Column: 'I'm going to keep succeeding': Huntington Beach's Latina MAGA mayor speaks

HUNTINGTON BEACH-CA-MAY 29, 2024: Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark is photographed in her city hall office on May 29, 2024. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark is photographed in her City Hall office. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Critics of Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark have called her many things during her short but chaotic political career.

She’s been called antisemitic because she once created a YouTube playlist titled “Holocaust hoax?” that featured videos questioning the Shoah.

A racist, for using the term “colored people” to refer to Black attendees at a racial justice workshop in Santa Monica where she and Proud Boys showed up.

A puppet of forces looking to cleanse Surf City of anything liberal.

A homophobe, for supporting measures that banned the flying of the Pride flag on city property and any municipal celebration of Pride Month, and for pushing for a purge of LGBTQ+ titles from the young adult section of the Huntington Beach Public Library that she found indecent.

Vendida, for being a Latina supporter of Donald Trump.

None of these words was on my mind after our one-hour conversation last month. Instead, what bubbled up was buchona.

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Originally used to describe the wives and girlfriends of Mexican cartel members, buchona has transformed into shorthand for Latinas who wield power and are not afraid to flaunt it.

That’s the Van Der Mark I encountered the moment we met in her small fourth-story office at Huntington Beach City Hall.

The 50-year-old mayor wore a form-fitting denim zip-up jumpsuit straight outta Stagecoach. Her hot-pink nails matched the J. Crew trenchcoat wrapped over her chair, and the coat of the same color hanging from her office door. Completing the look was a crystal-bedecked “HB” necklace in the style of the city logo.

“I’m not polished, and I don’t want to be,” she said matter-of-factly as I sat across from her. A plaque on Van Der Mark’s desk stated, “I’m Kind of a Big Deal” — a gag gift, she insisted. Next to me was Huntington Beach police chief and, for some reason, interim city manager Eric Parra, before public information officer Jennifer Carey replaced him.

We were meeting because of my March 21 columna suggesting that Trump choose Van Der Mark as his vice presidential candidate, since she had “a resume tailor made for MAGA Land.” She sent me a note afterward, saying she enjoyed my piece and had hung a digital version of it next to her desk, underneath a 2018 clipping from the OC Weekly, which I once edited, crowning Van Der Mark as one of Orange County’s scariest people.

She also requested a print clip. I said I’d deliver it in person, so we could talk.

Inside Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark's city hall office
A photo of Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark inside her City Hall office alongside mementos. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Van Der Mark is the latest in a long line of bombastic conservative Orange County politicians who have gained national attention. But there’s never been one like her, a Horatio Alger fable come to life — born Gricelda Larrea to immigrant Mexican and Ecuadorean parents, raised in working-class Maywood as the ninth of 11 children, a mother at 19 — ready to brawl with those who imperil her Huntington Beach paradise.

“We’re going to fight you if you’re hurting our community,” the former copier technician said in her high-pitched, fast-paced voice. Of critics, she boasted, “What they have to do is they have to squash me. They have to try to destroy me. They have to try to make me go away. But I’m pretty stubborn. It’s not going to work.”

The fact that she’s a proud Latina fluent in Spanish makes Van Der Mark a particularly potent force this election cycle, as Latinos increasingly grow skeptical of President Biden and Republicans need every last Latino vote they can get.

“OK, I don’t like to do identity politics,” she said when I asked whether her ethnicity was significant to her rise. “But it is true that if you send a white man with a tie [to a Latino neighborhood], they’ll look at him with suspicion. But if somebody just like them goes and says, ‘No, this is really what’s happening,’ people listen. And that’s what the people who don’t like me are afraid of.”

After escaping an abusive relationship where she sometimes slept in a car with her children, Van Der Mark married her current husband in 2000. They moved their blended family to Huntington Beach.

“I didn’t realize that there were areas like Huntington Beach where it was safe,” she said, admitting to being amazed at schools with no fences or metal detectors — “That took me a few years to get used to.”

Did she ever experience discrimination in a city long notorious for racism? Not once, she said, because she “wasn’t looking for it.”

No one looks to be discriminated against, though.

“If you’re saying, ‘Did anybody call you a beaner?’ Never,” Van Der Mark responded. “I mean, if there was racism, I didn’t notice it.”

Read more: Column: I know who Trump should pick for VP — and she's right here in O.C.

She was a “Democrat liberal feminist” who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but soured on him for what she said was focusing on “the content of our melanin” and “creating a victim mentality” for minorities, especially children. The stay-at-home mom went with Trump in 2016 and was appointed to two school district oversight committees in 2017, then booted from them for her aforementioned far-right dalliances.

