Tito Ortiz strolled into a Huntington Beach burger shack, steps from the sand on Pacific Coast Highway, as he did every Sunday.
But this time, the employee behind the counter at TK Burger told the recently elected mayor pro tem he wouldn’t be served unless he put on a mask.
Angered by the snub, Ortiz pulled out his phone and started recording.
“So they won’t let me order unless I have a mask to come in,” the mixed martial arts fighter-turned-politician said in January from outside the eatery, a fixture in the community since 1995. “First time all year that I’ve actually been forced to wear a mask, but I’m not wearing a mask. TK Burger you lose my business. You lose H.B.’s business.”
The public backlash was swift — at first. Community members lambasted Ortiz for potentially sending customers away when small businesses are struggling to survive amid coronavirus restrictions. The City Council considered stripping him of his mayor pro tem title. But Ortiz’s fans stepped in, vowing to raise hell if he were punished.
Huntington Beach — a largely conservative city that’s gained national attention as a hotbed of rebellion against COVID-19 restrictions, including mask-wearing — is experiencing its own skirmish in the larger GOP battle over the future of the party post-Donald Trump. To many, the 46-year-old Ortiz is a local version of Trump, a larger-than-life celebrity who speaks through social media, shares right-wing conspiracy theories and has garnered a legion of fiercely loyal fans.
He sails through Huntington Harbour on his boat with “Tito” and “Trump” banners flying. His campaign slogan was “Make Huntington Beach Safe Again.” When the ballots were counted in November, Ortiz received more than 42,000 votes — the most in a council race in the city’s history.
“We’ve got to be on the right side of history, the good side of history,” Ortiz told a crowd of Trump supporters during a “Stop the Steal” rally in December protesting the election of President Biden. “This is good versus evil. I don’t want a communist country.”
Neither Ortiz nor his campaign manager responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.
Huntington Beach leans Republican, but some have complained that Ortiz’s behavior crosses the line for an elected official whose duties typically focus more on local governance than high-profile and often divisive national issues.
“This is not a partisan seat,” Councilman Mike Posey, a longtime Republican, recently admonished Ortiz. “It’s about serving the community. It’s about serving your neighbors. If wearing a mask makes somebody more comfortable, then put it on.”
In an increasingly polarized world, where the lines between local and national politics sometimes blur, Ortiz’s rise doesn’t surprise many.
He’s a hometown boy who made good — from bouncing between houses as a child to owning a multimillion-dollar property on Davenport Island, one of the most upscale neighborhoods in the city.
He rose to political power not with concerns over streetlights and land use but on a platform that emphasized public safety and personal freedoms. Trump’s success in turning voters into a cult of personality has given candidates like Ortiz an advantage.
“He’s the local version of Donald Trump,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange. “It’s not just about his political ideology. It’s about his personality. He’s plain-spoken. He’s physically imposing. He cuts an interesting form politically.”
Like Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Ortiz has garnered support as an anti-politician in Huntington Beach — someone who will take on liberals and establishment Republicans alike.
“We do not want HB to be overcrowded like Santa Monica, full of crime like Venice Beach, nor full of high-rises on the beach like Florida,” resident Maria Piccolo wrote in an email to the City Council in January. “Tito Ortiz gets that and his integrity and backbone are very needed at this place in time to fight off the greed which is destroying this state and trying to infect Huntington Beach.”
After a successful wrestling career at Huntington Beach High School, Ortiz saw his once-athletic build wasting away from methamphetamine use by the time he was 19, he told a crowd last year at a rally in support of recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Ortiz’s face was hollow, and dark circles were visible under his eyes as he stood inside a bar the day he decided to change his life. A former coach approached him with concern, suggesting he enroll in college and take up wrestling again.
Ortiz was skeptical, but later that night, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was horrified by the person reflected back. Memories of his parents’ addiction and his difficult childhood sent him into the coach’s office and eventually back to the sport that would propel him to a career as a fighter.
He worked a weekend job, and with the help of financial aid, Ortiz put himself through Golden West College as a student-athlete, eventually winning two state junior college wrestling championships. At 22, he had a chance to show off his skills for a larger audience in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He fought for free so he wouldn’t lose his college wrestling scholarship.
