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Tito Ortiz was hailed as Huntington Beach's Donald Trump. Where does the city go now?

The LA Times logo The LA Times 6/3/2021 Hannah Fry
Tito Ortiz in a suit and tie: Mayor Pro-Tem Tito Ortiz resigned from the City Council on Tuesday, June 1. (Scott Smeltzer/Daily Pilot ) © (Scott Smeltzer/Daily Pilot ) Mayor Pro-Tem Tito Ortiz resigned from the City Council on Tuesday, June 1. (Scott Smeltzer/Daily Pilot )

From the moment Tito Ortiz entered the political arena in Huntington Beach, some of his supporters saw him as the local government version of Donald Trump.

The former MMA star sailed through Huntington Harbour on his boat with "Trump" banners flying. His campaign slogan was "Make Huntington Beach Safe Again," but his unapologetic rejection of public health orders to stem the spread of the coronavirus caused consternation at City Hall. He mocked the public health crisis as a "plandemic," calling it a "political scam" and a form of "population control" by liberals. He spoke openly about his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Last month, he grabbed headlines when his twin sons were sent home from middle school after they arrived on campus without masks claiming religious exemption.

On Tuesday — after a bumpy six-month tenure on the City Council — Ortiz surprised his colleagues by abruptly stepping down from his post, saying that he'd been the "sole focus of character assassination each and every week with multiple news stories” that sought to defame his name. The attacks, he said, now involve his family, causing him to fear for their safety.

"To put it simply," Ortiz said, "this job isn't working for me."

Despite all the attention Ortiz received, it was clear his hard-line ideology was not shared by all in this conservative-leaning city. Some of his colleagues on the City Council supported mask wearing in public places during the height of the pandemic. There has been a push among some elected officials to change Huntington Beach's reputation for hard-right politics to more of a family-friendly beach town that has the appetite to tackle social issues, like homelessness, and flies an LGBTQ pride flag outside City Hall.

Now, some see the city at a crossroads.

"Tito's departure is a reset for Huntington Beach," said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange. "While the radical right gets a lot of attention in the city, it's a place that has been positioning itself as being more moderate. It will be interesting to see whether the appointment is a reaffirmation of the MAGA voice or if it's a repudiation of it."

Ortiz represents a segment of Orange County residents who have made names for themselves protesting COVID-19 restrictions and recommendations at the county's Hall of Administration and on the streets of Huntington Beach. Ortiz was the top vote-getter in the November election, yet Smoller says he doesn't necessarily represent the opinions of the majority of residents.

A recent poll of Orange County residents conducted by Chapman University shows that 83% of people surveyed believe the coronavirus is a real threat. Seventy percent of the 704 people surveyed said they support a national mask mandate. When asked whether reopening the economy or containing the virus is more important, 68% of Republicans surveyed chose the economy. However, 93% of Democrats and 61% of those who don't belong to either political party said the opposite, the survey showed.

"Huntington Beach is trying to do reasonable things that are very mainstream," said Councilman Dan Kalmick. "I think there's been a narrative that these small, loud groups represent what everyone thinks and what everyone is doing. They don't."

Ortiz declined to comment to a reporter as he was leaving Tuesday's meeting.

Some of Ortiz's supporters are already requesting the council appoint Gracey Van Der Mark, a longtime Huntington Beach resident and conservative who came in fourth behind Ortiz, Kalmick and Councilwoman Natalie Moser in the City Council race last year.

Erik Peterson, who was Ortiz's ally on the council, said it makes sense for the council to appoint the person who got the fourth-most votes to Ortiz's seat.

"I don't know if this council will do that," he said. "I'm hoping we can appoint someone to do the job of municipal government and get out of the national debate."

Van Der Mark campaigned as part of a slate of three candidates, including Ortiz, during the election. Ortiz was the only one from the trio to win a seat. She could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Kalmick disagrees that Van Der Mark should automatically be the heir apparent because she placed fourth in the election. The council has 60 days to appoint someone to fill the vacant seat, according to the city charter.

"The voice of the people isn’t heard with a fourth-place vote," he said. "That's not what people voted for."

Ortiz's tenure on the council was a rocky one. He was nearly stripped of his mayor pro tem title during a meeting in February after months of criticism about his refusal to wear a mask and what some of his fellow council members thought was a lack of interest in learning the ropes of his position.

He was blasted by the community after he recorded a video outside TK Burger in January criticizing the eatery for not letting him order unless he donned a face covering. Residents accused Ortiz of potentially sending customers away when small businesses were struggling to survive amid coronavirus restrictions.

In May, Ortiz came under fire again for filing for unemployment against the city, despite not having his hours cut during the pandemic. On Tuesday, Ortiz said he faced "hostility and judgement" from the moment he was sworn in.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Ortiz said the "corruption" on the City Council and attacks from the "liberal left wing media" were among the reasons for his departure. Supporters who commented on the post thanked him for his integrity and applauded his decision to put his family first.

"I after much reflection realize it is time for me to remove myself from this type of behavior. I can be much more effective outside of the entanglement of the City Council," he wrote. "I am a Patriot, I am a proud Huntington Beach resident, I am an American who will always fight for my country and our Constitution. I may be out of the Huntington Beach City Council but I am far from out of the fight."

Matt Szabo contributed to this report

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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