in her hometown of Redding, California. The retired grandmother could hear the taunts people made to those like her who chose to wear a face mask to fend off Covid-19. “You never know anymore what the atmosphere is going to be when you walk into any given place,” she said.
Masks are just one symbol of the divisions gripping Shasta county, a remote, heavily forested region in far northern California that has long considered itself an outlier in a deep Blue state.
Political tensions intensified across the US during the pandemic. But the ferocity of the conflicts in Shasta county surprised much of California.
Anger over Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates culminated in rowdy public meetings and vicious threats against officials. Both Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the recall effort against California’s Democratic governor the following year found widespread support. And in February, voters threw their weight behind a recall campaign against one of the five county supervisors, effectively giving control of the local government to a majority backed by the area’s thriving far-right movement.
Since then, the new majority has embarked on what it considers a badly needed “course correction”.
The board has fired the county health officer. The county CEO, under pressure from a conservative supervisor, has resigned. Amid the chaos and political division, the director of the health and human services agency retired.
The bitter tensions and the departures of top officials leading agencies responsible for child welfare, county management and the pandemic response have fueled concerns among some residents.
“Right now, we’re experiencing a brain drain of the best talent in the county,” said one local business owner, who asked to remain unnamed due to the “culture of political violence”. “People are literally sick to their stomach worried about what’s going to happen to their county departments.”
The conflict has been painful, Carroll said. “The pandemic was new for everybody and instead of community coming together for the good of all of us it made us all so much more divisive. They say when small communities experience a tragedy it brings them together. This was the opposite.”
Closer to Oregon than San Francisco, Shasta county and its lakes, hiking and biking trails, feel a world away from much of California.
With about 180,000 people in the county seat of Redding and smaller ranching hamlets stretching from the valley to the Cascade Range, the county is sparsely populated. Logging and mining once drew people to the area, but today most residents work in healthcare, local government and education.
The county is overwhelmingly white and has long been a conservative stronghold – Republicans make up 50% of registered voters while just 23% are Democrats. The State of Jefferson movement, which advocates for secession from the Golden State and its liberal government in Sacramento, has thrived among residents longing for lower taxes and less regulation.
California’s gun safety laws have been deeply unpopular in the region. So have its policies on natural resources and water rights, and its protections for undocumented immigrants. The county’s former assemblyman advocated for the breakup of California for years – a sign outside his office described him as a representative for the 51st state, according to the Washington Post. Trump supporters outnumbered those who backed Biden at a rate of two to one.
When the pandemic hit and California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, enacted some of the strictest Covid rules in the US, issuing a stay-at-home order, school closures and a statewide mask requirement, Shasta leaders limited their measures to those mandated by the state. The county publicly told the governor it opposed the rules, and encouraged unhappy residents to contact state representatives.
Still, some residents were outraged that the county didn’t disregard the state’s orders entirely. They focused their anger on the board of supervisors, a group of five elected officials that oversees the county, including its departments, roughly 2,000 workers and nearly $600m budget.
Unhappy residents began showing up to board meetings in large numbers. In one meeting, Carlos Zapata, a local militia member and business owner, stood in the board chambers and told the supervisors there would be grave consequences.
“You better be happy that we’re good citizens, that we’re peaceful citizens. But it’s not gonna be peaceful much longer. This isn’t a threat. I’m not a criminal,” he said. “This is a warning for what’s coming. It’s not going to be peaceful much longer… I’ve been in combat and I never wanted to go back again, but I’m telling you what I will to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen. And there’s a million people like me, and you won’t stop us. Open the county.”
Another man attempted to use “citizen’s arrest” to detain the supervisors. Yet another resident told the supervisors to flee. “You have made bullets expensive, but luckily for you, ropes are reusable”, he threatened.
Law enforcement increased patrols outside the home of Karen Ramstrom, the county health officer, and began investigating what it deemed credible threats against some of the supervisors.
“All the crazy that you can imagine, we unleashed on our community representatives,” said rideshare driver Dwight Gaylor, a lifelong Shasta resident about those months. “Some of your lifelong friends are out there chanting and you’re like ‘what is wrong with you?’ Why are we acting like this?”
