How OC Weekly’s founding editor turned conservative libertarian firebrand
Two years ago, a former colleague phoned Will Swaim with bad news: By Thanksgiving, OC Weekly, the alternative newspaper he founded in 1995 and headed until 2007, would halt the presses for good.
By chance, he drove by Coppertree Business Park in Costa Mesa, site of the Weekly’s first official office, and mourned.
“The tragedy of being human is that everything ends,” said the 61-year-old. “I just didn’t see it coming.”
Swaim now looks back at those days as nostalgia. He’s currently president of the California Policy Center, a Tustin-based conservative nonprofit that rails against public-sector unions and promotes charter schools. It’s a post that has left many who knew him from his OC Weekly days feeling similarly blindsided, if not downright confounded or betrayed.
From his perch, Swaim co-hosts the National Review’s “Radio Free California” podcast, writes opinion columns for outlets like Fox News and found himself at the center of controversy last year over a white paper that inspired the Orange County Board of Education’s symbolic vote to return to in-person schooling without masks or social distancing.
“I was a lefty when the county was conservative and I’m a libertarian or a conservative now that the county is moving the other way,” Swaim explained. “I simply had to confront that I was wrong. Individuals are best positioned to understand their own needs, dreams and desires.”
Swaim grew up in a devout Catholic household in Mission Viejo split among party lines. He considered becoming a priest before studying journalism and theology at USC. “I used to tell people Jesus led me to Marx,” Swaim said. “I still was going to church and joined the Communist Party.”
He earned a master’s degree in history at UC Irvine and helped start “The County,” an underground newsletter on O.C. politics during the late ‘80s that served as a precursor to the Weekly. The effort revealed to Swaim just how many compelling stories went untold by the existing papers of the day. When offered the opportunity to start OC Weekly as a sister paper of LA Weekly, Swaim pounced on it.
As editor, Swaim imbued his leftist outlook into the Weekly from the start. He greeted reporters at every newsroom meeting with a robust “Comrades!” and made conservatives of every stripe — political, economic, religious — the target of his paper’s ire. It took down a pair of Huntington Beach mayors, hounded O.C. Sheriff Mike Carona all the way to federal prison, unleashed the “Ask a Mexican” column on the county’s xenophobes and shined a light on subcultures long ignored.
Swaim also hired Rebecca Schoenkopf as a 22-year-old cub reporter who became a cult figure in early-2000s Orange County with a nightlife-cum-politics column called “Commie Girl.”
“He was urbane, elegant and erudite,” said Schoenkopf, who’s now the owner, editor and publisher of Wonkette, a saucy site of liberal commentary on national politics. “I just completely admired him.”
But there were also inklings of conservativism from the start.
In a December 1997 Orange Coast Magazine profile, Swaim described himself as a “Catholic Marxist with a heavy dose of libertarianism.” In that same article, Ken Grubbs, a former Orange County Register editorial director who last served as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s press secretary, presaged Swaim’s eventual turn.
“I just think he’s trying to square some circles that he can’t square, like Catholicism and Marxism, like libertarianism and Marxism,” Grubbs said. “Will is struggling with the contradictions.”
Swaim points to an experience he had prior to starting the Weekly as the beginning of his evolution, even if he didn’t know it at the time. He worked on the campaign of an unnamed Democrat who took him to a meeting with a local police department’s union. The politician explained his realpolitik with public employee unions: pledge support for their contract in exchange for an endorsement. After seeing it play out with back slaps and handshakes, the experience left Swaim a disaffected Democrat.
So, too, did the steady exposés of liberal politicians that came across Swaim’s editorial desk at the Weekly, a point he raises in conservative circles whenever the Weekly is criticized as having been a left-wing rag.
“We were the paper that really exposed Larry Agran in Irvine,” Swaim said. “We were the paper that targeted [Rep.] Loretta Sanchez. There wasn’t so much a political agenda as there was a deep desire to tell stories that other people weren’t telling.”
Swaim’s conservative conversion arrived in full after a string of mishaps in journalism.
In 2007, Swaim and an exodus of his former OC Weekly staff members formed the District Weekly in Long Beach, a short-lived newspaper he left after about a year. When the District folded in 2010, Swaim’s wife remained as head of the publishing company. In the messy aftermath, the California Labor Commission ruled that six workers were owed $70,000 in unpaid vacation time. A judge later found the penalty to be unenforceable under law, since the company was bankrupt.
