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How Democrats in rural Northern California, deep in MAGA country, are growing stronger

By Jenavieve Hatch, The Sacramento Bee
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:02am
5 Photos
Angelina Cook, a Democrat and longtime Siskiyou County resident, is running her second campaign for a seat on the non-partisan Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. She stands on Main Street in McCloud, California, on Aug. 8, 2023, with Mount Shasta in the distance.
Angelina Cook, a Democrat and longtime Siskiyou County resident, is running her second campaign for a seat on the non-partisan Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. She stands on Main Street in McCloud, California, on Aug. 8, 2023, with Mount Shasta in the distance. (Xavier Mascarenas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS) Photo Gallery

Alice Rogers admitted that identifying as a Democrat in Siskiyou County felt a bit “like coming out.”

She stood under a canopy of tall trees in Weed’s Carrick Park on a warm June afternoon along with about 100 other local Democrats at the county party’s annual fundraising dinner.

Like many Democratic women across the U.S., Rogers, the chair of the Democratic Central Committee of Siskiyou County, and Robin Richards, the committee’s treasurer, were called to action after the election Donald Trump in 2016, as they watched their Republican neighbors ride the MAGA wave further to the right.

“I didn’t know there were other Democrats in Siskiyou County,” said Rogers, a lifelong Democrat. But as she and Richards realized there were more Democrats than they thought — 35% of the county voted for Hillary Clinton — they began to strategize.

“We were so angry,” said Rogers. “And we were both retired, so we had the time for it.”

Rural north state Democrats have long understood that the real action for their party is in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Sacramento. Even though the region north of Sacramento is geographically enormous, its population and wealth simply aren’t enough to influence state politics.

But these days, rural Democrats, in Siskiyou especially, feel surrounded by increasingly empowered conspiracy theorists, separatists, and extremists. They sense that grassroots organizing is more important than ever.

“We want to avoid turning out like Shasta County,” said Katherine Shelton, secretary of the Siskiyou central committee.

In Siskiyou’s sister county to the south, three far-right members of its Board of Supervisors voted in January to end the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems. Trump supporters believe the company and its machines thwarted his bid for re-election in 2020. (Fox News owes Dominion $787.5 million for perpetuating this lie.)

In the months since, board meetings have grown increasingly confrontational. When one regular attendee, who is white, called a Black activist the N-word, it resulted in the activist’s removal. Local reporter Doni Chamberlain, a 67-year-old Redding resident, is taking time away from A News Cafe, her online news source, after far-right community members and Proud Boys aggressively confronted her at a July meeting. A man grabbed a phone that was attached to a strap around her neck, causing it to snap forward. One far-right member of the Board, Patrick Jones, told an SFGate reporter to “ drop dead.”

Siskiyou runs a bit more blue despite its smaller population; about 28% of voters are registered Democrats where about 44% are Republican. In Shasta, 50% of voters are Republican while just 22% are Democrats. Siskiyou’s blue streak is mostly thanks to Mount Shasta (population 3,200) and neighboring towns Weed and Dunsmuir also lean blue. But its Democratic organizers see the neighboring county as a cautionary tale.

Richards applied for a grant from former Democratic presidential candidate and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer’s progressive advocacy non-profit NextGen. He sent them $35,000 for local organizing efforts.

They used the money to travel the region registering voters and hosting retreats for Democrats and anti-Trump moderates interested in canvassing, organizing, and running for local office.They believe this is the way to avoid Shasta’s fate — whether or not the state party is willing to support their efforts.

It says it is.

CADEM did not respond to a request for an interview, but emailed this statement from chairman Rusty Hicks:

“The California Democratic Party is resolute in our mission to defend our democracy — in every corner of California and across the Nation. At a time in our history when conservative extremism is on the rise in communities across the North State, we are investing in on-the-ground organizing efforts to support our candidates, fight for democratic values & build communities that work for all of us.”

Siskiyou Democrats like Shelton and Rogers will take what they can get. They say the party has been helpful in training candidates and staying informed about rural interests.

But Carrick Park in Weed is 230 miles away from what’s happening in Sacramento, and walled in by red on all sides. The distance, organizers say, is palpable.

“It’s not perfect,” said Rogers.

