On Feb. 1, a militia-backed anti-government group in Northern California won a recall vote that will effectively give it control over Shasta County’s local government. The official being recalled was Leonard Moty, a Republican who had once been police chief and has served as supervisor since 2008. If the early results hold, which have the recall winning with 56 percent of the vote, the sponsors will have scored a victory against the already conservative county’s insufficiently insurrectionist status quo. One of the groups in this saga, Recall Shasta, has received at least half a million dollars in funding from a disgruntled multimillionaire with a personal vendetta against Shasta County’s local government. But the most notable aspect of the effort is how self-conscious it was: Leaders of the recall effort went out of their way to bill their initiative as a model for what other far-right groups across the country can do. Their goal was not just to win, but to evangelize. Members have even been producing a docuseries about the effort aptly named The Red, White, and Blueprint. That bizarre events in an out-of-the-way place like Shasta County could constitute a template for national movement-building would at one point have seemed far-fetched. No longer—it worked. And it’s working in many other places, too, in school boards and town halls across the country. Observers think the Shasta County election might indeed become a template of sorts for what’s to come.
It’s hard to say how exactly this all started for the city of Redding and its environs. Back in October 2020, a far-right supervisor, Les Baugh, proposed that the county withdraw from California’s color-coded tier system designed to manage the pandemic. The proposal didn’t pass—one official pointed out that it was illegal, and other supervisors worried that the state might retaliate by withholding funds. To future members of the recall effort, this moment would be held up as a massive failing—a lack of courage by the board of supervisors.
Or maybe it started even further back, in 2014, when the aforementioned multimillionaire battled and settled with Shasta County because he bristled at the permits required to work on his land. He characterized local government as an assault on his liberty and has since—from his home in Connecticut—been financially supporting far-right extremist groups and the 2020 election of one of the current extremist supervisors, all leading up to the recall.
Or perhaps it began with the failed 2021 effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, which energized factions in Shasta County eager to force some governmental turnover, even if their targets were all Republicans. (Sixty-nine percent of Shasta County voted in favor of recalling Newsom.)
But one clear escalation was in January of 2021, when two of the five county supervisors, Les Baugh and Patrick Jones, opened the chambers to the public in violation of the county’s own ordinance banning in-person meetings because of the pandemic. The other three supervisors voted to censure them for this in February. In March, Baugh proposed yet again that Shasta County reject the state COVID-19 tier system. And again the proposal failed. By April, the recall effort against the other three supervisors was well underway.
This has been an intraright battle from the start. The county never had anything approaching a lockdown, and in September, when Shasta County had the highest COVID case rate in the state, the board voted 4–1 in favor of a resolution opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for government and private business, but without including a letter to Newsom. Even that wasn’t good enough: Activists and Patrick Jones, the single “no” vote, were unhappy that the board voted not to also send a letter to Newsom opposing state vaccine mandates. (The letter nearly passed, but there were arguments over whether a paragraph acknowledging the state’s authority should be included or cut.) For these and other crimes, particularly having met through Zoom rather than in person during certain periods of the pandemic and when the supervisors were receiving threats, one of Recall Shasta’s leaders tried to issue a citizen’s arrest of all five supervisors in October during a board meeting. “All of you must remain at this location until the citizen arrest process is completed with a peace officer,” Richard Gallardo told the supervisors. He was allotted his full three minutes before law enforcement escorted him out.
Now Leonard Moty, the long-serving Republican supervisor and former police chief whom Recall Shasta folks have variously and without basis branded as a socialist, pedophile, taker of bribes, and corrupt collaborator with Dominion Voting Systems, may be out of his job. If the agitators are successful in electing a far-right replacement—and both candidates leading the vote more or less fit the bill—the question then becomes, what policy outcomes do they want, if any?
It’s unclear—despite buzzwords like “medical freedom” and a proposal to eliminate the Department of Resource Management (the agency the multimillionaire holds responsible for trying to police him) and the Health and Human Services Agency. There’s petulance at work, a refusal to acknowledge the limitations of the law, and anger over children wearing masks coexists with a deep investment in conspiracies about everything from voter fraud to shadowy alliances with marijuana growers to pedophilia. This is of a piece with the way that a growing percentage of the right is more interested in saying no as loudly as possible without worrying much about whether there’s anything to say yes to. The most interesting parts of the campaign—a political movement and a PR effort rolled into one—have been its funding and a docuseries chronicling its recall drive.
First, the money. The disgruntled multimillionaire is Reverge Anselmo, a man who has dabbled in movies and vineyards. He left Shasta County in a huff after he was asked to comply with local ordinances. Since then he’s been working to transform the board of supervisors. He donated $100,000 to far-right candidate Patrick Jones, the supervisor who would go on to lead the recall effort. Thought to be the largest individual donation to a local campaign in the history of the county, Anselmo’s donation catapulted Jones to victory and prompted the county to pass a law—which had never before been necessary—limiting campaign donations.
