UNITED STATES—An hour into a February 1 meeting of the council that controls the Constitutional Republic City of Oroville, which for months has stood at the precipice of war with the neighboring United States, regime leader Chuck Reynolds—the humble, blue-collar owner of a multi-million-dollar construction business and a convicted felon—gave a long, winding monologue in which he railed against his enemies while explaining that he doesn’t have any money because of evil billionaires, his own generosity, and the U.S. government.
Holding loyalists in his thrall for 26 minutes, an emotional Reynolds sought to bind himself to citizens of the breakaway Northern California republic over which he lords, offering himself as the last defense between them and those who would do them harm. The performance offered rare insight into the pressures and demands of leadership on the world stage—and the stagecraft with which leaders in this region, torn by strife and a refusal to obey public-health measures put in place by the regional and federal governments to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, appeal to the masses who will decide its future.
Reynolds began the speech by talking about how he had never wanted power, and had to be implored to seize it.
“Some of the hardest things that you deal with is giving up everything that you knew to be your life—your privacy, your ability to approach things from the manner in which you were used to. You have to let people talk when you know that they're standing there lying through their teeth,” he said.
He then explained that when he first got married, his wife told him he should get a job at Walmart, but that it was God’s plan that he not work at Walmart, but build Walmarts, and so he started a masonry business. It became successful enough that he had to work seven days a week, meaning he didn’t see his children and wife much.
“She came down to Walnut Creek,” he said. “I was building a whole city block for Willie McCovey, the baseball player. She called me and said, ‘We're at the motel, come get us. We want to see your job.’ And I went and got them and we pulled up in downtown Walnut Creek, which is a metropolis. Skyscrapers. And there's this whole city block where there's cranes and forklifts and scaffolding and dozens of people running all over with this building going up. And we're sitting at the stoplight. She said, ‘Where's your job?’ And I said, “That's it.’ Tears were rolling down her cheeks.”
Reminiscent as it was of one of the story-songs of the U.S. folk singer Bruce Springsteen, this story struck chords speaking to the ties between the constitutional republic city and the country of which it was once part, and against which Reynolds would eventually rebel by voting for a declaration that Oroville does not recognize the legal authority of its government. The prosperity he spoke of began to dissipate, in his telling, with the 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. president.
“We started with nothing and we built up,” he said. “We got to a point where we were owed about four million dollars of jobs we had completed and we had another four million dollars in work on the books. Not even thinking about it, just moving, because everything's happening, everything we touch turns to gold. And i'm thinking, you know, ‘How could anybody get this wrong?’ And then in 2008 there was an election that turned everything wrong for construction and everybody started filing bankruptcy, including most of the people that owed me.”
The 2008 election pitted opposition candidate Obama against John McCain, a senior member of the party that had presided over the collapse, starting the previous year, of a global housing bubble. Even as the ousting of the ruling party led, in his telling, to hard times for Reynolds’ construction company, though, he refused—against the advice of his mentors—to put any of his employees out of work, and “so ended up owing some taxes” as he struggled through what he described as an eight-year-long recession.
“Praise the Lord,” he said, nine minutes into his monologue, “there was another election and construction came back in full force.” This, though, didn’t end Reynolds’ woes, as after he built a building a “shark” refused to pay him.
“‘I'm not paying you,’” he said the man said. “‘I'm a billionaire and I'm not paying you. I want to see you lose your house. I want to see you lose everything.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because I don't like you.’ I said, ‘You don't have to like me. You just want that building built. I built it. I built it record time.’ He said, ‘I don't care. I’ve set aside $20 million to make sure you don't get your 500,000.’”
In Reynolds’ telling, the courts told him that the best he could do was walk away without his money, which made staying current on payments for the tax debt he’d accrued in the past impossible. He was then asked to run for elected office in Oroville.
“I didn't want it,” he said. “I said no.” And yet, somehow, in 2018, he was elected mayor of Oroville, which distracted him from his accounts.
“Couldn't figure out what was going on,” he said. “Asked my office manager what was happening with my accounts. She said she didn't know, but I have—I'm not a electronics guy. She had said something about a modem or server or something. That's why I couldn't get my emails, and she was routing the emails through her private one to give to me, and so she was sorting them phone calls forwarded to her cell phone.”
Reynolds went on to say that as he was fulfilling his biggest-ever contract, to build a local fire station, “All of a sudden, money was disappearing. IRS [the Internal Revenue Service, a U.S. federal agency charged with collecting taxes] showed up and said, ‘You haven't been making your payments.’ I said, ‘No, I have, I've been making my payments, look.’ And he said, ‘No,’ or they said, ’No, you haven't, it shows here in your QuickBooks that you've made all your payments, but it never showed up to our office. Somebody's intercepted your money.’”
The IRS, he said, “seized the proceeds from all my accounts receivable—$500,000” and allowed him to begin a payment plan to repay the rest of what he owed. Just the week before, though, he said 17 minutes into his monologue, he had an odd feeling, looked at his account on his phone, and saw that the IRS had seized $125,000 that he’d just been paid for a job. (That the IRS would do this to the leader of the constitutional republic speaks to the depth of the breakdown in relations between Oroville and the U.S.)
“I called my attorney,” Reynolds said. “It was 12 o'clock where he was at, and he said, ‘No no no no no, we have it in writing.’ I said, ‘Hey, this is real, this is what's happening,’ and he said, ‘Let me contact them.’ Come to find out that department, somebody got a promotion and she was going to show everybody how tough she was, so even though I was in compliance, and, and worked my way back, our way back, from, from so much, um, challenge, she decided that she was going to take all of our money.”
Reynolds did not directly tie what he said his lawyer described as an “illegal seizure” to Oroville’s status as a constitutional republic city, and focused instead on his own personal trials and the fealty members of the separatist faction that has seized power—and built ties to other separatist groups—have shown him.
“When they've seized every—all of your accounts, including your, your wife,” said an emotional Reynolds, “with her paycheck, and all you have is the money in your front pocket and everybody thinks you're on top of the world, I'm telling you, I've been on top of the world and I've fell down that mountain plenty of times, and I've had that mountain fall on top of me, and once again we'll dig ourselves out. But I'm going to tell you what, out of all the people that I know, and all the phone calls that I got of people that knew—because levies were sent out from people that had me as a contractor from four or five years ago—um, the gossip, the running around behind the backs, I'm gonna tell you what. Me and my wife prayed together and I got two phone calls—two—of people that asked me if I was all right. Actually, I’m gonna say three. That was Scott Huber, Scott Thompson, and Kenny Malone,” he said, referring to the regime’s attorney, its deputy leader, and a local cleric. “None of the other thousands that were chanting names during elections or anything else, that knew or didn't know or whatever—no, no calls saying, ‘Hey, are you okay? Do you need a gallon of milk?’”
Reynolds was able to compose himself enough to portray his struggles as those of the proud people of a restive land, as regime leaders looked on impassively.
“I'm nobody on top of the mountain. I'm one of you that decided to put his life on hold to watch out for you. I'm gonna tell you something. President Trump,” he said, referring to the recently deposed U.S. leader who still commands fierce loyalty in the tribal strongholds and disputed territories of this vast nation, “said something that made a lot of sense to me before. He said, ‘They're not after me. They're after you. I'm just in their way.”
Shortly after, he read a letter in which his attorney asserted that Reynolds had been making his payments to the U.S. government, then brandished it and offered to provide a copy to anyone who wanted one.
“If you think that I'm infallible,” he said, “I am. I am. I've fallen short of the glory of God. But my God is mighty.” One minute later, he opened the meeting up to public communication.