Meet the man from Russia leading the Calexit campaign

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American news is filled with stories about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But is there also a possible Russian connection to California’s reinvigorated movement to secede from the United States and declare its independence as a free and sovereign nation? Supporters of such an idea, called Calexit, are currently gathering signatures from voters to put independence measures on the ballot.

The concerns about Russian involvement center on Louis Marinelli, the leader of the Calexit movement. Marinelli, doesn’t currently live in California, but a dozen time zones away in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where he’s an English teacher. There’s nothing with that, but last year Marinelli and other Calexit supporters attended an anti-globalization conference in Moscow sponsored by a group with ties to the Russian government. Calexit also opened a self-styled “California embassy” in the Russian capital.

At a recent pro-independence event in Santa Monica, KCRW talked to Louis Marinelli about the California secession movement  and concerns about Russia’s role in the independence campaign. Marinelli had just arrived on a flight from Russia.

KCRW: You’re gathering signatures from California voters for what purpose?

Louis Marinelli: We’re gathering signatures for the purpose of getting a question on the ballot that would give the California people, for the first time in history, the opportunity to decide whether to remain a state in the Union, or become their own independent country.

KCRW: What’s your sense of public support for California independence?

LM: I think the support in California is definitely on the rise. We certainly don’t have a majority support at this time, but we have seen polls that show about a third of Californians support this issue, and that’s up from 27 percent in prior months. And so we are seeing a surge of support for California independence, and I think we are going to continue to see a surge in that support as long Donald Trump wakes up every morning and decides what he’s going to do as president of the United States.

KCRW: How much of your movement is really fueled by “secession fever” and those who are just chest thumping because they don’t like Donald Trump?

LM: I think it boils down to personal issues, and a lot of people have personal reasons about not liking Donald Trump. I have a problem with his immigration policies because my wife is a foreign national. We have navigated the immigration process ourselves. So for me, it’s a very personal issue. It’s not just about Donald Trump and these abstract philosophical or political debates. These are personal issues for a lot of people, and we are going to do what we need to do protect our future and to improve the quality of life for our people in California.

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Louis Marinelli, leader of the of the California independence movement, at an initiative signature event in Santa Monica. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW: What do you say to those who say there are too many challenges to secession, constitutional and otherwise? And the last time secession was tried in the U.S. it resulted in a bloody civil war.

LM: I think we can take a positive approach to this, going to the ballot box instead of going to the battlefield. Politically speaking, we are living in a time period where things that were believed to be impossible are possible. You look at the Brexit vote, it was said to be impossible. Donald Trump’s presidency was said to be impossible. In the last year we have seen two impossibilities become possible. So this is something that has it’s own challenges, but we are going to dig in and we are going to fight for it.

KCRW: You actually live now in Russia and not California. There have been concerns about your connection to Russia and the California independence movement’s connections to the country. What exactly is your relationship to the Russian leadership? Some say the California independence movement is an example of Moscow trying to foment trouble here in the United States.

LM: I would say that my connection to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin is pretty much the same as yours. We are separated by six degrees of separation. But I have never met Vladimir Putin or any other Russian government officials. My campaign and myself are not in contact with anyone in the Russian government. I happen to live and work in Russia as an English teacher, I teach ESL. But we have no connection to the Russian government and are receiving no support of any kind from the Russian government.

KCRW: But you did attend an anti-globalization conference in Moscow last year backed by the Kremlin.

LM: A conference that was held by a non-governmental organization, and it was on self-determination. They invited about 30 different nations there, including the Texas delegation, the Puerto Rico delegation. But also ones from Europe, Catalonia and the group that wants to unify Ireland. So there was a self-determination conference. We went there. I was invited to speak on self-determination in respect to the people of California. And we are proud to have gone to that. We don’t try to hide the fact that I am living in Russia, or that my campaign attended this conference. If we were doing anything nefarious, or illegal, we would certainly be a little more quiet about it.