Surf City USA now on the frontlines of Trump-era politics

By Thomson Reuters Feb 14, 2024 | 5:07 AM

By Daniel Trotta

HUNTINGTON BEACH, California (Reuters) – Bisecting a wide sandy beach, the Huntington Beach pier beckons tourists and surfers alike, creating a break in the waves that helps gives the city its nickname: Surf City, USA.

It is a scene as laidback as the name would suggest – and a stark contrast to the political hostility spilling out of City Hall just a short drive inland.

Since a conservative majority took over the Huntington Beach City Council a little more than a year ago, it has vigorously pursued an agenda aligned with the Republican Party politics of former President Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement.

The pushback has been just as dedicated, led by a grassroots opposition movement called Protect Huntington Beach, made up of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans. Clashes between supporters of the two sides have turned City Council meetings into rancorous affairs.

Last week the conservative bloc with the 4-3 City Council majority addressed an issue close to the heart of MAGA supporters – security along the U.S.-Mexico border – whipping up a debate punctuated by boos and cheers from both sides. Conservative hecklers shouted “You’re done!” and “USA baby!” at liberal speakers.

Huntington Beach, a city of about 194,000, has become a microcosm of a polarized America in the Trump era. Norms of comity have given way to a zero-sum game where total conquest is sought because the opposing party’s values are seen as un-American.

“It’s a blood sport to be involved in Huntington Beach,” said Tony Strickland, part of the conservative council majority. “So many people are active. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Orange County, where Huntington Beach is located, Richard Nixon was born and Ronald Reagan was venerated, has traditionally leaned conservative, a place of lopsided Republican victories in a broadly liberal state. Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans countywide.

Huntington Beach, however, saw a more activist strain of conservative politics flourish during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people who resisted mask and vaccine regulations began to gather for demonstrations at the pier.

Then the November 2022 elections ushered onto the council the four-member bloc of conservatives embracing MAGA politics and backed by a local Christian church, Calvary Chapel of The Harbour . The church’s senior pastor, Joe Pedick, did not respond to Reuters requests for an interview.

Such political takeovers of municipal governments are rare, especially in California where local offices are non-partisan, although Christian conservatives have won control of local school boards while running as a bloc in California and other states.

The new council majority in Huntington Beach voted to remove books deemed as having sexual content from the teen section of the library, restricted who could give the opening prayer before city council meetings, and stripped the three liberals of assignments on boards and commissions. Last week it took on the border dispute in far away Texas.


Their rightward turn will face a test on March 5, when three ballot measures they promoted will go before the voters, including a proposed voter ID requirement and an effective ban on flying the LGBTQ pride flag over City Hall. Trump will also be on the ballot, in the state’s Republican presidential primary.

Three of the council conservatives say they are Trump supporters while the fourth, Pat Burns, who placed the border security issue on the council agenda, declined to say.

Councilman Casey McKeon, one of the conservatives, said his colleagues were simply trying to bring city politics “back to the middle.”

“We’re not following the planks of the Republican Party and Donald Trump. We’re addressing issues that affect Huntington Beach,” McKeon said.

In response, the Protect Huntington Beach group is fighting back by trying to stop the ballot initiatives and dissuade other localities from replicating the partisan divide.

“We know that other cities and counties are watching us,” said Cathey Ryder, one of the founders of Protect Huntington Beach.

Ryder said she hardly recognizes Surf City’s politics today. “Up until probably five, maybe eight years ago, I never knew if anybody on my city council was a Republican or Democrat. It didn’t matter.”

Dan Kalmick, one of the three liberals on the council, described the majority’s actions as “nihilism.”

“It just seems to be spite and trying to own the libs,” Kalmick said. “Taking this level of national politics down to the local level breaks local government, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Before getting elected to the council with her three conservative colleagues, Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark rose to prominence as a mom who fought to remove the graphic memoir “Gender Queer” from the teen section of the library.

She contends the council can look after city business like infrastructure and finances while “also addressing other issues.”

At the council’s direction, last week librarians moved dozens of titles with sexual content from the children’s section to the adult section, according to a liberal city council member, Natalie Moser, and a board member of the Friends of the Huntington Beach Public Library, Carol Daus, both of whom documented the move with photographs. Among those relocated were books on sex education and potty training and one called “Cargo Ships.”

Van Der Mark said an advisory board appointed by the council would review the removals and return any books considered appropriate for children but that she would continue screening out material she considers too explicit.

“Most of California has become liberal. Why can’t we have an area for ourselves?” Van Der Mark said. “I’m just fighting for the residents that want a place that represents their values.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Paul Thomasch and Deepa Babington)