fAfter the abrupt departure of an anti-mask, ex-UFC fighter city council member, Huntington Beach, California, is careening toward a wild special election highlighted by a candidate who filmed herself at a protest with men who would later go on to storm the U.S. Capitol and drink goat blood in a pagan ritual.
From late December until June 1, Tito Ortiz served as a Huntington Beach city councilor and “mayor pro tem.” The months-long term was unusually headline-worthy even for Ortiz, a former UFC champion. Before quitting last month, he claimed the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was a “false flag,” called for a boycott of a burger restaurant that asked him to wear a face mask, and got barred from a library (also over a masking dispute).
With Ortiz out, Huntington Beach’s city council has been tasked with picking his replacement or else sending the race to a special election. The chaotic process has the city flirting with its furthest-right representative yet.
In a rowdy July 19 meeting, the council narrowed their choices down to three candidates, from a pool of approximately 100 contenders. One, Gracey Van Der Mark, is the heir to Ortiz’s fanbase, earning an endorsement from the erstwhile councilor. But Van Der Mark is also a well-known figure in the area’s far-right scene, beginning in 2017, when she and other fringe figures crashed an anti-racism event.
Neither Van Der Mark nor Ortiz returned requests for comment for this story.
A Republican-leaning surf city, Huntington Beach is Trump-friendly territory a short drive from more solidly liberal Los Angeles. Ortiz’s election in November was a testament to those Trumpist tendencies; he previously competed (and lost) on Trump’s reality show The Apprentice, and cribbed the ex-president’s talking points while on the campaign trail.
“They’re going to come down and burn this city down,” Ortiz claimed of leftists in a speech in October. “They’re going to rape the women and the children. Bullshit, not on my watch!”
He also boasted of never wearing a mask, spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19 being a “plandemic,” and suggested that life-saving ventilators were actually speeding the virus’ progress. In recent days, the pandemic has shown signs of a new surge, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated, in both Orange and L.A. counties.
Although Ortiz stepped down in June, citing media pressure, he has since thrown his support behind Van Der Mark, who finished fourth in November’s best-of-three city council elections. The remaining city council members are tasked with appointing Ortiz’s replacement.
During the boisterous meeting this past week, the councilors failed to choose one. But Ortiz joined a loud crowd of Van Der Mark supporters, and Erik Peterson, a current council member, nominated Van Der Mark to replace the MAGA luminary. Peterson did not return a request for comment.
The loud supporters are par for the course with Van Der Mark, according to Gina Clayton-Tarvin, clerk of the board of trustees at the area’s Ocean View School District.
“This is a pattern of hers,” Clayton-Tarvin told The Daily Beast. “She’s a disruptor, she’s a bigot, and she has no place in public governance. None.”
Van Der Mark’s internet history reveals a long involvement with the alt-right.
In April 2017, according to a Facebook post reviewed by The Daily Beast, she shared a picture from an event with Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman. A far-right brawler and leader of the Proud Boys’ paramilitary wing the “Alt-Knights,” Chapman had earned his nickname months earlier when footage went viral of him hitting a leftist protester with a stick, leading to his arrest and eventual plea deal on a weapons charge. (Chapman, who did not return a request for comment, later splintered from the Proud Boys, claiming he would launch his own version with an antisemitic name.)
“My son got a few tips from Based Stick Man on how to protect himself against the Antifa masked cowards at rallys and patriot events. [sic]” Van Der Mark wrote on Facebook.
The meetup was far from the only of its kind. The Daily Beast has obtained an undated selfie of Van Der Mark with Antonio Foreman. Foreman, who did not return a request for comment, has his own far-right history: In June 2017, he filmed himself reciting a neo-Nazi slogan, and in August 2017, he marched in the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That June was an active month for California’s far right scene.
On June 10, Van Der Mark attended an anti-Islam event in San Bernardino. Photos from the day show her wearing a gun-print shirt, standing behind far-right figure “Johnny Benitez,” who is wearing a Proud Boys uniform and holding a poster with a meme about ethnic cleansing of Muslims. He could not be reached for comment.
At another point in the day, Van Der Mark posed for group photos with the demonstration’s attendees. Included in the picture were multiple men in Proud Boys uniforms, a man holding a “death to the sick dog of Islam” sign, and uniformed members of the Rise Above Movement, a violent white nationalist group that brawled with leftists at the event. The day’s violence was later cited in a criminal case against four R.A.M. members, though Van Der Mark had no connection to the case.
