Lacking power at the state level, conservatives are leaning into local governance to protest California’s progressive politics. The fight in Huntington Beach could be a harbinger of what’s to come.
HUNTINGTON BEACH — The winds of change blew swiftly and relentlessly into this oceanside city in northern Orange County.
Not long after winning election last November, the new conservative majority of the Huntington Beach city council adopted an ordinance that prevents the rainbow LGBTQ+ flag from flying at city hall during Pride Month.
Then this summer, the council dissolved a human relations committee formed after two notorious hate crimes by white supremacists in the mid-1990s; rewrote a declaration on human dignity to eliminate any reference to hate crimes but recognize “from birth the genetic differences between male and female”; and took away the ability to select who gives the invocation before its meetings from an interfaith council also founded in the wake of those 1990s hate incidents.
Last month, council members passed a ban on government mask and vaccine mandates in a city that has none, then placed measures on the March ballot that would add the flag policy to the city charter and require voter identification at the polls.
Hardly a few weeks pass anymore without another contentious vote pushing the community to the right — and right into some of the country’s fiercest cultural battles. Claiming a mandate from voters, Huntington Beach’s conservative council majority has set out to erase any vestige of progressive governance or “wokeism.”
They’ve been cheered on by constituents including Cari Swan, a local activist who helped organize an unsuccessful recall attempt against five members of the previous city council for passing liberal policies that she considered out of step with Huntington Beach’s values.
“The left kind of brought it on themselves,” Swan said. “They were poking the bear and the bear fought back.”
But now an opposition, growing fearful of just how far and how fast the conservative council may go to reshape their community, has galvanized around their latest move to create a citizen review panel to monitor library books for sexual content.
At a tense meeting last month, public comment dragged on for five hours as hundreds of residents filled the council chambers, frequently shouting at the conservative majority for promoting a book ban. Opponents have since launched a campaign against the March ballot measures, effectively turning the election into a referendum on the council members and their vision for Huntington Beach.
“They have just come in and taken a wrecking ball to the city with all of these things they have passed,” said Carol Daus, a library volunteer who has lived in Huntington Beach for more than three decades. “Now the community is divided. There is no place for the middle.”
How did the political center fall out, even in this swing region of California where the close partisan divide might have once invited moderation instead of conflict?
Welcome to the era of backlash politics.
Lacking power at the state level — where Democrats are so dominant that they can dismiss these cultural concerns without so much as a debate — conservatives are leaning into local governance as a form of protest against liberal California.
Their efforts can also be seen in Shasta County, where far-right activists took control of the government for not doing enough to fight coronavirus pandemic mandates and then got rid of voting machines at the center of election fraud conspiracies, and in school boards across the state, which have been roiled by fights over the rights of LGBTQ+ students.
It tracks with a growing repolarization among California voters. After decades of steady gains in independent registration, the trend has undergone a sharp reversal over the past five years as more voters embrace the Democratic and Republican parties again. Surveys find an increasing number have a favorable view of their own party and an unfavorable view of the opposition.
“It almost feels like you have to overcompensate for some of the damage being done,” said Gracey Van Der Mark, the Huntington Beach council member who proposed the library book review committee. “The more radical they got to the left, the more I felt myself pulling to the right.”
Many residents and former officials in Huntington Beach have watched with shock and horror as the city of nearly 200,000 emerged as a leader in this movement. They emphasize that the community historically leaned conservative, but not overly partisan, and had long been on the same page about maintaining its suburban beach town vibe.
The 2020 presidential election split fairly evenly, with Donald Trump beating Joe Biden by fewer than 4,000 votes. Several Democrats were elected to the nonpartisan city council, which began taking steps that might have once seemed unthinkable, such as flying the rainbow flag for Pride Month for the first time.
The Trump era and the pandemic deeply unsettled the community, however. Huntington Beach was the site of regular protests — in support of Trump and against pandemic restrictions, occasionally violent and sometimes led by white supremacist groups, recalling its history as a magnet for skinheads in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The unsuccessful recall effort two years ago tapped into a sense among many conservative residents that they were losing their community. Local activist Russell Neal said the then-council’s decision to fly the Pride flag exemplified how progressives encourage moral weakness to bring people under control of the government.