Organizing for local elections

The Siskiyou Dems have garnered some seemingly small, but consequential, wins by organizing at the grassroots level for local candidates.

In 2022, as California and the rest of the country saw GOP-funded school board candidates run “pro-parent” campaigns that resulted in book bans and curriculum changes, Siskiyou Democrats worked to keep seats out of their hands.

“We heard rumblings during COVID that at the high school and elementary school (parents and community members) were confronting board members at school board meetings” Rogers recalled. “It was bad — people were going home in tears. We knew that it was going to be a contentious (election).”

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And it was. Some of the loudest voices against masks and stay-at-home orders were candidates for three seats in Siskiyou Union High School District.

Kevin Charter, Scott Dolf, and Paul Chapman “didn’t understand that they were running in specific districts,” Rogers said. “So they didn’t know how to campaign … they knew they were in Siskiyou County but they weren’t paying attention to local demographics.”

Rogers and her team knew that in organizing for small, historically non-partisan races, attaching themselves to the state party wasn’t the way to get votes. Appealing to voters face-to-face was.

“We didn’t go (canvassing) as Siskiyou Dems,” said Rogers. “We canvassed as Friends of Siskiyou Education and worked with the candidates. We didn’t pay for any of their materials, but we helped canvass and organize.”

They visited every house that they could in the school board districts. Many voters said they didn’t care about school board races because they don’t have kids, or because they’ve never really paid much attention.

Part of knowing how to canvass, Rogers said, is being able to explain what’s at stake.

“We approached it as our local schools against right-wing extremists, not Democrats against Republicans,” said Shelton, the central committee’s secretary.

“I really felt like we needed to win that race strongly,” said Rogers. “It couldn’t be close. It needed to be a statement.”

And it was. Dolf and Chapman each lost by eight points (almost 1,000 votes) and Charter lost by seven, or 450 votes.

“Having that victory was important,” said Shelton.

Now, they’re looking at a seat on the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors.

Angelina Cook is running her second campaign for the Board. She jumped into the previous election at the last minute in 2020.

“I literally could not watch Brandon Criss run for his third term unopposed,” she said.

Criss has been in office during droughts and wildfires, Cook said, and “our supervisors are just business as usual, concerned with their own interests,” rather than climate change and the economically disadvantaged, under the guise of “industry.” Criss, for example, voted against Siskiyou County becoming a “sanctuary jurisdiction” for immigrants in 2017, but has been a vocal proponent for mining and other extractive practices.

“I waited until the second to last day to file, waiting for somebody else to file, so I wouldn’t have to do that,” she said with a laugh. “But nobody did.”

“I had no idea what I was doing. I never had prior intentions to get into politics.”

Criss said Cook’s view is simply wrong.

“All one has to do is look at the agendas for all of our Board of Supervisors meetings, our committee assignments and our work to see that we deal with much more than just our own interests,” he told The Bee. “I’ve been a volunteer ambulance crew member and volunteer firefighter for about 18 years. Like my colleagues on the Board, we all care about Siskiyou County.”

Criss will not seek re-election in 2024, but Cook is preparing to run against Colleen Crebbin Alvarez, a rancher in the unincorporated community Little Shasta.

Cook is director of the McCloud Watershed Council, and previously worked at the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center. She studied climate change and renewable energy at Monterey Institute of International Studies and came up to Siskiyou County when Nestle proposed a bottling plant in McCloud in 2008.

“I thought that was a horrible idea,” she said. She prioritizes defending local community water rights, challenging what she calls “inappropriate corporate development,” and improving ecoliteracy in her county.

Cook feels more confident in this campaign cycle.

“It’s a completely different chapter because partway through my campaign in 2020, I realized I would actually be good at this,” she said. “When I got 25% of the vote (in 2020), I was motivated. I’ve had the last three years to prepare my psyche for doing it again, but doing it right.”

Cook is one of many women running for local office who have received support from grassroots organizers and the state party. At the state convention in May, CADEM arranged her airfare and hotel stay for candidate training facilitated by EMERGE California, the state arm of a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.

EMERGE California has helped to send 210 women to public office, including Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (also a 2026 gubernatorial candidate), State Controller Malia Cohen, and a slate of state senators, assemblymembers, and local public officials.