Despite the enormous single-source investment, Jones has described his election as a grassroots phenomenon: “What’s happening in Shasta County is not unlike what we see happening in many other counties now and in other states. People are taking an interest in their local government,” he told the local paper, the Record Searchlight.
In leading the charge on recalling his colleagues, Jones has rewarded Anselmo’s investment. Recall Shasta didn’t gather enough signatures to hold recalls for two of the supervisors, Mary Rickert and Joe Chimenti, but Moty may be enough: Now that Jones has been elected, Moty’s removal and replacement would sway the composition of the board 3–2 in favor of the Recall Shasta organizers.
Anselmo made his own agenda clear in an appearance in the Red, White, and Blueprint docuseries: “Would I come back?” he says of possibly returning to Shasta County. “If you’re successful with Patrick Jones, recall three supervisors, and eliminate the whole resources management division which has no resources, yeah, if you did that, I’d go back.”
To be clear, the docuseries is startlingly silly, and it’s unclear how it’s funded (because it is billed as a media company, it does not have to disclose). It works hard to make the goings-on at the chamber seem like the epic battle for freedom the movement needs it to be. Dramatic overhead shots precede clips of people yelling at the supervisors in the chamber, all scored with suspenseful music and throbbing violins. Interlaced between those scenes is footage of men riding horses in a sort of cowboy fantasy about the American frontier and talking heads featuring disgruntled activists—schoolteachers or health care workers or business owners or militia members sympathetic to the recall or angry about masks and vaccines. The protagonist as well as co-founder of the docuseries is Carlos Zapata, a veteran, bar and restaurant owner, and member of the Cottonwood militia. After a local comedian and BLM activist named Nathan Pinkney posted satirical videos mocking the docuseries, Zapata and two friends confronted Pinkney behind the restaurant where he worked. Zapata threw a drink at him and his friend hit Pinkney in the face. Zapata and his friends were charged. The trial that followed became a recruitment ground of sorts for him; he did his best to present himself as a victim of persecution and showed up to court more than once with an escort of Proud Boys.
Zapata, who has characterized himself as Shasta County’s “savior,” has been crucial to escalating the recall effort’s rhetoric and strategies. In August, he had said at a supervisor meeting: “I went to war for this country. I’ve seen the ugliest, dirtiest part of humanity. I’ve been in combat, and I never want 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.”
That effort to create an environment of intimidation has paid off. He has verbally attacked a journalist during a meeting of the board of supervisors for being “the only person in this room wearing a mask over her coward face,” calling her one of the people who “wants to poison our children, who want to poison our society.” He has threatened to “collect intelligence” on anyone who dared to report businesses defying health orders: “We have people on the streets, we know where you live, we know who your family is, we know your dog’s name …. we are not going to make you feel very comfortable in our community.”
Zapata’s rise has largely set the tone for the movement wracking Shasta County. His Facebook posts include memes and comments like “Unless you’re actually willing to do violence, do not claim to be 2A.” He told Alex Jones, “We have been pushed to a point of violence. You don’t vote your way out of socialism. Once it takes root, the only way to eradicate it is to fight with arms, to have a violent, violent confrontation, have blood in the streets.”
This, ultimately, is how money and propaganda can foment real violence—whether out of a personal vendetta about land use permits, or anti-vaccination sentiment, or cowboy fantasies in need of an adversary.
The citizens who show up to yell at the board of supervisors claim that onerous constraints are impinging on their freedoms. It doesn’t seem to matter much that—aside from briefly shutting down one business—officials in Shasta County did not enforce social distancing or vaccine mandates with particular strictness. Per the target of the recall, Leonard Moty: “We were one of the most open counties during the height of the pandemic.”
It doesn’t matter. On Jan. 5, 2021, supervisors Jones and Baugh broke into the chamber to open it up to a protesting crowd. A threatening speech by one of the incensed speakers went locally viral: “You have made bullets expensive, but lucky for you, ropes are reusable.”
Over the past year, the recall advocates have become mini-celebrities in town and in the far-right movement, a celebrity that is burnished the further that their threatening speeches travel, adding to the propagandistic chorus. Shasta by most measures is a small community, but its members are not talking to one another as if they are neighbors; they are talking to one another as if they are on a national stage. And as much as they are given the attention they’ve sought, it should be with an awareness of their deliberate and well-funded methods.
They won, and their victories are growing. Supervisor Joe Chimenti may have survived the recall effort, but he has said he will not run again. A county public health officer had police patrolling her home because of threats she received over perceived COVID restrictions. On Monday, the head of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency announced his retirement. Rather benignly, he said, “I think some of the upheaval in the political environment just made the job less enjoyable.” One comment in response on the Recall Shasta Facebook page read: “Sounds to me like they’re running away, but the truth is out in plain sight and they will be accused for their crimes against humanity.”