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A one-woman watchdog is tormenting the far-right in deep-red California

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Only halfway into the endless plague year, the most outspoken journalist in one of California’s most conservative counties had already tangled with the sheriff, the local megachurch, a rodeo operator and other characters she later pegged as “the anti-maskers, religious zealots, science-deniers, strict Constitutionalists, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, militia members and State of Jefferson believers.”

Shasta County’s Doni Chamberlain took each to task in the frank and folksy column she publishes on her website, A News Cafe.

Then, in July, Chamberlain posted the column that unleashed a special fury.

Titled “Dear Governor Newsom: We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in River City,” it invited Gavin Newsom to visit Shasta County to observe the many individuals and businesses thumbing their noses at his orders to close businesses, wear masks and maintain social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“NO THANK YOU!!!!!! Don’t need no stinking communist liberals dictating to northern CA,” came one response. “Just look at the rest of CA, a den of criminals, druggies and homeless.” Another slapped her with a sexist slur on Facebook. Yet another social media nemesis struck a more menacing chord: “I think it’s time we remove her from our way of living.”

Love her or loathe her, few here are agnostic about the sometime gardener, cooking columnist and grandmother who has become the leading antagonist against what she sees as creeping extremism in the region locals know as the North State.

A News Café

On her website, A News Café, columnist Doni Chamberlain offers her take on the world, including Shasta County’s right-wing extremism. A sampling:

On Shasta County’s reaction to COVID rules and regulations:

“Generally speaking, here in Shasta County we don’t like new. We like the old Americana glory days. Also, we don’t cotton to a bunch of uppity, morally superior, socialist know-it-all’s telling us what to do.”

On national news outlets reporting on Shasta County extremists. Again.

“Same old, same old here in Redding, California. Please, world, look away. We are not ready for prime time or prying eyes.”

Chamberlain, 64, has embraced the contrarian’s mantle, while other media in the Upper Sacramento River Valley have staked out more neutral terrain. At times it feels to the late-blooming journalist like she is fighting for the very soul of her hometown of Redding, as friends worry about her safety and even a few relatives confess they have canceled their subscriptions.

“I can’t think of anyone in the North State who is as fearless in addressing issues that people have a hard time thinking about or talking about as Doni Chamberlain,” said Doug Mudford, a prominent attorney who is also an advertiser and occasional columnist for A News Cafe. “She asks the right questions, and she is tenacious. And then Doni just sticks her nose right out there and says, ‘This is how it is.’”

Carl Bott, for 10 years the owner of the conservative talk radio station KCNR-AM (1640), doesn’t agree with Chamberlain on many issues. “But she is gutsy,” Bott acknowledges. “She is unafraid to put her views out there. And there’s something to be said for a person like that.”

Chamberlain has myriad interests — like kayaking, antiquing and caring for two of her grandkids — that could fill her days. Last year she even considered selling the 13-year-old A News Cafe.

The site did not find a buyer. And that’s just as well, Chamberlain now says, because she feels someone must lay bare “the level of hatred and implied violence” in this seemingly bucolic land, three hours north of the Bay Area.

“I feel like I have to stand up,” Chamberlain said. “And the way I stand up is just to hold a flashlight up and say: ‘Look, this is what they are saying. This is what they are doing. This is what is wrong.’”

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It’s no secret that Chamberlain paddles upstream against the area’s dominant political current. President Trump won Shasta County by more than 30 percentage points in November. Chamberlain, meanwhile, dubbed Trump “one of the most destructive, narcissistic presidents in U.S. history.”

But Chamberlain has made her most lasting impression slaughtering the sacred cows that graze serenely in the deeply conservative fields here, a world away from the state’s progressive coast.

A News Café

On the breakup of her second marriage:

“To add to my Jerry-Springerish living nightmare, the ‘other woman’ was someone I once considered a dear, trusted friend. Oh, and a colleague, to boot. Triple betrayal. Snap. Crackle. Pop.”

On single guys and their online dating site profiles:

“Please, no poses with dead, dying or gutted creatures of any kind: fish, elk, bear, turkey, etc…No shirtless photos, or photos that show any area below your navel. Women. Do. Not. Want. To. See. That. Trust me on this…No selfie photos taken in any bathroom mirror, especially a gas station. Ever.”

On her post-election dread.