“Swaim was a great editor,” said Dave Wielenga, a Weekly journalist who joined the District and was one of the six workers in the commission’s initial ruling. “He was really good for my career until he wasn’t. It was really disappointing.”
By then, Swaim had already presided over the closing of another alt-weekly, Los Angeles CityBeat. In a time he described as “miserable,” Swaim worked outside of journalism after that as a fraud investigator for a bank. That same year in 2011, he began “The Republic of Costa Mesa” blog to chronicle the city’s clash with the Orange County Employees Assn. over privatization, pensions and pink slips.
“All I wanted to do was write about this one thing that continued to trouble me — and that was my affection for unions,” Swaim said. “I realized government unions are very different creatures as I learned in Costa Mesa.”
He sparred with OCEA over the suicide of a city employee set to be laid off and sided with Costa Mesa’s Republican council members more often than not.
His fusillades drew the attention of Steve Greenhut, a former Orange County Register senior editorial writer and columnist who had been the frequent target of the Weekly. Greenhut served as vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and needed a managing editor when he hired Swaim.
“I don’t find [his political evolution] surprising, at all,” said Greenhut, now western director for the R Street Institute and an editorial board member for the Southern California News Group. “As I’ve seen over the years, he’s become more ideologically aligned where I have been but I think he’s always naturally been a libertarian.”
The two traveled the country discussing politics, free markets and unions. At one conference, copies of “I, Pencil” a pro-market essay by Leonard Reed circulated; Greenhut recalled it having a profound impact on Swaim.
“The common complaint from the left that the problem was about a business class,” Swaim said, “just started to strike me as hollow — an excuse.”
When Greenhut left for R Street, Swaim took his Franklin Center posts but tired of being away from family for work. In 2016, he became communications director for the California Policy Center before leading the nonprofit as president a year later.
According to nonprofit tax filing records, grants and contributions to the nonprofit have increased steadily from half a million in 2016 to more than $2 million per year. It now boasts a paid staff of nine. In 2020, Swaim drew a salary of $142,000 as president — and his harshest criticism to date.
In July 2020, the Orange County Board of Education voted 4-1 to approve guidelines for students to return to class without masks or social distancing amid a pandemic. It soon emerged that Swaim authored a controversial white paper supporting as much.
Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics, criticized the white paper as “poorly annotated” and a “deficient” scientific review of the available evidence in the Daily Pilot, which tied it to Swaim’s pro-charter advocacy, reporting that he deems “100% unfair.”
After the controversy, Swaim’s think tank helped establish the Orange County Classical Academy, a charter school in Orange that opened last year. Mark Bucher, the California Policy Center’s CEO, co-founded the school along with board chair Dr. Jeff Barke, a private physician criticized for promoting coronavirus misinformation. The Lincoln Club of Orange County recently toured the campus and offered its online hosannas.
All might as well have been dartboard targets at the Weekly while Swaim was in charge, but they are now counted as charter school allies.
“I was wrong and they were right,” Swaim said. “It’s also a measure of their openness to have me work alongside them.”
Despite Swaim’s sweeping political changes, he contemplated going home to the Weekly again. Prior to the paper’s closure, he met with its owner Duncan McIntosh and offered insights into how to turn the troubled institution’s financial woes around. Swaim left the meeting with the impression that McIntosh might also decide to put the Weekly up for sale — and spoke with interested parties in anticipation.
“I just thought he would sell it to somebody else who would do something amazing with it,” Swaim said. “I thought maybe I would be the guy.”
But the paper’s abrupt closure caught almost everyone off-guard.
Now, a Rage Against the Machine poster that hangs from his home office and is visible during Zoom interviews serves as rare reminder of Swaim’s rebellious past. He doesn’t consider the leftist rock band’s poster a contradiction, just a reminder of a “question everything” ethos from his earlier days.
“For me, the pendulum swung the other way,” Swaim said. “I don’t know where I’ll be in five or 10 years. All I know is what I see at the moment — that free minds, free people and free markets produce better outcomes for everybody.”
Swaim’s former “comrades” who shared his missionary zeal for alternative journalism remain some of his most obstinate skeptics.
“It’s an unbelievable contrast,” said Schoenkopf, who once resigned from the Weekly in solidarity with her editor’s own departure from corporate ownership. “He was young and exciting. You can’t be a young, exciting Republican. That’d be crazy — I guess you can if you’re Congressman Madison Cawthorn, but he’s not stupid. I just can’t imagine it’s intellectually honest.”
All the latest on Orange County from Orange County.
Get our free TimesOC newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Daily Pilot.