[Webmaster's note: much of this material is from an article that appeared in the Sacramento News & Review: http://www.newsreview.com/issues/sacto/2002-01-03/news2.asp ]
In the early 1990s, Stan Statham, then an assemblyman from Redding, embarked on a quixotic campaign to split California in three. While his quest eventually failed, Statham, who was born in Chico, became identified with rural California’s seemingly perpetual feeling of inadequacy in a state that’s more closely identified with sunny beaches and cable cars than endless farmland to the rest of the world.
It’s a familiar pattern, says Stan Statham. Rural Californians always have felt like the poor stepsister to the north. And sure enough, he says, every 13 to 15 years another group takes a crack at dividing the state geographically.
“Up there they feel strongly because we don’t give them road money, they don’t get as much money for schools per capita, we take their water and we don’t even want them to walk around with a gun on each hip,” Statham says.
When Statham first thought of taking up the quest to divide the state, he’d been in the Assembly for about 15 years. This was in 1989, before term limits, and with the nation teetering on the brink of a recession. He prepared for his bid by studying state division movements in other states and in California. To his surprise, there had been 26 other attempts to break California in pieces.
When Statham began to publicly push the idea again in 1991 and 1992, he knew he was fighting an uphill battle. “People would either see it as fighting a windmill or as a joke,” he says. But before introducing a bill, Statham’s first task was dealing with then Speaker Willie Brown, at the time the state’s most influential official. But Statham wasn’t seeking his help--he simply didn’t want Brown to “Speakerize” the bill, which means “just leave it alone; let it fly or let it die.” To his surprise, Brown offered to help Statham get his measure through the Assembly. Statham even says Brown offered to help.
With that, Statham was off to the races. His bill would only authorize California’s 58 counties to put the question of whether the state should be split on the ballot. It would be a non-binding vote, meaning whatever came back from voters would only be used to gauge public interest in dividing the state.
At first Statham called for only two states, but he realized he didn’t have the votes in the Assembly to get that proposal passed, so Statham switched to a three-state proposal and the bill passed with votes to spare. But after it went to the State Senate, it died when then President Pro Tempore David Roberti wouldn’t let it out of the rules committee.
In the end, the campaign became a kind of national running joke about the wackiness of California. The movement was targeted by monologue assassins like Jay Leno, editorial cartoonists, and even seeped into popular culture clearinghouses like game shows--one night Jeopardy quizzed contestants on Statham’s measure. Did he ever feel like the constant ribbing marginalized his effectiveness?
“Had I been in the Legislature two years or four years, that would have been the emotional and intellectual reaction, but I had been there a long time and was assistant Republican leader,” Statham says. “I hadn’t embarrassed myself to that point.”