Nestled inland among national forests, Shasta County could be seen as a GOP haven in California, far from the liberal coastal centers that dominate state politics. But it was here, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1, that rebels stood up against their local party leaders and then recalled an elected official to install one of their own.
It was a ballot-box success for ultra-conservatives – one that could be repeated in local elections this year as well as primaries and the midterms as Republicans decide whether to skew right with former President Donald Trump or hew to a more traditional course.
“I think it’s the Republican Party falling apart,” said Leonard Moty, the loser in this month’s Shasta County recall election for his supervisor seat, according to preliminary results. He says his loss is a win for extremists and warns other Republicans that the rage of the far right is driving them to take on local governments. “Don’t think it’s just going to go away. Don’t think this can’t happen to you,” he said.
But for those who orchestrated the ouster of the longtime public official, former law enforcement officer, fiscal conservative and supporter of the Second Amendment, it was a just outcome for a man who no longer represented their views, using the recall procedure permitted under California law. Moty’s pending replacement, along with the 2020 election of another candidate backed by self-described “strict Constitutionalists,” has tipped the balance in the 5-member board.
Shasta County’s political realignment began with anger that the all-GOP board would not defy closures and mandates authorized by Gov. Gavin Newsom in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Mandates brought me here,” a mother of two who opposes vaccines for her children, told a recent board meeting. “I know that change starts local so that’s why all of us are here.”
“Just to throw this out there, I am not a terrorist,” added the woman, dressed in an American flag cowboy hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with the anti-Biden insult, “Let’s go, Brandon.” She told CNN later her name was Venus, though she goes by “Freedom” in these public meetings.
Venus, who declined to give her last name to CNN for fear of online hatred, pinpointed Newsom’s order shutting down schools and businesses in March 2020 as the slap in the face she needed to pay attention to the local county board. Venus was angry about the impact on her job and then on her children. As California reopened, children returned to schools wearing masks and state workers were ordered to get vaccines. Venus said she believed the vaccines would give her children seizures, despite evidence that Covid vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective.
Venus, who counts Joe Rogan’s podcast as a key source of her news, expected her county board to share her views and defy state orders.
“Even though they carry the name of Republican or conservative, that doesn’t always mean that they hold the same conservative values,” said Venus of the supervisors. “We don’t feel like we’re being listened to. Being passive gets you nowhere.”
For Moty, the change in the tone of the public meetings came quickly.
“People started becoming much more vocal, much more aggressive, much more defiant,” he said.
The public comment portion of the meetings began to be filled not just with rage, but with threats.
Among the most vocal of the critics was Carlos Zapata, whose remarks at an August 2020 board meeting went viral on right-wing social media outlets.
“This is a warning for what’s coming. It’s not gonna be peaceful much longer,” Zapata told the board, saying Covid health restrictions needed to be dropped immediately. “I’m telling you what I will do to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen and there are a million people like me, and you won’t stop us.”
His fiery speech rankled some on the county board and got him a guest spot on right-wing platforms like the disinformation outlet InfoWars.
Zapata says he’s part of the so-called California State Militia, a loosely organized group of armed para-military members. He adds he is not a violent person, but he was convicted of disturbing the peace by fighting in an encounter with an anti-recall supporter.
Zapata, Venus and other speakers wanted the county to return state and federal money, so it would have freedom to defy the health orders.
Moty told CNN the demand was a nonstarter, and claimed the vast majority of the county’s budget was dependent on state and federal funds.
Then, Moty and two other board members became the subject of a recall effort, permitted under California law when voters are unhappy with any elected official. Enough signatures were only obtained to make Moty fight for his place.
“Leonard’s kind of a Mitt Romney type of Republican,” said Woody Clendenen, owner of the Cottonwood Barber shop. “He calls himself Reagan Republican, but he’s full of it. He’s more of a RINO,” he adds, using the derogatory term for “Republican in name only.”
Clendenen’s shop sits as a visual expression of the ultra-conservative rage in Shasta County.
Two rifles were leaned up against the counter next to a small stack of ammunition when CNN visited. “Not a Liberal” bumper stickers, a “Let’s go Brandon” flag and other alt-right imagery were displayed around the small shop. Customers have their hair cut swathed in an American flag cape and a price list offering haircuts for $20, rising to $100 for Liberals with a $5 surcharge for the vaccinated, is on the wall, a joke gift from a client, Clendenen said. There’s also a red “Make America Great Again” hat, and two Confederate flags in a corner, which Clendenen says he flies “Whenever I feel like it.”
Some of the shop’s customers appear to share the views of the owner, with one man arriving for a cut wearing a T-shirt declaring, “We the People are Pissed.”
Clendenen, who says he is also in a militia with his friend Zapata, described the energy in the county that led to the recall.
“I think we’ve had an ‘oh sh*t’ moment in this country. People are like holy crap, we better get ahold of things here,” he said while cutting hair with a gun at his hip. “You got to start locally because that’s what you have control of. And then you just hope it spreads.”
Local passion or not, the biggest difference may have come from outside the county and a wealthy donor in Connecticut, Reverge Anselmo. A generous donor to Republican politicians and Super PACs according to the Federal Elections Commission, Anselmo donated $450,000 to the “Recall Shasta” effort, county records show, far and away the largest donation to the group.
CNN reached out to Anselmo for comment but did not hear back.
Moty, who says he barely spent $30,000 in his last campaign, suddenly was awash in a firehose of attack ads on local television and in mailers.
“It’s very disheartening to me to have a group be able to spend that much money to personally assault my reputation, that I worked for 44 years to build in my hometown,” Moty said.
Moty may have lost support from the county’s voters but he has sympathy from Doni Chamberlain, a self-proclaimed Democrat, who publishes “A News Café” website that has covered every twist and turn of the Moty recall.
“They forced the ouster of a supervisor who had truly done nothing wrong,” Chamberlain told CNN. In online stories, she has painted some of her neighbors as “A blood-thirsty recall mob” who “murdered an innocent man’s career.”
“I call it Shas-Taliban,” said Chamberlain of those behind the recall. “It’s a bunch of groups: It’s the anti-vax people, the anti-mask people, anti-science people.”
And now they’ve succeeded, she added: “I’m fearful about the kinds of people who will come in and how they will vote and what will happen to Shasta County.”
Zapata, the original viral video star of the Shasta County board meetings, is also looking to the future. He is now the face of a video campaign called Red, White & Blueprint. Seven of a promised 10 episodes have been published for a series Zapata says is a “template” for other conservative communities that want to remove local officials who don’t represent what he calls “constitutionalists and conservatives.”
Securing control of government bodies is the first step to regaining what freedoms Zapata says he is entitled to and which were restricted under pandemic mandates.
But the militia member says political action is not the only option.
“The most important right that’s given us by the Constitution is the Second Amendment because we have a right to defend ourselves, and that’s the bottom line,” said Zapata. “When a government becomes too intrusive to the point that we can’t make a living, what do you leave us? My voice only goes so far. At some point, we might have to fight. Do I want that? Absolutely not. That’s why we’re using political mechanisms, peaceful mechanisms so that we don’t have to get there.”
To those like Moty, that sounds like a threat.
“I think they’re going to try to make this community over into their image and make it a very extremist, alt-right community,” Moty told CNN.
“I had this group rise up against me and spread enough lies and enough reputation assassination to try to destroy me. And they were successful.”