The founder of a California secession effort has close ties to Russia that has raised questions about the campaign's motives. Louis Marinelli, 30, has the backing of a far-right nationalist group in Moscow that wants to fuel chaos in the United States, the ABC7 News I-Team reported Monday.
Marinelli, who lives in Russia with his Russian wife, is the leader of the Yes California campaign, a ballot initiative known as Calexit that would amend the state constitution. He is a U.S. citizen.
“I want California to separate from the negativity and the dysfunction and the corruption and the broken system we live under,” Marinelli, who teaches at a language school in Yekaterinburg, Russia, has said. “I just want to live in a country I’m proud of. I’m not proud of the United States or Washington, D.C. I am proud of California.”
California's longtime debate about whether to leave the U.S. was aided in November by the election of Republican President Donald Trump. Recent polls suggest one in three Californians would be interested in starting their own nation. The effort is widely considered unlikely. California would need approval from Congress and two-thirds of the state legislatures to become independent.
"I'm in Russia for a number of reasons," Marinelli told local reporters in California. "I have personal reasons. I want to be here and I have political goals to achieve while I'm here, one of which is to build a bridge between California and Russia."
He said his wife's immigration issues had also kept him out of the U.S. "My wife is a foreign national from Russia," he said. "As you can imagine, we've had difficulty and an expensive and difficult time navigating the immigration system."
Marinelli discussed an independent California at a conference in Moscow in 2016 that was paid for by a Kremlin-backed charity with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia has also offered to provide rent-free office space for "a California embassy in Moscow," Marinelli said.
Former CIA chief Leon Panetta warned Russia's fingerprints on the ballot measure could be problematic.
"We're a big state," said Panetta, a former secretary of defense. "With a tremendous impact in terms of this country's economy and politics. If you can weaken the leadership of the United States in the world, Russia can be able to get away with a lot more of what they want to do."
Trump said earlier this month he was unhappy with California's values, including efforts by local governments to protect undocumented immigrants and ignore the White House's anti-illegal immigration policies calling for mass deportations. California voters overwhelmingly voted against Trump in November.
"We give tremendous amounts of money to California. . . . California in many ways is out of control, as you know. Obviously the voters agree or otherwise they wouldn’t have voted for me," Trump said.
California is an economic player in the U.S. In 2015, it generated $405 billion in tax revenue. Other Calexit supporters are also concerned about Russia's role in future state ballot initiatives.
"We see (Yes California) as a Russian front organization engaged in an attempt to coup the genuine California movement for independence,” said Jed Wheeler, an Oakland resident who is vice chairman of the California National Party, which supports California independence.