The backlash culminated in a recall effort against three moderate county supervisors who organizers argued had failed to honor the will of residents.
A self-described “nonpartisan” group of parents and business owners, the recall committee had the backing of local militia members and far-right groups. It also received $400,000 from Reverge Anselmo, a Connecticut-based millionaire who is said to have a longstanding grudge against the county after paying nearly $1.4m to settle a dispute over the development of a restaurant and winery.
The group only gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote for Leonard Moty, a retired police chief and Reagan Republican who had served as a supervisor for 14 years and wasn’t afraid to say he had been vaccinated.
With about 56% of nearly 9,000 votes in favor of the recall, Moty lost his seat. Only those who lived in Moty’s district, a fifth of Shasta county voters, could cast a ballot. After the election, the two candidates who ran to replace him attended a celebration with members of an area militia group, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Patrick Jones, a conservative supervisor elected in 2020 who backed the recall, said the effort had been unfairly demonized and characterized as far right.
He himself had received threats when he was on the Redding city council, he said. “They’re meaningless and harmless because they’re threats,” he added. “I don’t see them as that serious.”
But others disagreed. “Decorum, civility, it just went out the window,” said Robert Sid, a Shasta county conservative who regularly attends board meetings. “For a year and a half I was up speaking before the board against the recall … I would get jeered and booed. People would follow me out to the foyer.”
In the wake of Moty’s recall, Donnell Ewert, the director of the agency responsible for departments managing the county’s social services, mental health treatment and Covid-19 response, retired. Political upheaval and the challenges of trying to educate the community about Covid played a role in his decision to leave the county government after more than two decades, he told media outlets.
In May, the board of supervisors fired Ramstrom, the health officer who had been responsible for the county’s Covid response and had faced threats from angry citizens throughout the pandemic, without offering any explanation for their decision.
“We were never more restrictive than the state required; we followed the state law. Period,” Ramstrom said in the days before her removal, according to A News Cafe, a local news site that has rigorously documented the upheaval in Shasta county. “I don’t want to leave my job and I don’t want to be muzzled. I object to being terminated.”
Then in June, the county CEO resigned. Matt Pontes, who led the office responsible for overseeing all county departments, had accused Jones of blackmailing him by threatening to make public a nearly three-decade-old felony conviction from when he was a teen if Pontes didn’t resign. Pontes had disclosed the conviction to the board when he was hired.
Jones denies those claims and said it was inappropriate to have someone with a felony conviction serving in the county’s highest office.
Ewert, Ramstrom and Pontes did not respond to the Guardian’s inquiries.
The departures of key staff mean Shasta county will have to find permanent replacements for three of its most senior positions in the coming months. Meanwhile, Jones and the new majority have pledged to look at the efficiency of the health and human services agency, including a possible reorganization of the department.
“I would think it would be fairly devastating just in terms of the day-to-day functioning of these very important offices,” said Lisa Pruitt, a rural law expert at the University of California, Davis. “These technocrats and the bureaucrats really do have enormous experience and technical expertise. They also have a lot of local relationships and local knowhow.”
“These right-of-the mainstream Republican cohort of supervisors seem to be cleaning house by whatever methods they have,” Pruitt added. “It’s a pity because it looks like in every instance all these folks have done is to try to follow safe health mandates.”
Places like Shasta county already struggle to recruit and retain expertise, Pruitt added, due to its remote location and lower education rate.
Janine Carroll, who has lived in the area for 30 years and previously worked for the county as an administrative assistant, said it’s difficult for county workers to attend to regular responsibilities in such a tense political environment.
“When the political issues are so much at the forefront instead of the day-to-day business, it’s distracting,” she said. “It’s going to be harder for us to hire some of these higher level professionals. It’s gonna have a devastating impact on the whole system.”
