Home World Forget the first 220 failures to split California. This developer has a...

Forget the first 220 failures to split California. This developer has a new plan to secede

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BY ALEXEI KOSEFF | CalMatters

The man who would finally break up California is a real estate developer from Rancho Cucamonga.

Jeff Burum knows this may sound crazy. He heard that response two years ago, before he persuaded politicians and voters in San Bernardino County to study the possibility of seceding.

But leaders, Burum points out, are often considered crazy when they try to do something that no one has ever done. And he is trying to do something that others have failed at many, many, many times before.

Burum has a plan to win independence for San Bernardino County — yes, a new state of “Empire” in the diverse, working-class community of 2.2 million. Driven by civic pride in a growing region that has been looked down upon by many Californians and by frustration that the state has held it back from reaching its full potential, he envisions secession as a declaration of the county’s dignity and an opportunity to reimagine a broken political system.

The county government is planning to publish a key report evaluating the feasibility and financial implications of the proposal by June 11.

“I’m never going to be deterred based on other people’s beliefs,” Burum told CalMatters in a series of recent interviews. “If you can see a path to get there, then for the betterment of mankind, you need to pursue it.”

Though he can be coy sometimes about how much he really wants San Bernardino County to strike out on its own, Burum’s longshot campaign taps into the same vein of resistance against California’s liberal governance increasingly cropping up in more conservative pockets of the state. That includes San Bernardino County, which sued to stop Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lockdown policies during the coronavirus pandemic and which is home to one of the school boards leading challenges to policies inclusive of LGBTQ+ students and curriculum.

Jeff Burum at the Hope Through Housing Foundation in Rancho Cucamonga on April 18, 2024. Burum is spearheading the secession initiative in San Bernardino County. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters
Jeff Burum at his Hope Through Housing Foundation in Rancho Cucamonga on April 18, 2024. Burum is spearheading the secession initiative in San Bernardino County. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters

Burum, who is a Republican, is less focused on settling ideological scores than demanding respect. He contends that California has long deprived San Bernardino County, which at more than 20,000 square miles is the largest county in the contiguous United States, of its “fair share” of resources.

But his belief that the solution is secession — that it would be easier to carve out another state than fix these inequities through the existing political process, because those in charge will never relinquish any power — reflects just how disillusioned so many Californians have become about the extent of the problems here and our ability to ever fix them.

California, Burum argues, is too big to succeed.

“People are revolting because they can’t relate to the purpose of government when we were created,” he said, comparing his efforts to the colonists rising up against the British. “When the government doesn’t realize it’s become one of the bad actors, it’s time to speak up.”

A long and fruitless history of splitting California

By the time California became a state on Sept. 9, 1850, it had already survived the first attempt to split it — an unsuccessful last-minute amendment in the U.S. Senate that would have divided California in two, just north of Morro Bay.

In the nearly 174 years since, according to the California State Library, more than 220 additional attempts to break up California have followed, fueled by the persistent anxieties of rural residents feeling overpowered by the cities, of conservative voters feeling ignored by liberal Sacramento and of everyone feeling eclipsed by Los Angeles.

A bill to split Northern and Southern California passed the state Senate in 1965. A similar 1992 plebiscite won approval in 27 of the 31 counties where it appeared on the ballot. Less than a decade ago, a Silicon Valley billionaire tried to put a proposal for six Californians before voters. Perhaps most famously, residents of the rural north have been pushing for decades to create the State of Jefferson with fellow breakaway counties from southern Oregon.

None, of course, succeeded.

But that hasn’t diminished the allure of secession as a cry of rebellion — especially as the scale of American society has expanded, isolating voters from their representatives, said Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee.

“The states used to be there to provide a degree of localism and small-scale governance that they’re no longer able to provide,” said Reynolds, who wrote a paper in 2019 exploring how to address the dissatisfaction that fuels state secession movements. “California is probably the worst case of that, because it is so big and the government is pretty centralized.”

So why are some San Bernardino County residents so dissatisfied that they would leave California altogether?

“Oh man. It’s a long list,” said Jose Rodriguez, a 42-year-old union electrician from Rialto, as he loaded his purchases into his car at the Lowe’s in Fontana.

Poor education. Rising crime. Bad roads. Rodriguez, who supports former President Donald Trump, said he liked the idea of living in a community where he could trust people who are like-minded.

