Louis J. Marinelli is a very smart, very talkative 29-year-old ESL teacher who lives in San Diego with his Russian-born wife. A native of Buffalo who moved to California in 2006, he's been studying how his adopted state fits in with the rest of the country.
He has come to the conclusion that while America needs California, California does not need America.
So he is pushing for secession, gently, by running for the California Assembly against Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, a popular incumbent who probably has little to fear from Marinelli's challenge. By 2020, however, he hopes to get a secession measure on the state ballot.
"There are two kinds of people in California," he tells me. "People who identify themselves as Californians and Americans who are occupying California."
That is so not mellow, but he's not the only Californian in revolt. A handful of Northern California counties have been trying for decades to break away to form the independent state of Jefferson. In 2013, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper proposed breaking California into six states.
As far as I know, no one else is proposing a whole new country.
I got curious about Marinelli after the California secretary of state ordered county election officials to start keeping track of voters affiliating themselves with his California National Party. That sounded like the legitimization of something a little bit wacky. (On the other hand, what is politics if not the legitimization of that which once seemed wacky?)
Could this movement catch fire? So far, the metrics are not encouraging. Last year, the group raised $10,000, Marinelli said. So far, only 300 people have signed up as volunteers on his website.
Last weekend, I spent an afternoon with Marinelli, who had come to an outdoor mall here near the Mexican border to campaign for the Assembly, and, just as important, to discuss the idea of secession with fed-up Californians. Despite the fact that he was giving away T-shirts, not a single person stopped to chat.
I, however, got an earful.
The most surprising thing I learned is that Marinelli is coming at secession from the left, not the right.
"Fundamentally," he said, "we have a problem with the United States. Ideologically they are very different from us — their agenda, their militarism, their imperialism and colonialism. The United States is always at war. We don't want to bomb other countries."
The platform for the California National Party includes a commitment to reversing global climate change by reducing carbon emissions (an area in which, as Gov. Jerry Brown proudly noted in his State of the State speech Thursday, California is a leader).
"But the Americans over there," Marinelli said, gesturing more or less in the direction of Washington, D.C., "are debating whether climate change is real."
Marinelli supports a single-payer healthcare system, reproductive rights, public financing for political campaigns, a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in California illegally, and criminal justice and police reform. "People talk about gun control," he said. "I want to talk about police gun control."
He thinks the Pledge of Allegiance is propaganda. "It's an indoctrination. And then you grow up thinking America is the best country, but can anybody tell me why? Besides military strength and incarcerations, what are we No. 1 in? Nothing."
Perhaps most to the point, he believes that California does not receive its fair share of federal dollars.
This is a theme that crops up regularly; six years ago, when California was in one of its cyclical budget holes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger argued as much in his State of the State speech. Many budget wonks think it's untrue that California receives short shrift from the feds; others think it's a pointless statistic as smaller, poorer states should receive more federal help.
"We have some of the worst roads in the country, some of the worst schools in the country and yet they are taking our taxes," said Marinelli. "This exploitation is off the charts!"
If you would like to immerse yourself in arguments for California secession, take a look at the 157-page tome "California's Future: Your Guide to an Independent California," available on Marinelli's Yes California website. "May our right to self-determination be acknowledged," the dedication says, "so that the nation of California may be released from captivity."
Maybe I'm just not mad enough. When I curled up with it in bed the other night, it put me right to sleep.
Marinelli grew up in Buffalo worshiping John F. Kennedy (and not Ronald Reagan, as you might expect from someone born in 1986). His high school nickname was JFK, because he could recite hours of Kennedy speeches by heart.
In 2003, as a 17-year-old political neophyte, he trekked to Iowa to volunteer for Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Disappointed that John Kerry became the nominee instead, Marinelli shifted right; he supported George W. Bush's reelection and found solace in the embrace of Fox News.
"That channel is highly manipulative," he said. "It turned me into your typical conservative ideologue."
He became an anti-gay-marriage activist and traveled the country agitating against equal rights — "21 cities, 17 states, 10,000 miles in 30 days." Ironically, he said, it was all the travel that led to a change of heart. He moved abroad for a couple of years, his eyes were opened, he met gay people and came to appreciate their quest for equality.
And now he's got a new passion. It is possible that Marinelli has found his true political calling, but his restless history suggests that he is a searcher.
Which doesn't just make him a true Californian. It makes him a true American.
MORE CALIFORNIA NEWS