In July 2017, Van Der Mark joined multiple now-infamous figures to crash a Santa Monica seminar about white privilege. During the demonstration, other members of the insurgent group shoved and shouted at Black seminar attendees, and chanted “deport her” at a Latina woman who argued with them. Also in attendance with Van Der Mark were Benitez, Vincent James Foxx, Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, and Augustus Sol Invictus, the OC Weekly reported.
Foxx was a vlogger associated with the Rise Above Movement. Gionet and Invictus, meanwhile, would become notorious the following month when they were listed as speakers at the deadly Charlottesville rally. Gionet was arrested for allegedly pepper-spraying a bouncer at an Arizona bar in December 2020 and, while out on bail in that incident, live-streamed himself breaking into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and yelling at police inside. (Gionet claims to have only attended the riot to document it.) Invictus (who legally changed his name from “Austin Gillespie”) is a former libertarian Senate candidate whose already-longshot political dreams were further scuttled when it was revealed that he slaughtered a goat and drank its blood in a pagan ritual. Invictus is currently in jail awaiting trial on one of his many allegations of domestic violence.
Van Der Mark uploaded footage of the demonstration to YouTube. “This meeting was being ran by the elderly Jewish people who were in there,” she wrote in a now-deleted video, according to the OC Weekly. “The colored people were there doing what the elderly Jewish people instructed them to do.”
Van Der Mark, who is Latina, told the outlet in 2018 that she did not intend “colored” as a slur. But as the Weekly noted, her comment invoked old conspiracy theories about Jewish people secretly manipulating people of color in order to bring down white society. The Weekly also reported that Van Der Mark had a YouTube playlist titled “Holocaust Hoax?” featuring antisemitic videos, and that she had defended a neo-Nazi book burning as “a burning of magazines and literature taking advantage of our kids.”
Van Der Mark’s far-right ties were not discovered until after she took a local government role.
Clayton-Tarvin, the local school board trustee, said she hired her in 2017 when Van Der Mark was the only applicant for a local tax oversight position. Van Der Mark soon took on a second role in the Huntington Beach City School District, and a third on Huntington Beach’s Finance Commission. And although Van Der Mark lost her school district gigs in 2018, after tipsters flagged her alt-right connections to Clayton-Tarvin, Van Der Mark kept her role on the city’s Finance Commission.
A city councilmember who led an investigation into Van Der Mark told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 that he had not seen sufficient evidence to oust her from the commission.
“From this process, I find insufficient evidence to support a finding of just cause for removing her from her appointed volunteer position,” the councilman, who no longer holds office, told the paper. “I have complete confidence in Gracey’s ability to fulfill the responsibilities of serving on the Finance Commission and I look forward to her continued service to the community.”
Van Der Mark subsequently launched a school-board bid, lost, launched a city-council bid, and lost again, despite backing from the local GOP and then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Now, Ortiz’s departure and his fan base’s new enthusiasm for Van Der Mark have given her latest unlikely campaign a shot in the arm.
On Facebook earlier this month, Ortiz claimed that city council members “appear intent on hand-picking your next councilmember through secret deliberations—without public debates or input, in a closed session last Monday night. I urge the council to reconsider this backroom deal approach, and select the People’s choice from the last election—Gracey Van Der Mark—instead.”
The Monday night meeting was, in fact, not a “backroom deal,” but a public event crowded with Van Der Mark supporters who argued that her fourth-place finish in November’s election should qualify her for Ortiz’s seat. Ortiz, himself, attended the meeting in a Van Der Mark t-shirt. If city council members do not pick Ortiz’s replacement by July 31, the race will go to a special election. The race’s other two remaining candidates are Rhonda Bolton, a local attorney who is on the city’s human relations task force; and Jeff Morin, who runs a disaster-planning business and is vice-chair of a city commission on air traffic.
Despite Van Der Mark’s far-right backing, Clayton-Tarvin viewed her city council chances with skepticism.
“She is not representative of the citizens of Huntington Beach,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “She rode Tito Ortiz’s coattails to get that position. That’s how she got there. Had he not been in the race, she would have been at the bottom, just like she was when she ran for the Ocean View School District board and lost in 2018.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the July 2017 rally in Santa Monica. We regret the error.