One of the leaders of the group behind the "Calexit" proposal for California secession is making an exit of his own. Marcus Ruiz Evans, co-founder of Yes California, announced today that he is leaving the group in order to join a new organization that plans to take over the effort. The move comes as Yes California is being scrutinized both for its alleged ties to Russia and for its lack of fundraising.
Evans is joining the nascent California Freedom Coalition, which plans a similar proposal that would put the question of state independence before voters in 2018 (rather than in both 2018 and 2019 under the current would-be measure).
Evans, who's listed as the author of his former group's California nationhood initiative, asked the secretary of state's office via email to withdraw the proposal. Secretary of state spokesman Sam Mahood says the office received the request but informed Evans it needs a letter with his signature. Once that's in hand, the initiative would be removed from the SOS website within about a day, and county election officials would be notified that the initiative is out of the running for the ballot.
Meanwhile, Yes California's other co-founder, Louis Marinelli, said in a statement that he also wants the initiative withdrawn "to allow a new petition, free from ties to me, and drafted by others, to be resubmitted at future date of their choosing."
Marinelli has been scrutinized for his travel to Russia, which was funded by a Kremlin-linked nationalist group that has rented office space dubbed the Calexit embassy. The revelation comes at a time when the FBI is investigating the possibility that the campaign of President Trump colluded with Russian agents who sought to influence the election.
Marinelli today said he hopes to live permanently in Russia.
"As I have stated in the past, I do not wish to live under the American flag," according to his statement. "If the people of Russia would be so kind as to welcome me here on a permanent basis, I intend to make Russia my new home." He added that he would hope one day "to return to California" as a nation in order to "live once again under our bear flag."
With Marinelli hoping to skip town for Russia and with Evans departing for a competing group, the future of Yes California is in question. Long Beach real estate agent and consultant Don Sutton, a high-profile organizer for Yes California, was out of town today and unaware of the shakeup when we reached him. California Freedom Coalition board member Steve Gonzales, a Silicon Valley executive, says of Yes California: "It's done." But Evans insists that the group, which boasts 46,000 volunteers, would carry on.
Evans says his defection is partly inspired by the Russia controversy. "This movement needs to be clear of the Russia baggage," he says. "I didn't see anything wrong with what I saw, but it's out there and it's never going to go away."
But he says the main reason he left Yes California is that, while it fulfilled its goal of putting the Calexit issue on the map, it's time to do the hard work of fundraising and signature gathering. "We're past the publicity stage, and we're at the how-do-we-organize-this stage," he says.
Of course, that stage is one that Yes California should have surpassed by now. And beyond its pie-in-the-sky goal of nationhood (The New York Times says it "has virtually no chance of succeeding"), Yes California's Calexit effort has been criticized for its almost complete lack of funding. The secretary of state's office has no record of any campaign contributions larger than $5,000. The signature gathering required to put such a measure before voters usually costs $3 million or more, experts say. Yes California had until July 25 to submit 585,407 valid voter signatures.
Evans previously argued that anti-Trump sentiment was so fevered in California, and the Calexit movement had drawn so many volunteers, that the initiative would be successful even without much cash.
Now Evans and others make it sound as if the new group, which announced its launch earlier this month, is taking over the effort and laying claim to the term Calexit, which Marinelli said he conceived in 2004.
"We will become the infrastructure for Calexit," Gonzales says of the California Freedom Coalition.
There are other groups, such as the California National Party, that seek the same goal, but they have different routes in mind. The CNP is focusing on becoming a political party. And Evans submits to the possibility that Yes California could redraw its own initiative, which would compete with the California Freedom Coalition's.
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"I don't think that's going to happen," Gonzales counters.
Gonzales says California Freedom Coalition's new initiative is being drafted ahead of an August deadline for proposals that aim for the November 2018 ballot. "We will absolutely be filing a new petition very soon," he says.
This time around will be different, he promises. High-profile celebrities and activists are flirting with endorsement, he says, and Silicon Valley tycoons are being courted for the kind of serious cash that such an initiative would need to survive.
At the same time, Gonzales argues, the California Freedom Initiative is not one man's dream; it's a board member–driven, professional campaign. "We're focusing on getting Californians our vote back," he says