On May 30, 1997, Ortiz stood inside the octagon for the first time. He attacked immediately, landing a single punch before taking the other fighter to the mat. At the 22-second mark, the referee pulled Ortiz off his battered opponent. He had won.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but a star was born,” Ortiz said during an interview with Fox Sports in 2012.
By 25, he had honed his image as the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” with his black-flamed shorts and penchant for trash-talking the competition. He became a UFC light-heavyweight champion and later was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Cleber Luciano, who owns Cleber Jiu-Jitsu in Huntington Beach and previously coached Ortiz, said the fighter has two distinct personalities.
“One-on-one, he has a great attitude and is the best person,” Luciano said. “When he’s fighting, he has to change to promote his fight. People think he’s a big, bad dude, but like many people in this space, he’s a good talker.”
Outside the ring, Ortiz has crafted a different persona for himself — one of a family man. He has custody of twin sons Jesse and Journey, whose mother is adult film star Jenna Jameson. His oldest son, Jacob, lives in Arizona with Ortiz’s ex-wife, Kristin Lopez.
Ortiz’s foray into politics started last summer when he and a group of friends — all wearing white shirts that read “HB Strong” — attended a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Huntington Beach intending to protect businesses. He said publicly that he set up defense against antifa and Black Lives Matter, which he falsely alleged were coming to burn down the city.
At the time, Ortiz said he was considering becoming a police officer. Instead, he decided to run for City Council.
Once dubbed by former President Reagan as the place where “good Republicans go to die,” Orange County has transformed in recent years from a longtime GOP citadel to a more politically diverse region.
For decades, local Republican politicians made names for themselves as being anti-tax and pro-private property rights. More recently, a slice of the county’s GOP — known by some as Trump Republicans — has diverged from the traditional party.
This divide was magnified further when mask mandates and business closures amid the pandemic became the topic of fierce debate. Ortiz developed a fan base among a faction of conservatives who applaud his unapologetic rejection of public health orders and recommendations.
During an interview on a podcast last year, Ortiz called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and said it’s a form of “population control” by the left and a “political scam” that would disappear by election day. He’s frequently appeared at events without a mask to pose for photos and chat with supporters.
Ortiz, much like Trump, has attracted voters impressed by his celebrity status, self-described strong work ethic and perceived financial success.
“His ideology is that he made it himself: ‘Look at my body; I built it myself and I’m successful through my personal will,’” Smoller said. “I think that carries over to the way he sees public policy. You’re on your own, you make your own way and anything that government does that impinges on your individual freedom is wrong.”
If tradition carries, Ortiz will be Huntington Beach’s mayor in 2022. But for members of the City Council, his future as the face of the city isn’t assured.
After Ortiz’s video outside TK Burger gained traction online, several of his council colleagues said they’d had enough. Despite his apology to the eatery, his peers placed an item on the agenda a month later to strip him of his title. Mayor Kim Carr said Ortiz’s behavior was a distraction from real issues in the city.
“We saw within a few days after you received the mayor pro tem title you started to really take advantage of that position in a way that residents were reaching out to me, business leaders were reaching out to me, community leaders were reaching out to me, and there was one thing after another,” Carr told Ortiz during a February council meeting. “It has never been about your politics. It’s about your actions.”
Ortiz’s supporters sounded off over the rebuke, sending dozens of emails and calling in to the meeting to chastise the council for trying to censor someone elected to shake things up at City Hall.
“This does not and will not sit well with the people YOU are suppose to represent, REMOVE THIS ITEM IMMEDIATELY or the voice of the PEOPLE will be louder then you would ever imagine,” Denise Hayes wrote in an email.
After hours of public comments split between those who thought Ortiz should lose his title and those who wanted him to keep it, the council tabled the item to give the new legislator more time to learn the ropes.
While Ortiz said he was willing to learn, he also accused his fellow council members of singling him out because of his conservative views.
“I’ve been fighting to survive my whole life,” Ortiz said. “I thought I’d step in here on City Council and come and help and be a team leader, but it’s been nonstop attack after attack because I don’t wear a mask. It shouldn’t be about the mask.”