- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Calexit movement was thrown into turmoil this week after the leader of the secession referendum effort to split California from the U.S. himself split — to Russia. But to others, the dream of an independent California is going nowhere.

Louis J. Marinelli, head of Yes California, announced Monday he would disband the group and withdraw the proposed ballot initiative as a result of his decision to “make Russia my new home” after moving last year to Yekaterinburg, along with his Russian wife, to teach English.

Picking up where Mr. Marinelli left off is the California Freedom Coalition, organized a month ago by secession supporters leery of Yes California’s Russian ties, which plans to introduce its own independence ballot measure aimed at the November 2018 ballot.

Steve Gonzales, a CFC board member who lives in San Jose, stressed that the newly formed group is locally sourced and has no Moscow connections.

“We’re not doing anything nationally. The only thing we would do is help other states, but we’re not asking for outside money,” said Mr. Gonzales. “We are accepting nothing from outside of the country. Anything from out of state will be scrutinized by the board of directors.”

As a result, he said he is confident that the coalition can meet its goal of $3 million to hire professional signature-gatherers for its anticipated ballot campaign, unlike Yes California, which was using volunteers and struggling to raise funds amid the rumors of Russian influence.

“The money’s coming in. We have several people who have said, ‘We’ll do matching funds.’ We believe we can easily, easily bring in $3 million,” said Mr. Gonzales. “We have a very strong connection with groups north of San Francisco in Marin County who have pledged money assuming Louis has nothing to do with this.”

After launching Yes California with a splash in 2015, Mr. Marinelli had come under scrutiny for his seemingly cozy relationship with Moscow, in particular the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, which helped him open a California “embassy” in Moscow in December.

The Kremlin-backed pro-separatist group also provided him with office space and paid for like-minded separatists to attend a conference in September, according to a Dec. 13 report by KQED-FM, a California public radio station.

Other California independence advocates were alarmed by the reports. The California National Party, which seeks recognition as a third party, blasted Yes California in a Jan. 21 press release as a “Russian puppet organization,” Business Insider reported.

The California National Party, whose slogan is #freethebear, a reference to the state flag, emphasized that it is “entirely unaffected” by Yes California’s dissolution since “we are — and have always been — a totally separate organization.”

“Our grass-roots movement is funded entirely by donations from our members and our entire leadership team lives and works in California,” the party said in a Monday statement.

Yes California had denied reports of Russian complicity, saying that the campaign “has never met with or received material or financial support of any kind from any Russian government official.”

“In September 2016, the president of Yes California was invited to attend and speak at a conference on the right to self-determination in Moscow which was held at the Ritz Carlton,” said Yes California in an earlier statement. “The hosts of this conference paid for travel expenses to Russia for the guests they invited to this conference. The host of this conference did receive a small grant from the Russian government.”

Questions about Mr. Marinelli’s allegiances have swirled for months. While Yes California had framed the ballot measure as a liberal backlash to a nation that had moved to the right of California, Mr. Marinelli previously worked for the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions.

Mr. Marinelli also raised eyebrows by acknowledging that he had voted for Donald Trump in November after supporting Sen. Bernard Sanders in the Democratic primary, telling National Review, “I couldn’t vote for Hillary [Clinton].”

In January, Yes California launched a petition drive to collect the 585,407 valid signatures needed by July 25 for a referendum to repeal the section of the California Constitution calling the state an “inseparable part of the United States.”

Under the plan, the 2018 referendum would be followed by a second initiative on the 2019 ballot asking voters “if California should be a separate nation.”

Mr. Gonzales said his coalition plans to push for just one ballot measure, and that the language would be released in the next few months. He also said the group will pursue other avenues, such as organizing worker strikes.

“The federal government is adversarial toward California, and we are sick of it,” said Mr. Gonzales. “And this group will use whatever peaceful means, if it’s a referendum, if it’s lobbying, if it’s marching, [and] we have other ideas to disrupt the economy as well.”

In his statement, Mr. Marinelli said he had planned to return to “occupied California” eventually, even though “I do not wish to live under the American flag,” but that “I have found in Russia a new happiness.”

“Consequently, 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 said.

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