Column

Meet the man who wants to make California a sovereign entity

Louis J. Marinelli is putting his money where his Golden State heart is, by way of the initiative process. The candidate for Assembly (from San Diego) has paid $200 a pop to try to get nine initiatives on a statewide ballot, all of them about making California not an entirely separate country but a "first among equals" sovereign entity distinct from those 49 also-rans. He already has the green light to collect the nearly 400,000 required signatures on six of his measures, with three still awaiting the go-ahead.

Although Marinelli knows his ideas for promoting California are unorthodox — check out his "Between Two Flags" YouTube sendup of the Zach Galifianakis talk show parody "Between Two Ferns" — he's serious about getting California the status he thinks it deserves. Starting on Labor Day, he's taking his pitch to the state Capitol grounds. Look for his group there, because his signature-gatherers will surely be looking for you.

Why are you doing this? You weren't even born in California.

I was born in upstate New York and moved here in 2006. It was one of the greatest accidents of my life. I'm Californicated, I guess you'd say. I feel like an immigrant who moved here from another country. I just love California. What's going on in the U.S. politically and culturally is so different from what's happening here. I want California to be all it can, and our group feels the political and cultural connection to the U.S. is holding us back from our potential.

We're not trying a 1860s breakaway; we're talking about California being recognized as a nation within a nation, like Scotland in the United Kingdom. We feel California is more than just a state. That's what this campaign is about.

Just now, you're rebranding this movement from "Sovereign California" to "Yes California," to clarify your mission. Did "sovereign" sound too House of Windsor?

We ran into a number of problems. People thought we were associated with Sovereign Citizen [an anti-government movement], which we're not. The police were watching our events. There's also some religious connotation we don't have anything to do with. And people have problems spelling "sovereign."

Yours is an interesting resume; you taught English in Russia, you are a 2nd Amendment supporter and an ACLU member, and you once campaigned against same-sex marriage.

A regret of mine; I wasn't really anti-gay per se, but I was of the persuasion that marriage should be between a man and a woman. I led a charge on that, created a social media network, traveled around and talked about this. Taking this issue from social media to the streets and meeting people affected by this changed my mind. It opened my eyes to diversity, and that's what California is about.

Isn't your vision of California the one conservatives mock as latte liberal?

I'm pretty liberal, especially on social issues. [People] joke about being so open-minded that your brains fall out, but that's just a bumper sticker. Open-mindedness is one of the great things that California has to offer.

One of your group's initiatives would ban out-of-state political contributions.

We've gotten a lot of support for that. In 2014, millions of out-of-state donations were put into California [campaigns], most of those from New York and Washington, Wall Street and K Street. We don't want them telling us what the laws are going to be here. We don't want plastic bag manufacturers in North Carolina or Alabama putting a referendum on our ballot.

Another would let California create its own immigration policy.

This is more complex. We have a problem caused by the federal government; they don't modernize our immigration system. Nothing is being done because of Washington political gridlock. In our initiative, if you're an undocumented immigrant in California and you register and pay a fee to cover the cost of the application, we give you a temporary internal residency permit [and] a California tax ID number to pay state taxes. When you're registered and otherwise law-abiding, we're going to turn a blind eye to your federal immigration status.

Yet another initiative would tax bottled water taken from California sources, to discourage using that water. And water taken from California sources would be labeled "Not drought friendly."

During the drought, we're asked to cut back. I understand that the amount of water used by the bottled water industry is pretty insignificant in the grand picture. But every drop helps, so why allow multinational corporations to take our groundwater and pay the same you or I pay for water, getting, I think, 740 gallons for a dollar and reselling it for 20 ounces for a dollar? They're making massive profits on our limited resource. We're not trying to stop them from conducting business, but they should pay a price for that precious resource. That tax would encourage Californians to buy other states' water instead of ours.

When you argue for California to be able to make binding international trade deals or to control federal lands in the state, it has echoes of the states' rights' stand used in the 1950s and '60s to oppose civil rights.

We're not taking away people's rights; we're for expanding people's rights. California is the only state in a position to do this. If, say, Alabama were its own country, experts say it would be a failed state. California has what it takes to be our own country. But [these measures] aren't going for that. We believe California can be granted extra sovereignty within the system and not leave the United States.

You need more than a third of a million signatures per initiative to make the ballot, and you hope the secretary of state will accept the signatures you're gathering digitally.

We have a volunteer team we call the Bear Force, after the California grizzly. On a smartphone or tablet, you go to the link and affix your signature with your finger, like when you sign for your credit card. There's a machine with an ink pen that reproduces the signature on paper that will be turned in to the secretary of state.

There are other initiatives you want Californians to approve, including modernizing the initiative process and creating a California National Party. So far, you're running for Assembly with no party affiliation.

I know a lot of people have problems with our government in Sacramento. We're not saying the [state] government is perfect. Personally, I support some of the things Sacramento does, [but] what we're saying is, why have two bad governments? I think a lot of the problems in Sacramento are rooted in Washington.

You want to rename the governor the "president of California," and fly the state flag above the U.S. flag, which could rile people, including veterans.

We're not trying to pick a fight, but if we're [going to be] a nation, we need to start thinking like one. It's a symbolic gesture, but it would do an immense amount of work to that end. The [title] "president of California" is about that as well. Imagine a newspaper headline about Barack Obama coming to California — it's not "President Obama meets with Gov. Brown," it's "President Obama meets with President Brown."

He did run for president a couple of times.

Yes, we've heard people saying our initiative is finally giving Jerry Brown what he wants!

This interview was edited and condensed. patt.morrison@latimes.com.

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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