Since the departures, the retiring public works director has taken over as interim CEO while the county’s deputy health officer has temporarily taken over Ramstrom’s role. Jones, the supervisor, argued those temporary replacements allow the county to function as normal and that the majority of the work is carried out by the county’s roughly 2,000 employees. Jones thought the county would be easily able to fill the positions on a permanent basis, he said, pointing at competitive pay, benefits and affordable housing.
The pandemic and eroding trust in US institutions have fueled extremism in local politics across the US in recent years.
Donald Trump’s loss and attempt to overturn the results of the election in 2020 had an effect here as well, Shasta county residents said. Recall supporters accused Moty of being in the pocket of Dominion Voting Systems, the company Trump allies claim rigged the election in Biden’s favor.
“I think we’re just a microcosm of what’s happening. What’s made us stand out is the infusion of large amounts of money,” said Mary Rickert, another county supervisor the recall effort had set their sights on but failed to collect enough signatures to attempt to remove.
“It was just an opportunity to weaponize the pandemic, to use this as something they could rally people and have them get behind their movement. It’s been a perfect storm.”
Rickert, a conservative who has served on the county board for nearly six years, said she was alarmed by the movement from the beginning, but that citizens didn’t seem aware of how serious things were.
“We were very concerned about where this particular movement wanted to take the county,” she said. “I’ve said from the very beginning, this county will collapse if these people continue to be successful in what they have said they want to do.”
“It’s done a huge amount of damage,” she said, pointing to the loss of key county administrators and tense politics and misinformation that have polarized the community and emboldened extremists. “I don’t know if it will ever come back. There are lifted pickups with Confederate flags flying out the back, you didn’t see that before.”
For Moty, the recalled supervisor, the continued political upheaval is unsurprising.
“This is exactly what I expected,” he said. “They are trying to exert their will over the county. I think they know the State of Jefferson will never succeed. I think they are trying to create the county of Jefferson.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in the county say they can feel the tension at grocery stores and restaurants.
Several residents, some of whom asked not to be named as they sat in local coffee shops and parks on the Fourth of July weekend, told the Guardian they see a tendency toward confrontation that wasn’t there before in rude comments aimed at those who continue to wear masks and aggressive behavior toward those who spoke out against the recall at public meetings.
Even those who admit they haven’t closely followed the political upheaval say the anxiety in the area is palpable.
“You definitely feel the tension,” Gabriel Groppi, a barista in a downtown coffee shop. “After 2020, nothing has really felt the same.”
In one Redding neighborhood, Viktoria Peterson’s neighbors have asked whether they should fly the American flag, or if that might be interpreted as support for a movement that has divided a once close-knit community.
“People are afraid to put up their American flags,” she said. “They’ve stolen our flag.”
The strife has also united some residents. Carroll and Peterson have both joined Civil Shasta, a local group of Democrats, Republicans and independents who hope to bring decorum and civility back to local politics and return to a time where threats were not commonplace. Members of the group, which was opposed to the recall, write letters to the board and local newspapers and encourage those around them to vote.
Civil Shasta is intended to bring citizens together, said Roxanna Zalesny, who started the group, and push back against what she believes is a vocal minority.
“I think with everything going on it’s easy to just sit back and hope it doesn’t happen. Hope isn’t a strategy. We have to try to do something,” she said. “I don’t think people really want blood in the streets. We all just want to live in peace.”
There are some signs the area’s far-right movement may be losing ground. In the election last month, a slate of ultra-conservative candidates running for roles ranging from the district attorney to the county superintendent of schools lost outright to moderate opponents or will head to runoff elections in November.
“This last election, in spite of the amount of money that was poured into it, they did not win,” Peterson said. “If people get together, and start talking, and forming a plan of action, change can take place. You can turn the tide. I think that can happen here. I know it can.”
But the election was marked by tension, including a crowd of rowdy observers who officials say tried to intimidate county staff. The defeated candidates have now requested a recount.
Earlier this month another county department head announced she would be leaving her job.
“Really this past year, with all of the kind of chaos and things that have transpired within our community, it really has taken its toll on our community and Health and Human Services (Agency),” Paige Greene, the director of adult services, told the Redding Record Searchlight. “I’m sad, sad for our community”
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