Politics

Voters in Huntington Beach, Calif., support ban on flying Pride flags on city property

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The rainbow Pride flag and other nongovernmental banners will no longer fly on city property in Huntington Beach, California, an oceanside side community that has become a hotbed for broader culture wars.

More than 58% of voters cast ballots in favor of Measure B, according to the latest tally provided by the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Measure B prohibits the display of Pride, breast cancer awareness and religious flags, in what is believed to be the first time voters have directly considered what kind of flags are flown in a city.

Measure B exempts city, county and state flags, as well as the U.S. and armed forces flags from the ban.

Commemorative banners, like those for POW-MIAs or the Olympics also would be allowed in places like City Hall.

“It sets a tone,” said Huntington Beach City Council Member Rhonda Bolton, who opposed the measure. “If people think it’s OK or it becomes normalized to display bigotry towards a particular group, then folks are going to crawl out of their rock and do bad stuff.”

The ballot measure enshrines into the city charter an ordinance approved last year by the conservative City Council majority, which undid a previous council vote in favor of flying the rainbow flag on city buildings during Pride Month in June.

A unanimous vote by the City Council will now be required to fly a commemorative flag from city facilities.

“The Huntington Beach City Council is run by a hateful majority whose only interest is advancing an agenda of intolerance for minority communities, including LGBTQ+ individuals,” said Peg Coley, the executive director of the LGBTQ Center Orange County. “The pendulum always swings back and history is the harshest judge, but informed votes are the very best prevention.” 

Critics say Measure B is a thinly veiled attack on the LGBTQ community, but supporters say it removes divisive identity politics from the public square.

The LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD called the ballot measure “extreme.”

“Enshrining discrimination fuels division,” Barbara Simon, a spokesperson for GLAAD, said in an email. “We saw it flying proudly in Huntington Beach to honor trans teenager Nex Benedict last month. Pride flags show LGBTQ people, youth and our allies that they are welcome.”

Benedict was a 16-year-old transgender student in Oklahoma who died last month after a fight with three students in a school bathroom.

Huntington Beach has waded deep into culture wars in recent years, banning mask and vaccination mandates, condemning the Biden administration’s immigration policies, slamming Gov. Gavin Newsom over the state’s homelessness crisis and establishing a panel to review children’s library books for sexual content.

In 2022, voters rejected the previous City Council’s politically diverse makeup and ushered in four conservative candidates who vote as a bloc. The three left-leaning members are all up for re-election this year.

Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, who said she switched her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican in 2016, voted in favor of the flag ordinance. She said that she is frustrated by California’s liberal supermajority and that this was a way to counter the governance coming from the state capital.

“A lot of this is taking Huntington Beach back to how it was,” she said. “A lot of cities are afraid to push back because they don’t want to be the target of Sacramento. We’re not afraid.”

Of the city’s nearly 138,000 registered voters, 53,894 are Republicans and 41,412 are Democrats. Nearly 28,000 are registered with no party preference.

Just 22% of registered voters cast ballots on Tuesday, a trend seen in many elections across the country.

Tony Strickland, a member of the City Council’s conservative bloc, said policies like the flag ordinance mark a return to the city’s Republican roots.

“They want to make MAGA a negative connotation,” Strickland said of left-leaning critics. “But President Ronald Reagan said it first. I do want to Make America Great Again.”

City Council member Natalie Moser, who voted against the ordinance, said her colleagues on the right are sowing chaos and division in the quiet community.

“It’s further dividing the city, our neighbors,” she said.

Council member Dan Kalmick, who opposed Measure B, said the conservative members are casting a shadow over the city and hurting its pocketbook.

“As a tourist community, I want to shake every tourist upside down by their ankles to get money out of them,” he said. “Therefore, we should be open and inclusive of everyone, and everyone should feel comfortable to come here and spend their money.”

Conservative lawmakers have been paying close attention to how Huntington Beach navigates the culture wars. During Pride Month last year, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted against flying the rainbow flag outside county property.

The most recent Orange County hate crimes report found a 126% increase in hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community in 2022 over the previous year.

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