Michael R. Blood, by Jae Hong and Amy Taksin
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. (AP) — November’s election saw Californians continue to embrace progressive leadership, but voters in one of the state’s most populous counties are so frustrated with the political direction that they voted to split. Voted to consider becoming an independent state.
An advisory ballot measure approved in San Bernardino County – home to 2.2 million people – directs local officials to study the possibility of separation. The razor-thin margin of victory is the latest sign of political unrest and economic woes in California.
This effort to create a new state — which would be the first since Hawaii in 1959 — is a long-shot proposal for a county east of Los Angeles that is suffering from a sharp rise in the cost of living. This would hinge on approval by the California Legislature and Congress, both of which are highly unlikely.
Still, it is significant that the vote came from a racially and ethnically diverse county that is politically mixed, as well as the fifth most populous in the state and the largest in the nation by area. San Bernardino’s 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) include land from more than nine states.
The votes speak to the alienation some voters feel from a statehouse long dominated by Democrats, who have made little progress on the growing homelessness crisis, rising housing costs and rising crime rates, while residents pay the highest taxes in the nation. We do.
Kurt Hagman, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, who put the proposal on the ballot, said there is “overall a lot of frustration” with state government and how public dollars are spent — with very little coming to the county. The county will see whether billions of dollars in state and federal funds were shared fairly with local governments in the Inland Empire.
Hagman said “it’s been a tough few years” for residents, from record inflation to friction over longstanding state pandemic policies.
Kristin Washington, chair of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, dismissed the measure as a political maneuver to turn out conservative voters rather than a barometer of public sentiment.
“Putting it on the ballot was a waste of time for voters,” she said. “The option of actually seceding from the state is not something that is really realistic because of all the steps.” In San Bernardino County, Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans by 12 points. Nevertheless, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom lost in the county by 5 points in November. He easily defeated a recall last year prompted by protests against pandemic health orders that closed schools and businesses. California was one of the first states to close schools and turn to online education, and one of the last to return to in-person teaching for students.
Democrats dominate the California Legislature and Congressional Delegation, and the state is known as an incubator of liberal policy on climate, health care, labor issues and immigration, and saw the vote partly as a response to the state’s priorities can go. Once a solidly Republican area, San Bernardino County has become more diverse and Democratic with recent population growth, similar to changes in neighboring San Diego and Orange County.
During its 172-year history, California has withstood more than 220 failed attempts to split the state into six smaller states, according to the California State Library. Earlier breakaway efforts sought to carve out a new “Jefferson State” from about two dozen northern California counties, though they were largely rural, conservative-leaning, and sparsely populated.
Competition between mining and agricultural interests, as well as opposition to taxation, has motivated some of these secession efforts. There are also proposals to split the vast state into north and south sections as well as lengthwise to create separate coastal and inland regions.
“Everyone outside of this county thinks we are the Wild, Wild West,” said Mayor Paul Lyons, who supported the measure. Despite the county’s size, he said it gets “a little short” when it comes to state and federal aid for roads, precincts and transit.
The city of San Bernardino, with a population of approximately 220,000, is the third largest metropolitan area in the state after LA and San Francisco. Beyond urban centers, its communities range from quiet suburbs crisscrossed by freeways, mountain towns framed by towering pines, and isolated desert retreats like hippy Joshua Tree. Inflation and economic stress are challenging many communities. Before the pandemic, the county’s unemployment rate was already 9.5% in 2019, with 12.2% of households living below the poverty line.
“I am very skeptical of these secession maneuvers,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
“The state’s problems are unlikely to be addressed by a judicial chopping block,” Deverell said in an email. He is wary of this “boast”: “If only this part of the state could go its own way, because we are not the root of the problem.”
Since the resolution passed, the county’s next step is to form a committee — which will likely include members from the public and private sector — that will conduct a funding analysis that will compare San Bernardino to other counties.
Many Inland Empire communities are struggling financially, even though California’s economy — on its own — could soon become the world’s fourth largest, up from fifth. The state announced last month that it had regained all 2.7 million jobs it lost at the start of the pandemic. However, next year’s budget deficit is projected at $25 billion and there are signs of a shaky economy, as the historically powerful tech industry has also seen layoffs.
According to a study by the Hoover Institution, from 2018 to 2021, 352 companies moved their headquarters from California to other states. After decades of growth, the state population of 39 million is shrinking, partly because residents are leaving for states that offer affordable housing and lower taxes.
Due to the decreased population, the state is also losing one Congressional seat in 2023, down from 53 to 52.
Housing prices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other metropolitan centers often exceed $1 million and are rising rapidly. Billions of dollars spent across the state have made no apparent difference to the homelessness crisis in many cities. All this has fueled a reckoning with the direction of the state, which has long been regarded as the land of opportunity.
“A lot of Californians are unhappy in a lot of ways,” said political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, citing record gas prices, rising cost of living and real estate prices.
“The vote on secession was like bashing China. It’s a way to get attention but in the end it doesn’t accomplish much,” Pitney said.
Even Hagman said he doesn’t want to see his home state broken up, though he sees the measure’s approval as an important statement on his frustration with Sacramento.
“I just want to be a part of California,” he said. “I’m a proud Californian.”