“The whole transformation of culture goes together as a cohesive package,” Neal said. “The fundamental form of slavery is slavery to sin and when they’re slaves to sin, presto, they’ll find themselves slaves externally.”
It’s a message that can be heard at meetings of Republican groups around town and at Calvary Chapel of the Harbour, an influential evangelical church overlooking a marina on the northern edge of Huntington Beach. The conservative council candidates campaigned from the stage there last year, with Pastor Joe Pedick telling congregants he was voting for the foursome. One of the intern pastors is running for city council next year.
“We look for those types of leaders” who will “stand up for righteousness,” Pedick said after this past Sunday’s service, where a guest speaker preached to hundreds that Planned Parenthood is the source of all wickedness in modern American culture and that Democrats are demons.
Running as a slate last year, however, the conservatives focused their platform not on cultural issues but on fighting high-density development in the city, including a state requirement to plan for more than 13,000 new units in the next eight years, as well as on reducing homelessness and crime. They swept the four open seats last November, receiving at least 12,000 votes more than their closest competition, and celebrated the results as a mandate, though with lower turnout, each won the support of less than a fifth of Huntington Beach residents.
“Our voters have no more appetite for progressive governance or the wokeism,” said City Attorney Michael Gates, a staunch conservative elected to a third term last November after campaigning with the council candidates.
So opponents are flummoxed by how much the city council focused this year on issues that never came up in the campaign. They have come to see the housing and homelessness message as a bait-and-switch — though to what end, they’re not sure. To simply undo the work of the previous council? To boost future runs for higher office? To create a laboratory of conservative policymaking that could become a playbook for other communities?
“It’s a banana republic down here,” said Dan Kalmick, one of three Democrats on the city council who regularly oppose the conservative majority. “This isn’t Republicanism. This is nihilism.”
The political divisions have consumed city government — sometimes quite literally. The conservative majority chose adjoining offices on the same hallway in city hall, booting the Democrats to the other side of the building.
Council meetings are filled with open hostility and executive staff have fled for neighboring communities. While a potential budget deficit looms, the council majority recently approved a secret $7 million settlement with a political ally who sued the city after the final day of his popular air show was canceled in 2021 due to a massive oil spill.
“That whole philosophy, you would think it would be small government and fiscal prudence because they are Republicans. But they are ones who are Republicans in name only,” said Democratic Councilmember Rhonda Bolton, who slammed the conservative majority for advancing policies such as voter ID and the library book review committee without considering how much they might cost to administer or defend in court. “What I’m seeing is Trump ideology, MAGA ideology, and in that respect, no original ideas.”
The conservative council members say they are responding to concerns raised by constituents during more than 100 town halls they held on the campaign trail.
One of their first major steps, about two months after taking office, was adopting a policy that allows only flags for the United States, California, Orange County, Huntington Beach and the military to fly on city property. Councilmember Pat Burns, who introduced the ordinance, said it was a move to unify the community behind symbols that represent everyone equally. He said he has nothing against LGBTQ+ people, but believes the rainbow flag — the only flag previously approved for display in front of city hall that was not included in the new policy — promotes divisive identity politics that are actually counterproductive to LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“They’re such a small population and why would we recognize anybody special?” Burns said, adding that it would be like him asking for an NRA, white or Christian flag in front of city hall. “We’re all marginalized in some way or victimized in some way, but we don’t get months or parades or whatever.”
Known as the Fab Four to their fans, the council majority, along with Gates, have become rock stars to local Republicans, who hooted and hollered for them at a Veterans Day ceremony on the beach.
Supporters spun off groups like HB Lady Patriots, which aims to bring a patriotic education back into Huntington Beach schools and was active in promoting the library book review proposal. Gates said he hears from officials in other communities who want to replicate their policies, including Fresno County, which recently voted to create a panel to screen children’s books in the libraries.