I asked whether she regretted hanging with those folks.

“They were at rallies and protests, and I didn’t ask them, ‘What are you guys? Who do you believe in? Who do you like?’” Van Der Mark replied. “I was observing, I was learning, I was —”

“Taking photos with them,” I interjected.

“Well, they were just people,” she shot back. “I didn’t even know what Proud Boys were. They were just people that would just jump in a picture. And it was like, pictures with, like, 200 people. I’m not going to go and vet everyone.”

There’s a picture of her smiling alongside 19 others who crashed the Santa Monica anti-racist workshop — including two alt-right personalities who went on to participate in the infamous “Unite the Right” gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — but whatever.

Van Der Mark unsuccessfully ran for the Ocean View School District board in 2018, lost a 2020 City Council bid, then finally won a council seat two years ago along with three other Republicans. The four of them overturned a Democratic majority, then started a scorched-earth campaign against opponents that continues today.

They stripped the Huntington Beach Interfaith Council of its decades-long privilege of picking invocation speakers before council meetings, declared Surf City to be a “No Mask and No Vaccine Mandate” town and are mulling over whether to privatize the city libraries after Van Der Mark’s bowdlerization efforts sparked a furious backlash.

Meanwhile, Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates unsuccessfully sued California over its housing mandates, and state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta fired back with a lawsuit against a voter ID law passed by Surf City voters this spring in what Van Der Mark described at an April news conference as akin to “declaring war” on residents.

Were all these battles worth it?

Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark necklace
Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark wears a necklace with her city's initials. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Were all these battles worth it?

“We’re going to take on as many issues that we can while we have the ability to make a difference,” she replied.

Was it good for the city, though? Council meetings have turned into caustic, hours-long blabfests.

I noted that Van Der Mark and her allies had poisoned the civic well right from the start, when they voted to rescind a longstanding council resolution that rotated the ceremonial, unpaid position of mayor to the council member with the most seniority.

That allowed Van Der Mark to assume the seat in November after just a year in office, jumping over Natalie Moser, Rhonda Bolton and Dan Kalmick — all Democrats.

“I think you should stand up and push back against something that’s not right,” the mayor said. “These people were not right for the job.”

But politicizing a nonpartisan tradition eroded community ties, I argued.

“Well, there are a lot of things that have happened traditionally that were bad, or historically that weren’t good. It wasn’t because of the party. ”

But Moser, Bolton and Kalmick are Democrats.

“That’s their issue.”

Then, Van Der Mark asked whether I wanted to see something on her tablet. I was hoping it was the timeline she keeps of all the attacks against her.

Nope; it was porn.

Earlier, she had described in exacting detail the illustrations and descriptions of oral sex she claimed were in children’s books at Huntington Beach libraries, copies of which she kept in a bookcase in her office, right next to a collection of writings by the Founding Fathers.

It was very nanny state of her to meddle with city librarians, I remarked.

“They try to say, ‘Well, I have a librarian’s degree, so I’m more educated than you,’” she countered. “Parents don’t know that this garbage is in our library.” She turned the tablet around.

“Click on any blue link you see like.”

No thanks.

Read more: Letters to the Editor: Hey, Huntington Beach book banners, kids find a way to look at what they want

She picked one at random. Naked women.

“Almost every school and their district still has this kind of garbage,” she said. “The only ones that are being damaged are children. The adults ... I don’t care. Do whatever you want. Leave the kids alone.”

Van Der Mark became slightly emotional.

“I know if I would have had better opportunities growing up, I probably could have had an easier life. At this point, I don’t regret the challenges that I’ve been through, because they’ve brought me to the position I am in today. I’ve had pretty horrible experiences that have made me stronger.

“And I know what it’s like to feel helpless and dependent on someone because you got kids and you don’t want to rock the boat because the violence might go towards your kids,” she continued. “I understand what that’s like. I also understand what it’s like to have to shut up and not interact, because it’s the safest route to take. I find myself using some of those strategies in this position.”

Our time was almost up. Are you seeking higher office? I asked.

“It’s not my dream,” but “I will do it,” she said, if supporters ask her to run.

What’s the danger of opponents underestimating you?

For the first time, HB’s boss buchona had nothing to offer.

“I don’t see myself as a danger,” Van Der Mark finally said. I pointed out that she has made a career of using the hate thrown at her to fuel her rise.

That prompted a closing, triumphant thought.

“I’m going to keep succeeding. And they don’t want me to. And that makes me want to do it more.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.