“I feel dread because North State militia membership is on the rise and militia training sessions are packed. These groups are becoming normalized in our region, complete with their own public relations video that describes the militias as harmless, wholesome, helpful community organizations.”

A long-ago member of Bethel Church, she now disdains the congregation’s evolution into a megachurch that holds serious sway in this city of 92,000, where it has 11,000 members. Bethel’s outsize footprint extends nationally, with a lucrative music division, media-savvy pastors and a confirmed appeal to Trump voters.

Chamberlain looks askance at those grand ambitions, along with the church’s embrace of supernatural phenomena, like reports from a decade ago of parishioners being enveloped in a mysterious cloud of golden dust. She has criticized church leaders for their apparent disdain of masks, noting that Bethel members led a COVID-19 surge last year.

When one Bethel member touted the success of the church’s gay “conversion therapy,” Chamberlain countered with a column about the many unnamed gay people “who’ve been scarred for life by Bethel’s gay-be-gone programs, that impart the damaging belief that being gay is a perversion, that being gay is an abomination.”

Church spokesman Aaron Tesauro defended the “signs and wonders” experienced by parishioners as akin to those described in the Bible. When “sparkling golden dust” emerged in the church in 2011, leaders even checked air ducts and vents to ensure no “tampering” created the “glory cloud,” Tesauro said.

Bethel leaders defended their coronavirus rules as creating a “safe space,” balancing safety and spirituality. And they asserted that their approach to sexual orientation “rejects any and all forms of physical violence, force, manipulation, shame or humiliation.”

Chamberlain has been similarly unimpressed by county Sheriff Eric Magrini, who has taken a hands-off approach to coronavirus scofflaws, including businesses that defied public health shutdowns.

When Magrini refused to take any action against a Mother’s Day rodeo in the small community of Cottonwood, Chamberlain likened his tepid suggestion that thousands of fans could take safety precautions to “telling a bunch of teenagers they can have the keys to the house, without adults present, plus the entire stocked liquor cabinet for the weekend.”

Carlos Zapata, 42, is a member of the Open Shasta County movement.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Concluded the columnist: “News flash, Sheriff: You’re supposed to enforce when rules are being broken. That’s why they call it law enforcement.”

Magrini did not respond to a request for comment.

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Chamberlain’s most concerted efforts highlight the diatribes and menacing social media posts of militia members, 2nd Amendment hard-liners and those who want the region to secede from California to form a state they would dub “Jefferson.”

Carlos Zapata, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war and now a restaurant owner, has emerged as the leader of this campaign to remake Shasta County.

In a video that went viral in August, the 42-year-old lashed the Shasta County Board of Supervisors for “muzzling” citizens in a coronavirus lockdown he called “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.” Zapata said he hesitated to ever return to the kind of hellish combat he endured overseas but vowed: “I will to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen.”

Chamberlain roundly rejects all things Zapata, including his claim that he is not making threats. “Who’s his enemy?” Chamberlain wrote. “The governor? Public health officials? … Random people who wear masks?”

Zapata has stirred the pot on social media and even in the comments section of A News Cafe, demanding that Chamberlain meet with him. “No one respects her,” Zapata said in an interview. “She’s a laughingstock in this town.”

“He really provides so much material, unrehearsed words right out of his mouth and on his Facebook page,” she said, explaining why she has declined to sit down with her nemesis. “It tells me everything I need to know about him. Besides, what’s the old expression? Don’t wrestle with a pig. You just get muddy. And the pig likes it.”

North State rebelliousness reached a new pitch in January, when two supervisors ignored public safety warnings and opened the board room for a meeting. Angry, mostly maskless protesters flooded in, threatening the board’s three-member majority and fulminating about an insurrection. One of the rebels spoke darkly about turning from the “ballot box” to the “cartridge box.”

To Chamberlain, it was Shasta County’s “Lord of the Flies” moment, when civil society collapsed, leaving “no clear-headed grown-up in charge to ensure a modicum of civility or decorum.” A day later, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Supervisor Leonard Moty, a former Redding police chief and a Republican, said that he appreciated Chamberlain for her willingness to identify those spouting extreme rhetoric. He said the local newspaper, the Record Searchlight, and KRCR-TV Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate, “don’t delve in too deep or call people out too much.”