“We’re willing to be the tip of the spear on this,” Van Der Mark said, attributing everything the council is doing to a philosophy of fighting government overreach. “We want to make Huntington Beach the city that protects your individual liberties and freedoms.”
Van Der Mark’s sunny fourth-floor office at city hall is stacked with books that she finds obscene. Many of them are sex education manuals, borrowed from the Huntington Beach public library and filled with sticky notes to mark offending passages — discussions of masturbation, explanations of fetishes, images of erect penises and gay sex.
She’s particularly perturbed by a picture book called “Grandad’s Pride,” currently on order for the library, which features a drawing of a Pride parade where two men in leather are kissing in the crowd; she equates it with promoting bondage to kids. Van Der Mark also returns again and again to a page in a sex education book that describes how to use lubricant to insert a tampon if it does not fit.
“The lines are so blurred that we don’t even know where to stop and where to start,” she said. “I don’t need to learn how to stick a finger up my vagina with K-Y jelly. We survived without that kind of graphic information. And if you want it, then you go talk to your mom.”
It’s the type of sexual content that her library book review committee, which the city is in the process of establishing, could move to the adult section or prevent the library from acquiring in the first place. Though a challenge process for library books already existed — there were five in the previous five years, including one by Van Der Mark herself — she said more robust steps are necessary to protect young readers from damaging material, even if it appears within the context of an educational or creative work.
“This one page is going to stick in their brain,” she said. “We should have one area that is completely safe for all children.”
Her crusade has mobilized library supporters — the central branch, a concrete marvel with a spiraling atrium, is beloved far beyond Huntington Beach — and First Amendment groups, who sent a letter to the council in October warning that the plan would infringe on free speech. Daus, the library volunteer, worries that the vague language of the ordinance could allow the committee to impose its own morality on the entire community, especially with LGBTQ+ books.
“It’s feeling like a China or a Russia or a Hungary,” Daus said as she toured the children’s room, which has a reading area designed as a pirate ship. The sex education section had only three books on the shelf.
Among the conservative council majority, Van Der Mark seems to especially rankle the opposition. She was a divisive activist even before her election, which she winkingly acknowledges in her office with a framed wall hanging of her entry in the OC Weekly’s Scariest People of 2018 list.
That was the year Van Der Mark got kicked off two school district committees after troubling comments she had made online resurfaced. In 2017, Van Der Mark joined alt-right protestors, including some with ties to white nationalist groups, to crash a racial justice workshop in Santa Monica. Beneath a video of the incident posted by Van Der Mark, she referred to Black attendees at the meeting as “colored people” who were doing the bidding of “elderly Jewish people” there. Her YouTube account also had a playlist of Holocaust denial videos titled “Holocaust hoax?”
The comments have continued to follow Van Der Mark through her rise in local politics. This summer, as the council majority voted to eliminate the human rights committee, Democratic Councilmember Natalie Moser publicly questioned whether Van Der Mark was a Holocaust denier, leading the conservatives to censure Moser.
“She was masking a face of radical extremism and she did it to infiltrate a government institution so she could become legitimized,” said Gina Clayton-Tarvin, a liberal school board trustee who initially appointed Van Der Mark and who finished fifth in last year’s city council election. “It’s a total threat to democracy, because they are acting in ways that are quasi-fascist.”
Van Der Mark said she has never doubted the Holocaust happened; she was unfamiliar with the conspiracy theory, she said, until she spoke with one of the Jewish organizers at the racial justice workshop she crashed, whom she said sent her the hoax videos as an example.
A 49-year-old grandmother and daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and Mexico, Van Der Mark said she was largely apolitical until around 2016, when she was pulled into advocacy against the local sex education curriculum. She acknowledged that, in the early stages of her political awakening, she attended all types of rallies “to find the truth,” not necessarily aware of who she was affiliating with, but she denied harboring any racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic sentiments.
“If I would have known they were there, I might not have gone,” she said. “But I can’t regret going, because had I not gone out in search of the truth, I would not be where I am today.”
