The outcome of the Feb. 1 recall election of Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty could say a lot about the future of California's Republican Party. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
Update, Feb. 8: Results of the February 1st election are not official yet and there is still a small number of ballots to count. As of Tuesday, the results were 56% Yes to the Recall and 44% opposed.
Original Story: In rural Shasta County, about three hours north of Sacramento, a Republican county supervisor is the target of a recall election initiated by local militia members and backed by a coalition of Second Amendment supporters, COVID-19 mandate opponents and the State of Jefferson movement, which supports breaking away from California to form its own state.
The outcome of the Feb. 1 election could determine how far right the local government in this deeply conservative county will move.
The target of the recall is District 2 County Supervisor Leonard Moty, who once served as police chief in his hometown of Redding, the county seat. Moty was targeted by angry residents who felt he and two of his fellow supervisors did not push back hard enough on state COVID-19 restrictions that closed businesses and required masks. Some also bristled at mandatory vaccines for health workers.
Despite the anger expressed by residents, Shasta County has never strictly enforced a mask mandate or fined businesses that ignored orders to close.
Mandatory mask rules and coronavirus vaccinations are not very popular in Shasta County, where Donald Trump won 65% of the vote in 2020. Like residents of many rural California counties, people in Shasta are strongly Republican, many of them suspicious of government.
The pandemic has been the match that lit a fire here, with angry community members packing county supervisors' meetings a few months after the pandemic began.
At one such meeting in August of 2020, Carlos Zapata, a former Marine and member of a local militia group, warned supervisors not to enforce pandemic mandates, which he said were hurting businesses and schoolchildren.
"It's not going to be peaceful much longer, OK? And this isn't a threat. I'm not a criminal. I've never been a criminal. But I'm telling you good citizens are going to turn to real-concerned and revolutionary citizens real soon," Zapata warned.
He slammed supervisors for not representing local values.
"In Shasta County, we're supposed to be red country up here, not blue country," he said. "Take your masks off. Quit muzzling yourself. Join us. Fight with us against what's going on in Sacramento."
Last year Zapata was charged with misdemeanor battery and disturbing the peace after an altercation with a Black Lives Matter activist. A jury found Zapata not guilty of the battery charge, but the trial added to his notoriety in Shasta County.
In October, the county registrar of voters certified that Zapata and his followers had collected enough valid signatures to force a recall election for Supervisor Moty.
'It's very alarming and shocking to me'
Over breakfast recently at Corbett's Restaurant in Redding, the 68-year-old Republican supervisor said he hardly recognizes the county he’s lived in his whole life.
"It's a very giving, caring community and that's what's so shocking," Moty said, referring to the anger and threatening tone of recall backers. "But it just goes to show you that a small group of individuals can really change the character of your hometown, depending on what people allow them to do."
The soft-spoken Moty, who describes himself as a "Reagan Republican," said he and others in the county have been subjected to threats.
"Some of these people on the recall side have made comments on Facebook that they know where you live, they know the name of your dog. They know what kind of car you drive. Those are very not-so-veiled threats," he said. "It's very alarming and shocking to me."
The recall campaign is flush with at least $450,000 in contributions from Reverge Anselmo, a former Shasta County businessperson who once tangled with the board of supervisors. That's a huge sum of money for this tiny county, let alone District 2, which has fewer than 22,000 registered voters.
Over the past year, as the recall gained steam, Moty has faced personal threats aimed at him, his family and his supporters.
"This feels very much to me like the Nazi Party in the early '30s of Germany, where, you know, they came out with their brown shirts and they intimidated people. They bullied them into silence," he said.
Woody Clendenen, leader of the militia chapter here and a key figure in the recall, owns the Cottonwood Barber Shop, a gathering place for like-minded customers who say they're fed up by being told what to do by Sacramento. The barbershop is across the street from the Cottonwood militia headquarters.
As he cut a customer’s hair recently, Clendenen described what triggered the recall.
"The fact that the board kept going along with Newsom's mandates on the businesses and on the schools, even though the local people were against it, you know, and overwhelmingly."
Trimmer in hand, Clendenen said it isn’t just the pandemic that fueled the recall, but also the county’s strong gun culture and the feeling Supervisor Moty doesn’t support the Second Amendment enough for this pro-gun county.
"Right now, anytime you're in my barbershop, probably half the guys in here are armed, you know," Clendenen said, as a half dozen customers waited their turn, many nodding their approval.
The way he sees it, recalling Moty will shift control of the county board more to his liking.
"We can do all kinds of things like, well, we'll work on getting rid of the head of the Shasta County schools. We'll get rid of the DA here. She's no good," he added.
On a recent weekday afternoon in Redding, pedestrians strolled across the Sundial Bridge. Fishermen cast their lines into the Sacramento River below, the snowcapped peak of Mt. Shasta in the distance.
The recall election was not on the radar of many voters KQED spoke to, but longtime resident Sharon Jens called it a big waste of money.
"I think it's just very sad that we all can't work together to keep our community safe," Jens said. "It's like a mob mentality at this point."
But resident Michelle Gallagher said the county’s attempts to contain the pandemic have gone too far.
"I understand why people are upset. I understand why people are angry, and I think change is good and change is necessary," she said, adding that she supports the recall.
That view is echoed by Patrick Jones, one of the county supervisors who supports the Moty recall.
"Here in conservative Shasta County, it's a course correction. And I think that’s what it’s all coming down to," Jones said.
Jones has helped stir up angry residents. Earlier this year he held an unofficial supervisors' meeting with recall supporters outside, after the county building where meetings usually occur was closed over public safety and health concerns. But he denies the recall is made up of people who want to essentially overthrow the government.
"You know, we've been demonized as radicals and various things like this," Jones said. "We are not. We are just simply business owners. We're mothers, we're fathers, we're grandmothers, we're grandfathers — and we want to return to a county where we grew up: a safe, prosperous county that we can be proud of."
'It doesn't matter how transparent we make the process'
County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen is overseeing the Feb. 1 recall election. She said since Donald Trump promoted the lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him, voters have been questioning the integrity of her office.
"And it doesn't matter how transparent we make the process, it doesn't matter how accountable we are," Allen said. "There is just a really deep-seated distrust of government, and this is part of that."
The California Republican Party has officially stayed out of the Shasta County recall. But GOP consultant Mike Madrid, a strong critic of the party’s drift to the right, said the outcome of this recall will say a lot about the party’s future.
"I think it's very fair, very accurate to say that this is sort of a canary in the coal mine to see what is the likely direction of the state party in the coming years," Madrid said.
Recall target Leonard Moty said the outcome of this election is about much more than just his job.
"We're fighting to find out if we're going to become this extremist county with a bunch of bullies and thugs who threaten people who don't agree with them," Moty said.
On Tuesday, Shasta County voters will decide on whether to recall Moty.