Investing in candidates like Cook, Rogers said, is where the state party can be most useful.

“That’s something we can give CADEM credit for,” Rogers said. “They are doing that. It’s hard for us to get candidates, but when we do, they’re putting some money behind it. They don’t have endless money, but they’ll give us some.”

Moving the LaMalfa needle

Funding local Democratic campaigns in conservative rural areas is a challenge, but it’s not impossible. At the June fundraiser alone, the county Democratic party committee raised over $5,000.

Financing congressional races — especially across District 1, an expanse covering almost the entire North State from Klamath National Forest in the northwest to Modoc National Forest in the northeast, and Sutter County north to the Oregon border — is a different beast. Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s 10-year stronghold has made a Democratic takeover seem impossible.

LaMalfa, an ag businessman with a family rice farm in his district, won the seat in 2012 after a decade in the state assembly. He was once a garden variety Republican: a voice for low taxes, small government and social conservatism. But his many Democratic constituents have watched him “get worse.” What they see is a Trump-supporting “MAGA guy” wading deeper into the culture wars around trans rights, election denialism, and school curriculum.

In April, he attended a school board meeting in Chico to address the issue of gender identity in public schools after a parent sued the Chico Unified School District for not informing them when their child transitioned.

“Schools have really overstepped their bounds, overstepped their responsibilities when they’re doing this,” LaMalfa said.

He has been outspoken against mask and vaccine mandates, and was one of 147 House Republicans to vote against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.

But it’s not just LaMalfa’s politics that keep him in power in CA-01. Dislodging any congressional incumbent is a long shot, with 93% of them having been re-elected since 1964.

Finding just the right candidate for Democrats to unseat him hasn’t been easy.

Democrats came close in 2018 and 2020 with Audrey Denney, an ag development consultant from the Central Valley, who lives in Chico. Denney said she knew it would take more than one attempt to unseat LaMalfa. The post-2016 blue wave helped her score major endorsements from groups like EMILY’s List. She lost in 2018 — as she expected — but thought for sure she’d win in 2020 when she outraised LaMalfa by $1 million.

Despite her money — and the adoration of organizers like the Siskiyou Dems who still brighten at the mention of her name — she lost by 14 points.

Rogers blames much of this on trying to flip a seat at the peak of the pandemic, when canvassing and in-person events were off the table, and when people became increasingly radicalized by public health measures to curb COVID’s spread, such as mask mandates and business and school shutdowns.

“Audrey’s strength was meeting people and talking to people, and getting her voice out,” Rogers said.

“During COVID it was all Zoom meetings, and she was talking to the choir, to people who already liked her. She didn’t have that chance to really meet new people … We canvassed like crazy for her in 2018, and in the second campaign they had built off that knowledge of the first. It was such a disappointment to see how it turned out.”

“We loved Audrey,” Rogers said. “Loved her.”

If someone that popular — and good at fundraising — couldn’t unseat LaMalfa, Democratic organizers wondered who could.

In 2022, Max Steiner sought to be that person.

Steiner, an Army Reserves sergeant and former Foreign Affairs officer, campaigned on being a “pro-gun, pro-choice” moderate, anti-Trump veteran and staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. A fellow Chico resident, like Denney, Steiner seemed like the kind of candidate that anti-Trump Republicans could get behind.

He wasn’t.

Steiner didn’t raise close to what Denney raised, and he didn’t get close to the number of votes she got, either. LaMalfa beat him by 25 points.

“Not even a white, male veteran who loves guns could beat LaMalfa,” said Madeleine DeAndreis, a retired teacher from Siskiyou County at the fundraising event. “It makes you wonder if anyone can.”

For DeAndreis and Democrats across the region, that seems like a forever-uphill battle.

“It takes a long time to make change,” said Robin Richards, the Siskiyou Dems treasurer, who ran for Yreka City Council in 2022. She came in fourth, missing a seat on the council by just 100 votes.

She said she’s inspired by women like Stacey Abrams and her New Georgia Project, which, over the course of a decade, changed the landscape of Georgia’s politics.

“We’ve done a lot in six years,” Richards said.

“We’ve made inroads … People are worried about speaking out (in Siskiyou County). And it takes a lot of work. But we hope more people move in and join us.”