Colorado Secessionists Are Not Alone

Voters in 11 Colorado counties will decide Tuesday if they want to split from the state. But it’s not just them — partition is hot these days.

The "capital" of Jefferson, a proposed state to be carved out of Northen Calofornia and Southern Oregon.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Nov. 5, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

Voters in 11 con­ser­vat­ive counties in Col­or­ado will de­cide Tues­day if they want to try to break away from a state that they feel has grown too lib­er­al. The par­ti­tion move­ment has been largely treated as a sideshow in the state, es­pe­cially since the counties would need ap­prov­al from both the state Le­gis­lature and Con­gress — neither of which are likely — to es­cape Den­ver’s 137-year-rule over their ter­rit­ory and be­come the 51st state. But the counties are hardly alone.

There have been dozens of state par­ti­tion move­ments in Amer­ic­an his­tory, but they seemed to have picked up steam in re­cent years as the coun­try has be­come more po­lar­ized. These move­ments, dis­tinct from those en­deavor­ing to sep­ar­ate from the uni­on en­tirely, usu­ally aim to join neigh­bor­ing states whose polit­ics or cul­ture more neatly re­flect their own, or to cre­ate a new state carved out of an ex­ist­ing one.

In Mary­land, some tea-party act­iv­ists from the west­ern part of the state — which may have more in com­mon with West Vir­gin­ia and Pennsylvania than with Bal­timore and An­na­pol­is — want the five counties that make up the state’s pan­handle to break away. “We think we have ir­re­con­cil­able dif­fer­ences, and we just want an am­ic­able di­vorce,” or­gan­izer Scott Strzel­czyk said of his de­sire to leave the Old Line State.

Cali­for­nia, mean­while, with its vast size, com­plic­ated re­source polit­ics, and di­verse pop­u­la­tion, has long been fer­tile ground for state par­ti­tion move­ments. A group of north­ern counties have long wanted to join some counties in south­ern Ore­gon to form a new state called Jef­fer­son. In 1941, res­id­ents even went so far as to elect a gov­ernor, and in 1965 the Cali­for­nia state Sen­ate gave the OK to par­ti­tion the state (it nev­er went bey­ond that though). In 1989, KSOR, the pub­lic-ra­dio af­fil­i­ate based at South­ern Ore­gon Uni­versity in Ash­land, rebranded it­self as Jef­fer­son Pub­lic Ra­dio.

Today, the Jef­fer­son De­clar­a­tion Com­mit­tee has taken up the charge. “What we would like to do is gain rep­res­ent­a­tion for the north­ern people of the state,” Mark Baird, spokes­man for the group, told NPR, not­ing that urb­an areas dom­in­ate the state Le­gis­lature in Sac­ra­mento. “The only way to do that is to have our own state.” In Septem­ber of this year, boards in two Cali­for­nia counties, Sis­kiy­ou and Modoc, voted in fa­vor of se­ces­sion from the Golden State. Today, a gi­ant sign in Yreka, Cal­if. — his pro­posed in­ter­im cap­it­al of the new state — greets vis­it­ors to the “State of Jef­fer­son.”

In 1969, writer Nor­man Mail­er ran for may­or of New York City on a plat­form that in­cluded mak­ing the city its own state and re­nam­ing everything north of the Big Apple Buf­falo. More re­cently, Queens Coun­cil mem­ber Peter Val­lone Jr. has offered sev­er­al bills to split the city from ste state, in­clud­ing one in 2003 that at­trac­ted 20 co­spon­sors, out of 51 coun­cil mem­bers. “If not se­ces­sion, some­body please tell me what oth­er op­tions we have if the state is go­ing to con­tin­ue to take bil­lions from us and give us back pen­nies,” Val­lone asked in 2008.

Oth­er urb­an areas like Chica­go have en­ter­tained their own dreams of go­ing it alone, while some rur­al le­gis­lat­ors say good rid­dance to their metro re­gions. Like­wise for Michigan’s Up­per Pen­in­sula, which only be­came part of the state after an odd fluke of his­tory known as the Toledo War.

Mean­while, act­iv­ists from the Tuc­son area want to “Free Baja Ari­zona” from the tyranny of Phoenix. The bor­ders of the pro­posed new state are based roughly on the Gadsden Pur­chase, a swatch of land the U.S. an­nexed from Mex­ico in 1853. Baja Ari­zona has long been a “state of mind,” more lib­er­al and di­verse than the rest of the state, and now they want to make it the real deal.

Mi­chael Trinklein has writ­ten a whole a book about “lost states,” as he calls them, which nev­er made it to the flag. And The New Re­pub­lic’s Nate Cohn re­cently cre­ated a handy map of what the new 61 United States of Amer­ica would look like if some of these par­ti­tion­ists got their way.

Of course, all of these move­ments are likely doomed to fail for myri­ad reas­ons, but es­pe­cially be­cause each new state would get two sen­at­ors, thus up­set­ting the bal­ance of power in Wash­ing­ton (plus, we’d need to make new flags).

To change that, we’d prob­ably have to change the con­sti­tu­tion — but why not? States are at war with them­selves across the coun­try thanks to ca­pri­ciously draw bor­ders that lump to­geth­er people with op­pos­ing cul­tures and polit­ics, but it need not be that way.

“It’s like the Baskin-Rob­bins of states,” says Strzel­czyk, of the Mary­land par­ti­tion­ists. “You can ac­tu­ally live in a polit­ic­al so­ci­ety that gov­erns the way you want to be gov­erned. The more choice the bet­ter.”

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