As Van Der Mark prepares to take over as mayor next month, critics worry that she will unleash even more extreme policies. Van Der Mark said she has tried to explain herself to opponents but they remain hostile, perhaps because she betrays their idea of what a Latina politician should be.
“I want to be able to offer this little safe haven that I found for my family, for other people,” she said. “The other side is trying to push conservative values out. We’re saying, ‘no, no, no, this is our city.’ We want to keep it. Why do you want to change it? If this is not a good fit for you, there are other cities that may be a good fit.”
Feeling like strangers in a strange land, some liberals in Huntington Beach are considering leaving.
Daus and her husband have started to explore a move to nearby Long Beach or Pasadena, where a daughter lives. An incident in June when a neighbor had their rainbow flag ripped down and torn to shreds unsettled Daus.
“These are the things that just make you go, you know, do you want to live around this? Or would you rather be in a more welcoming, inclusive neighborhood?” she said. “If I wanted to live in Florida, I’d live in Florida.”
The library fight diverted her attention, though, and the housing market is tough, so now she may wait to see what happens with the March election. The campaign to defeat the proposed charter amendments has provided some comfort and motivation. While she’s not ready yet to put a sign in her yard, she is getting bolder. At a kickoff event last Saturday afternoon, where hundreds gathered at the park outside the central library, Daus ran a table soliciting people to write op-eds in the local media.
Attendees picked up lawn signs and postcards from other booths. The three Democrats on the city council spoke, as did former elected officials. Under a canopy, Shirley Dettloff, who helped write the city’s human dignity statement when she served on the council in the 1990s, signed up volunteers.
“We wanted the city to be known as a city that protected people,” Detloff said. “I was just surprised that anyone would take that on as an issue.”
At the end of the event, dozens gathered around a 33-foot-by-24-foot rainbow flag lying in the grass and chanted, “Vote no! Vote no! Vote no!” The homemade flag is a project of Pride at the Pier, an LGBTQ+ community group that formed this spring after Huntington Beach passed its flag ban. In May, demonstrators unfurled the enormous flag over the side of the city’s famed pier in protest.
Kane Durham, one of the group’s founders, said this year has raised difficult questions for LGBTQ+ residents about whether they will continue to be welcome in Huntington Beach. He fears the council might next use the updated human dignity declaration, which states that “sex carries advantages and disadvantages that warrant separation during certain activities (i.e. sports),” to prevent trans athletes from participating in the city’s youth sports programs.
Though he does not live in Huntington Beach, Durham has become a vocal activist on behalf of other transgender and nonbinary people whom he said do not feel safe putting themselves out there publicly. For his efforts, he said he’s been doxxed and subject to online rumors calling him a pedophile.
“Too many Californians are in this blue fantasy bubble. We think that it won’t happen here, even while it is happening here,” Durham said. “There are so many people there who are frogs in a boiling pot of water.”
Months of angry council meetings have hardly swayed the Fab Four off their path. They dismiss their opponents as a vocal minority searching for relevance and reject the notion that their actions have divided the community like they accuse their predecessors of doing.
“If just who shows up to city hall’s a reflection of the city, none of us four would have been elected,” said Tony Strickland, who is finishing up his year in the rotating mayorship. “The voters have the final say.”
That will again be the case in March, the first real test for the council majority of how sustainable backlash politics can be in transforming a community.
Even some allies already seem to have grown weary of what’s happening in Huntington Beach.
Pano Frousiakis, a young Republican activist, ended his own campaign for city council last year and worked to elect his conservative rivals so they could regain control of a community that he had always considered “our little oasis in California.”
Though he’s happy with the overall direction of the council, Frousiakis concedes that “the past few months have been getting a little bit off-track.” He established a political organization this year, the HB Patriots, and is running again for city council in 2024 with a message about getting back to local quality-of-life issues.
“Unfortunately, I feel that our residents get sidelined as a result of that. I feel sidelined as a resident,” he said. “The other issues that are being talked about, that’s why I vote for president.”
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