Though critics say Chamberlain is too quick to peg opponents as extreme, her loyalists see her as a champion of common decency. Eleanor Townsend, a retired school administrator, called her “the only person up here who has truly held the line dividing civilization over barbarism.”

Her path to North State contrarian may have been forged early in her life.

Chamberlain was just 12 when she, her twin sister and two younger sisters were orphaned by their mother’s suicide. The girls went to live with a prosperous and seemingly happy foster family that turned out to be mean and abusive. Her foster mom was so difficult she made her own depressive birth mother “look like June Cleaver in Disneyland,” Chamberlain later revealed in her column.

Journalism could be a tool for exposing the ugly truths that lurk behind gauzy facades. “It was the idea of, for me,” she said, “if something looks too good to be true, then what’s underneath it?”

As a young married woman, Chamberlain worked at JCPenney, as a dental office receptionist, selling crystal at home parties and teaching job skills like resume writing. By the time she went back to Shasta College in her 30s, she hadn’t found her life’s work. And her marriage to her high school sweetheart was crumbling.

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She graduated with honors from Cal State Chico in 1994. Three years later, the Record Searchlight gave her a job, making her a cub reporter at 41. Less than a year into her new career, she persuaded the boss to let her write a column on President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

“I said Hillary should throw Bill out of the White House and keep the dog,” recalled Chamberlain. The piece charmed some and infuriated others. Her editor made her the paper’s first full-time staff columnist.

She developed a following with stories that sometimes packed a wallop, like a series about sordid residential motels. A couple of the fleabags closed not long after.

Doni Chamberlain sits at her dining room table near a vase of flowers

After an acrimonious split from the Redding Record Searchlight, Doni Chamberlain began writing the blog that would eventually become A News Cafe.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But it didn’t last. In 2007, a new editor asked Chamberlain to take her column in a different direction. She thought he wanted more gossip, while the editor insisted that he only wanted to hold the movers and shakers accountable. At an impasse, the editor said Chamberlain effectively quit. She said she was fired. About 100 of her fans picketed the Record Searchlight in protest.

Despondent, Chamberlain drank (“Baileys became a good friend”) and leaned hard on her allies. Her younger son told her she needed to buck up. He sent her a link that would become the rudiments of a blog called “Food for Thought.”

She insisted she couldn’t do it, then began to write, figuring she would stick to lighter topics, like her golden retriever and food. But readers reached out with meatier subjects they said her old paper wouldn’t cover. So she turned to tougher material.

“It just sort of snowballed,” Chamberlain said. But the challenges of 21st century journalism seldom recede. In 2010, Chamberlain split with her second husband, a double-blow, since he also was a crackerjack ad salesman for the website.

Suddenly single again at 50-something, Chamberlain later recounted to readers: “I cried alone in my borrowed, queen-sized bed. I cried on walks. I cried in movie theaters. I cried to full-volumed Andrea Bocelli CDs. I fell asleep crying. I woke up crying.”

Months later, the loss of advertising left her unable to pay her writers. Ignoring her financial advisor’s advice, she cashed in her 401(k) to make payroll.

Today, Chamberlain appears buoyant and unbowed. She said she pays the bills with Social Security, Airbnb rent for a room behind her house and the $40,000 to $50,000 a year the website generates, mostly from about 500 subscribers who pay $5 a month, or more.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

Her own family doesn’t always provide a respite. She recalled her older son telling her he has friends and neighbors in the local militia and doesn’t appreciate her putting them or their rural way of life down. Two of her young grandchildren romp around her house, sometimes calling California’s governor names. “And I don’t think Newsom is ‘a butthead,’” she said, adding with a smile, “most of the time.”

Never mind that. If you visit the tidy bungalow on a hill above downtown Redding, most days you’ll find Chamberlain hunkered over her laptop. She’s likely zinging someone, like erstwhile neighbors who fly Confederate flags alongside Trump banners. But she has the solace of the hummingbirds darting around her feeder and a view of her neighbor’s graceful oak. On clear days, she can see clear to the tip of Mt. Lassen, unmoved by these troubled times.

“At some point I wonder what it would take for me to stop writing about them,” Chamberlain muses. “Maybe if they quit making threats, or saying they were going to take over this county. Then I could get off this stuff. And go back to writing about sourdough starter.”

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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