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Four conservatives make apparent sweep in Huntington Beach City Council race

Casey McKeon, City Atty. Michael Gates, Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland and Pat Burns pose for a photo at Gates' home.
Casey McKeon, City Atty. Michael Gates, Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland and Pat Burns pose for a photo at Gates’ home during an Election Night party on Tuesday.
(Matt Szabo)

A new conservative majority is poised to be seated at the Huntington Beach City Council dais starting next month.

Pat Burns, Tony Strickland, Gracey Van Der Mark and Casey McKeon have been campaigning together for months. Van Der Mark said they have done 110 meet-and-greets since the Fourth of July.

It apparently paid off for them on Election Day, as each member of the quartet found themselves well ahead of the rest of the field to fill one of the City Council’s four open seats.

Burns, Strickland, Van Der Mark and McKeon led as the first results came in at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The margin got wider as the night got longer, with the four candidates attending an election party at the house of City Atty. Michael Gates, a fellow conservative.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Burns had received 24,689 votes, followed by Strickland (24,378), Van Der Mark (22,342) and McKeon (21,910).

Gina Clayton-Tarvin sat in a distant fifth place with 14,192 votes as of Wednesday evening, with four-term City Council member Jill Hardy in sixth place followed by Kenneth Inouye and Oscar Rodriguez.

Gates, who campaigned along with the winning quartet, had 29,617 votes as of Wednesday evening, outdistancing challenger Scott Field with 16,673 votes.

Aimee Banderschelden casts her ballot at the Huntington Beach City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Van Der Mark and McKeon unsuccessfully ran for council in 2020 along with Tito Ortiz, who was elected before resigning six months into his term. McKeon, a member of the Charter Review Commission and a former finance commissioner, said this time was different. Each member of the group was endorsed by the Orange County Republican Party.

“We all came together organizing, working together from Congressional candidates down to City Council, school board candidates,” McKeon said. “It was just a huge team effort and very organized. Our calendar was full every single day with events. We left nothing on the table. Gracey, Tito and I campaigned together, but it wasn’t as organized and tight.”

Burns is a retired police officer and Strickland is a former state senator and assemblyman.

“The bottom line is that we had a message, a contract with Huntington Beach that said exactly what we were going to do if you elect all four of us,” Strickland said. “We talked about fighting against high-density housing, and we said if you elect all four of us, we’re going to push for Michael Gates to sue the state based on those faulty numbers. We talked about our 90-day plan on homelessness, and incorporating nonprofits and church organizations to help solve that problem. We had a message that resonated with the people of Huntington Beach.”

Van Der Mark, who has served as a finance commissioner and planning commissioner, finished fourth in the 2020 race. After Ortiz resigned, some locals pushed for her to be appointed as his replacement because she had been the first runner-up, but Rhonda Bolton got the spot. A recall effort against the majority of the council was then started by a group calling itself Save Surf City, but that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Van Der Mark has also had a past lined with controversy, having been removed in 2018 from two school district committees after she reportedly referred to minorities as “colored people” in a YouTube video.

“Every person that has questions about that, I’ve said, ‘You want to come meet with me? We’ll meet and we’ll talk,” she said. “Those that are still talking about that are the ones who have refused to meet with me, that don’t know me. I’m focused on what we need to do to make our city better, and that just needs to be white noise.

“If anybody has questions, they’re welcome to talk to me, but right now we’re going to focus on making our city better. We’ve worked so hard, and we’re focusing on the city.”

Christina Krebs, right, assists Brandon Mendez in processing his ballot at the Huntington Beach City Hall on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Clayton-Tarvin, who was endorsed by the Orange County Democratic Party along with Hardy, Rodriguez and Inouye, said she saw the election outcome as a win-win. The result means that she will continue serving on the Ocean View School District Board of Trustees as its president. Her current term runs through 2024.

Still, she decried the numerous political action committee mailers that targeted her candidacy for City Council. The conservative candidates’ campaign had deep pockets; Strickland alone reported more than $100,000 received in the first half of the year, a number that grew to more than $194,000 by Oct. 22.

“They literally put out eight hit pieces on me,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “All the disinformation overpowered the truth, that’s the problem. If that’s what Huntington Beach wants, that’s the will of the voters, but I think it’s dangerous behavior for future political campaigns in our city. They set the bar so low, but yet so high with spending. I don’t know how anybody who wants to have an opposing voice is going to be able to do that.”

“Oscar, Ken and I ran a clean campaign and we only told the truth ... And they turned it into a referendum on Joe Biden and Gavin Newsom,” she added. “I have nothing to do with Joe Biden and Gavin Newsom, but that’s what they did. That’s the current political landscape.”

Hardy, a math teacher at Marina High, previously served 16 years on the City Council and was Surf City’s mayor in 2005 and 2015. She said this was the first time she has lost a council race.

Hardy added that she would never say never, but it was unlikely that she would run for council again in the future.

“It’s unusual, when an entire slate gets elected and they’re so far above the next group of candidates,” she said. “But I know that they ran a long and hard campaign, so it’s not surprising that they did well. I’m disappointed, of course. I’ve spent a little bit of time reflecting on what I could have done more. Honestly, I’m not even sure the sum of all of those things would have added up to a win. There’s quite a distance between the four who won and the next group.”

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