Resignation in rural California as election nears

John Flournoy, a staunch Republican in rural Modoc County, has had to get used to the fact that, as he put it, “We’re in a Democratic world.”
John Flournoy, a staunch Republican in rural Modoc County, has had to get used to the fact that, as he put it, “We’re in a Democratic world.” dsiders@sacbee.com

Rain fell over the hay barns and pine forests in the far northeastern corner of the state, and with Tuesday’s election presaging four more years of Democratic rule in Sacramento, an air of resignation filled the Flournoy family ranch.

“It gets a little depressing,” said John Flournoy, who at 70 can recall a time when Democrats did not control every statewide office or hold such large majorities in the Legislature.

Now, he said one day last week, “The populated towns – Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles – they’re going to outvote us every time.”

When Californians go to the polls Tuesday, vast stretches of the state – thinly populated, inland and rural – will have little to look forward to. Tim Donnelly, the tea party favorite Modoc County voted for, did not advance to the runoff in the race for governor, and Democrats are polling ahead in every race for statewide office.

Even a Republican triumph – eliminating the Democratic Party’s two-thirds supermajorities in the Legislature – would leave Republicans in the minority in both houses.

“It’s not good for us,” Flournoy said.

Flournoy and his brother Bill are distant cousins of Houston Flournoy, the Republican who ran against Jerry Brown in 1974, the year Brown first ran for governor. Brown won, but the race was close, and the Republican Party remained vigorous for many years. The state would support a Republican, Gerald Ford, in the presidential election in 1976, then vote for Ronald Reagan, Brown’s predecessor in the Governor’s Office, in 1980 and 1984.

But in recent decades, the statewide party has withered, growing older and more conservative as California becomes more liberal and diverse.

Modoc County is a holdout. Bordering Nevada and Oregon, the county is one of California’s least populous, and also the most Republican.

In the county seat, Alturas, the Verizon store doubles as a gun seller, and bumper stickers read, “Eat beef: The West wasn’t won on salad.” Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2,557 to 1,269, and complaints abound about environmental regulations, taxes and gun control.

Last year, supervisors here and in Siskiyou County passed declarations supporting withdrawal from California, a reflection of long-standing desire in northern, mostly rural counties to form a new state.

Prospects are dim. Secession would require the approval of the state Legislature and U.S. Congress, and the Republicans of Modoc County have little clout.

As lights came on for the Modoc High School football game one recent Friday night, fans backed their SUVs and pickup trucks onto the track around the field. Nikki French stood on a sideline and said she is so discouraged by the state of California politics that “I don’t even watch the news.”

She has seen enough to know that maps published after the election will show blue concentrations of Democratic votes in the state’s population centers and red everywhere else.

“I’m tired of San Francisco and Los Angeles making all the decisions for the rest of the state,” she said.

The political makeup of this county – and most of inland California – has not always been so Republican. In the Flournoy brothers’ youth, when the lumber mills and railroad kept small-town churches and schools filled, Democrats held majorities some years. As late as 1990, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 100 voters.

But they, too, were of a conservative mind. Despite the Democratic registration advantage, Republican Pete Wilson bested Democrat Dianne Feinstein by a wide margin in this county in the gubernatorial race in 1990.

“All these rural areas had a lot of Democrats,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “But they were reflecting rural values.”

With the Democratic power base shifting to urban areas, he said, “these areas that are so far from the big cities just feel politically and culturally distant, and clearly feel like they’re in another state.”

This area’s wariness of liberal policies – and distance politically from California’s majorities – is so pronounced that Brown has invoked Modoc County any number of times when describing difficulty governing a state with disparate interests.

“How you see the world depends upon where you’re sitting,” Brown said in January 2011, the month he returned to office. “You know, if you’re sitting in Modoc, only 28 percent of you think I should be standing here. If you’re in Alameda County, there’s about 73 percent of you who think I should be, so there are very different views of what the state needs.”

Earlier this year, the local assemblyman, Brian Dahle, sent an email to fellow lawmakers asking them to visit.

Dahle, R-Bieber, said more than 20 of his colleagues accepted the offer. He hopes to convince his guests, after visiting a lumber mill or cattle ranch, that a regulation necessary for septic tanks in Malibu, for example, might not be necessary in rural Lassen or Modoc counties, or that banning lead bullets – a bill approved last year – could be detrimental to farmers’ efforts to protect their crops from squirrels.

“The way I live in my community is totally different than people live in their communities,” Dahle said. “If I’m in San Francisco and I see a guy with a gun, I’m going to be definitely thinking something’s up. Here, if you go to the store and guy has a gun in his pickup, nobody freaks out.”

He added, “I have a gun in my pickup right now.”

The Governor’s Office said Brown has visited Modoc County, stopping in the area while traveling to Idaho in 1955. He has not been so far north in his re-election campaign.

Politically, there is little reason to visit. Fewer than 10,000 people live in Modoc County, and interest in California’s upcoming, relatively low-profile election is as muted here as it is elsewhere in the state.

Darcy Locken, the country registrar of voters, said she held a voter registration drive this year, “which means I went to the senior center before the primary.”

Partisan efforts to turn out votes are marginal. Bob Zane, a member of the Modoc County Republican Central Committee, keeps a list of registered Republicans and calls them when he can.

“I live over by the high school,” Zane told an answering machine last week. “I just want to remind you there’s an election coming up Nov. 4, and we need your vote.”

He doubted the effectiveness of the effort.

“The best that we can do is some goofball with a list of numbers and a Wal-Mart phone,” Zane said, putting down his cellphone. “How do you compete with Jerry Brown?”

If there is reason for optimism for conservatives this year, it mostly comes from out of state, where Republicans have a good chance to gain control of the U.S. Senate. Likely is close enough to the Nevada state line – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state – that some Republicans take the prospect of a Senate takeover personally.

“That’d be a big deal if we could get Reid out of there,” John Flournoy said. “He’s been a thorn in my side.”

The future for Republicans in California is bleaker.

“I doubt we’ll ever have another Republican governor,” Bill Flournoy said.

Bill Flournoy, who is 73 and the incoming president of the California Cattlemen’s Association, got up from breakfast and rode a horse onto the ranch at sunrise to bring in calves to be weaned.

His brother loaded hay into a truck that has been running for nearly 50 years. The wind whipped flecks of molasses-infused feed into the cab, where they settled on the dash and in the folds of John Flournoy’s coat.

“We’re in a Democratic world,” he said.

Even the most dramatic change contemplated here, secession, might not change that.

“It’s fun to talk about, but who’s going to be making all the decisions then?” John Flournoy said.

Another city, he thought, perhaps Redding.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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