Thomas D. Elias

Thomas Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column, appearing twice weekly in 93 newspapers around California, with circulation of over 2.2 million.

Louis Marinelli polled just 6.2 percent of the vote in San Diego’s 80th Assembly District during the June primary, but there’s at least a chance the subsequent British vote to leave the European Union could increase his influence greatly.

Marinelli, a teacher of English as a second language, has made a semi-independent California his theme for years. Until lately, he hadn’t pushed a complete split from the rest of the United States, the way some promoters of an independent Texas now advocate, using Twitter hashtag #Texit.

Marinelli’s Yes California Independence Campaign (formerly called Sovereign California) sees immense promise in the way the United Kingdom is likely to soon divorce the European Union. Yes California had mostly sought a semi-autonomous status similar to what Scotland has in the U.K.

Just maybe, if Britons felt they had more of a voice within the EU, they would have voted to remain in it. That kind of larger voice is what Marinelli’s nascent movement has sought for California.

Prior to the late-June British vote, Yes California Independence had not seen much success. In March, for example, the group under its previous name failed to qualify a new and more aggressive ballot initiative that would have asked that Californians vote on whether to become independent, with governors present and future to be called “presidents.”

The measure also specified that if the rest of America refused to allow a so-called California exit, the question would automatically appear on the state ballot every four years, along with the question of whether California should apply for membership in the United Nations.

Even in a year when the number of signatures required to qualify initiatives for the ballot is at a historic low of about 365,000, this idea found no traction, just like Marinelli’s state Assembly campaign.

But Great Britain’s vote could change things. “It shows secession isn’t just a relic of the 19th Century,” Marinelli told a reporter. “It’s an example of an independence movement occurring in the Western world, a modern-day, 21st Century example of a political entity seceding from a political union. It means Californians who hear the word “secession” don’t have to think of the Civil War anymore. Now they have an example of how it can happen peacefully and legally…, and that’s the path to mimic here in California.”

Marinelli has changed his tune a bit over the last two years. In 2014, he said in an interview that a totally sovereign California wasn’t needed, that the state should merely become capable of making its own binding deals with other countries and be able to pass laws that could not be overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

Back then, he wanted to set up a nonpartisan blue-ribbon panel of state legislators to analyze “sub-national sovereignty” and its effects on Californians and other Americans. The group would hold hearings and call experts to testify on how California could sign its own treaties with foreign countries and otherwise assert itself internationally — while still using the United States dollar and having its citizens register with Selective Service and serve in the American military.

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The idea of making binding agreements with other countries is something recent California governors like Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger have liked, to the point of signing myriad deals with provinces and states belonging to other nations from India to Russia, Canada, Brazil and, yes, the U.K. These have had little long-term meaning because they lack the status of treaties.

Marinelli also raised the question of whether California should stop participating in presidential elections and revert to something like the not-quite-statehood status Puerto Rico has today.

And he plumped for the symbolic change of always flying the state’s Bear Republic flag at equal height with the Stars and Stripes on public property.

No one took much of that seriously until after the British vote. Now far more radical changes may be taken seriously, at least in part because California gets back only about 77 cents in federal spending for every dollar in taxes its citizens contribute. There’s also the reality that Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court are often at philosophical odds with a majority of Californians.

No, a “Caleavefornia” movement is not imminent. But neither is the notion quite as preposterous as it used to be.

Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.

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