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Rural California recall election pits far-right coalition against Republican official

Shasta County’s recall is a hotbed for violent threats, baseless voter fraud claims and angry mistrust of government.

(CN) — Voters in part of Shasta County, California, head to the polls Tuesday to vote in a fractious local recall election showdown between a decades-long Republican public servant and a group of far-right voters incensed at the county’s response to the pandemic.

Leonard Moty, who spent a career in law enforcement before he was elected supervisor of Shasta County’s District Two, faced a concerted campaign spearheaded by two of his fellow county supervisors from neighboring districts. Supervisors Patrick Henry Jones and Les Baugh used Recall Shasta to circulate petitions for recall elections on Moty and two other supervisors — all three of whom are conservative Republicans.

They only collected enough signatures to get Moty’s recall on the ballot, but militia members, Second Amendment groups and opponents of Covid-19 mandates are now at the forefront of the effort to oust Moty.

“Obviously we’re a little apprehensive. Any time during an election, you feel that way,” Moty told Courthouse News. “[But] we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who are supporting me and want to keep civility in our county, so that’s always a positive thing.”

Conversely, Jones voiced confidence that Moty would be removed from office. He called Moty a liberal who is "not responding to the constituents in District Two." Jones said the petition to initiate Moty's recall garnered 6,000 signatures and noted that as of Monday evening, over 6,000 ballots had been returned. He said that if a sizable chunk of those who signed the petition vote, the margin of victory could be decisively in his favor.

The recall effort against Moty has mobilized various groups on Shasta County’s far right. These groups include State of Jefferson advocates, who seek to form their own state by separating from California, as well as Red White and Blueprint, a far-right docuseries.

“A lot of groups started coming together [during the pandemic], finding like company and trying to become disruptive,” Moty said. He said the recall effort was spurred by “alt-right extremists who are unhappy with California, with the Democratic governor and Legislature” and are seeking to expand their influence in California by building up from the local level. Groups affiliated with the recall have discussed targeting the local district attorney, sheriff, school board and city council members for removal from office.

Jones rejected the characterization of recall supporters as extremists, arguing that the recall opponents attempted to "mislead the public" by highlighting "one or two outspoken people in the county that are not part of Shasta Recall that have said some fairly disturbing things." Jones contends that the recall effort was driven by "mothers and grandmothers," estimating that women comprise 70% of Shasta Recall.

The opposition to Moty hinges on his perceived lack of willingness to fight against Covid-19 policies and mandates coming out of Sacramento, such as Governor Gavin Newsom’s vaccine mandate for students, school and business closures and mask requirements.

Moty noted that Shasta County never implemented any guidelines stricter than that of the state and often “didn’t strictly enforce” the guidelines to fine people or businesses that violated state guidelines, instead relying on education and information to encourage voluntary compliance.

“Here we are, a Republican county so to speak, and people are trying to recall three Republican supervisors,” Moty said. “I think that speaks to the extremism of their viewpoints."

In a year that would ordinarily be a respite from the rancor of national politics and high-stakes elections, the political firestorm engulfing the idyllic but deeply conservative northern California county is taking a toll on the nonpartisan election officials. Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen said she and her staff face an environment where mistrust of government runs so high that baseless voter fraud allegations circulate before a single vote is counted.

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“We’ve already had people go to our Board of Supervisors and talk in public comment at those meetings about how if the recall is not successful, it must be because the election is rigged,” Allen told Courthouse News.

Allen said her office invites people concerned about the integrity of the electoral process to watch them tabulate mail-in ballots or operate precincts.

“In the past, that was very successful in helping people understand the mechanics of the election and how we do our work,” Allen said. “It really engendered quite a bit of trust and understanding from folks who took the time to do that.”

But Allen noted that in recent years, with meritless election fraud claims coming from the height of federal office, the county elections officials have faced an increasingly stubborn lack of faith in election security.

Jones said he was "concerned" about election integrity, citing debunked claims about the Dominion voting machines in the county. Jones said he did not believe there was any fraud within Shasta County's Registrar of Voters, but said he was "not 100% satisfied" that Allen could restore his and the community's trust in the process.

Allen said the Registrar of Voters works hard to address election integrity concerns, often to no avail.

“When people call and have questions or concerns, we answer them and explain what the process is or what security measures are put in place. I’ve been told many times, ‘Well, you sound really sincere, but I still think you’re a liar,’” Allen said. “That is not what we’re used to experiencing in our office, so it’s been a tough road the last couple years.”

Allen noted that her department ran the county’s election processes for special elections in 2019, the “overwhelming” general election in 2020 and the failed recall against Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021. Over 65% of Shasta County’s voters in 2020 voted for Donald Trump. Over 69% voted to recall Newsom from office.

Though she said the back-to-back elections are grueling for them and it is “dismaying and surprising” to be accused of criminal acts if the outcome of the election is not what some hoped, Allen said the county election officials remain committed to their mission.

“We are the neutral arbiter of a process and it’s really important to us that every voter’s voice be heard, pro or against these [recall] efforts,” Allen said.

According to Moty, the recall effort “would not have even gotten off the ground” without the donation of approximately $450,000 from Reverge Anselmo, a businessperson who clashed with the Shasta County Board of Supervisors before moving to Connecticut. Moty said the money funded a massive “smear campaign,” riddled with false information that prompted death threats.

The contribution is huge for a recall election in a district with around 22,000 registered voters. Jones disputed that Anselmo's contribution was made directly to the recall effort and questioned Moty's own campaign financing. He said Anselmo made the donation to an independent political action committee dedicated to conservative causes. According to Jones, the decisions the committee made to promote candidates or causes with that money were separate from both Anselmo and the formal recall campaign.

Moty said his 2020 reelection campaign cost him only $29,000 total and estimated he spent an average of $31,000 per election since he was first elected in 2008.

“I’m waiting to find out is this just a very loud, vocal minority, or has my county’s character truly changed,” Moty said, adding that the contentious election does not reflect the Shasta County where he was born and raised. “This could be the canary in the coal mine situation. If [the recall] works here, then I expect they will try to do this in a lot of other places.”

Courthouse News reached out to Reverge Anselmo and several groups supporting the recall effort. None returned requests for comment.

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