Secession “would have happened a long time ago if it was a possibility,” he said.

Jose Rodriguez at the Lowe's parking lot in Fontana on April 18, 2024. Rodriguez, an electrician and resident of San Bernardino County, supports the effort to have the county secede from the state of California. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters
Jose Rodriguez at the Lowe’s parking lot in Fontana on April 18, 2024. Rodriguez, an electrician and resident of San Bernardino County, supports the effort to have the county secede from the state of California. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters

Mostly, though, there’s a sense that California and what it means are slipping away. Rodriguez lamented that “the American Dream is no longer available.” While families could once survive a single income, he said, his union keeps raising the retirement age.

“I can’t be 70 years old working construction,” he said. “California, what it used to be, it isn’t there anymore.”

What happened to the ‘platinum service’?

California was good to Jeff Burum.

Originally from Maryland and later raised in Phoenix — where he said his political awakening came while fighting to keep his inner-city high school open — Burum moved to California to attend what is now Claremont McKenna College in suburban Los Angeles County. In the early 1990s, he founded a multi-state development empire of both commercial real estate and affordable housing.

Burum even came out ahead the last time he battled the government: In 2011, he was indicted for allegedly bribing county officials to approve a $102 million settlement that ended years of legal battles over flood control improvements to a property Burum wanted to develop. He was eventually acquitted in 2017, and contributed more than $100,000 to a committee to defeat the local prosecutor who led the case. Three years later, Burum received a $65 million payout from the county to settle a malicious prosecution lawsuit.

“People that come from nothing and achieve that level of success, you know, I think needs to be respected,” said state Treasurer Fiona Ma, a Democrat who became friends with Burum when they attended a legislative trip to China more than two decades ago but who decidedly does not support his secession proposal. “That’s why I think people do respect him, because he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon and he’s been a fighter all his life. And he’s not doing it to line in his pockets, you know? He’s doing it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

On a sunny afternoon last month, Burum waxed philosophical about secession at the headquarters of his affordable housing company in a Rancho Cucamonga office park. The chic meeting space on the first floor looks like a hotel lobby, with a bar and an artificial fireplace. Burum hopes it could one day host conferences.

Ever expanding his ventures, even at the age of 61, there’s a studio for a soon-to-launch online media network down the hall, while the office of a professional arena soccer team he owns, the Empire Strykers, sits across the parking lot. Burum is also working on a reality show about the ghost town of Calico, which he wants to turn into a virtual reality amusement park.

Burum said he loves being part of California. He praised its expansive economy and its diverse population, which he said inspires collaboration and change for the better.

But like many conservatives, Burum views governance through the lens of business. And he has been frustrated, he said, to watch California’s government become “inefficient through its growth” over the past several decades — lacking the economies of scale that are achieved by successful companies in the private sector and failing to provide the “platinum service” that he says should come from having among the highest taxes in the country.

“Government shouldn’t be an organic growing creature. It wasn’t ever really designed to be that. Government was created to protect us,” he said. “That’s become the largest weed in the garden. Now it’s bigger than the trees. That’s what government’s become in our country. That’s what it is in our state. Listen, that’s not what we were intended to be.”

What pushed Burum over the edge was how the state handled its massive budget surplus two years ago, which he complains was “porked out, instead of being invested in our future.” He said officials should have spent more money on infrastructure, such as water reservoirs and affordable housing, and helping people meet unfunded mandates, including the requirement that all cars sold in the state be zero-emission by 2035.

“None of it is common sense,” Burum said. “There’s a lot of distrust of government in our state, so let’s show them how to do it right.”

The ‘red-headed stepchild’ strikes back

Naturally, the response of an entrepreneur was to take on a project. Burum wanted to dig deeper into the numbers, to find out if San Bernardino County was getting what it was owed, and if not, to fight for more — or leave California.

Putting a number on how much San Bernardino County is being undervalued, Burum figures, will allow the county to demand payment from California. If the debt is so big that the state can’t cover it, then that’s leverage to reach a different type of settlement, such as a tax-free zone or even secession.

“What do you have to do in order to solve problems? You have to create natural tensions so that everyone wants to take the pressure off,” he said.

A softball game at Frisbie Park in Rialto on April 18, 2024. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters
A softball game at Frisbie Park in Rialto on April 18, 2024. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters



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