The Billionaire’s Club: OC Mitt Romney fundraiser unites Occupiers and Tea Partiers

Late on the afternoon of June 1, a small group gathered in front of Newport Beach’s infamous Balboa Bay Club, the longtime gathering place for Orange County’s old money. Dressed in smart suits and cocktail dresses, its members looked every bit the target audience for the event taking place inside: a thousand-dollar-per-plate fund-raiser for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Until, that is, they began shouting at the other protesters who’d gathered on the sidewalk, not to mention the gaggle of bewildered-looking reporters and bystanders who were present.

“Poor people get a clue, democracy is not for you!” roared the group, which turned out not to be well-heeled Republican 1 percenters seeking entry to the event, but rather “Billionaires for Romney,” an ad hoc troupe of activists with Occupy Orange County. “One, two, three, four—we don’t care about the poor! Five, six, seven, eight—don’t you dare tax our estate! . . . Hey-hey, ho-ho, the middle class has got to go!”

Besides the roughly 20 faux billionaires, Romney’s latest OC visit brought out 10 Ron Paul supporters and a dozen members from the anti-war group Move On, who also protested outside the fund-raiser. Each dissenting group seemed to carry a common message: The potential next president of the United States does not represent the interests of everyday, ordinary Americans.

“It’s not a pro-Obama thing,” said Occupy Irvine activist Christian Larsen. “But we see Mitt Romney [as] being a huge symbol of what’s wrong with America and unchecked Wall Street power taking over the government.”

Tickets to the “victory event”—so-called by the sign in front of the resort—ranged from $1,000 to $25,000 apiece. The entrance and sidewalks leading up to the Balboa Bay Club were closed off by the Secret Service, leading demonstrators to gather in front of the Newport Car Spa across the street.

Occupy activist Charles Cha remained in character as he explained his reason for joining in the charade. “We’re here to protest that only nine out of 12 billionaires in Orange County made the Forbes billionaire list. This is an outrage! Justice for OC billionaires!” he shouted.

The parody was complete with mic checks heralding Romney and mocking indulgences of the rich.

“Mic check!” Larsen proclaimed. “We support Romney’s jobs plan! No taxes equals more butlers! No taxes equals more masseuses!”

Wearing a tiara and a leopard-print shawl, Occupy activist Inge Scott waved at passersby with a message for the common folk. “Thank you for paying our taxes; now get a job!” she commanded, prompting one driver to yell back, “I have a job!”

Although that confrontational exchange caused some onlookers to wonder what they’d just witnessed, activist Davina Stein of Occupy Santa Ana argued that it embodied all the elements of a successful political satire: clever and tongue-in-cheek, yet with a distinct underlying message.

“It’s a way of displaying the blatant disrespect the 1 percent shows the rest of us,” Stein said. “What it boils down to is that unless you are in a rich, elite circle such as Romney’s, you will be screwed if he becomes president.”

Since its inception last October, Occupy Orange County has been split between activists in Irvine and Santa Ana. In Irvine, the movement quickly fractured, with members furtively bouncing from encampments in Fullerton to Huntington Beach without any long-term presence in either community. In Santa Ana, however, Occupiers have kept a constant organizing campaign alive by focusing on the county’s largest homeless population. The group’s last big action, Occupy the Courts, took place in January (see “Occupy Orange County Courts Disaster,” Jan. 26), but it failed to draw much of a crowd and fell far short of the declared goal of occupying the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse.

Friday’s rally may have also lacked a large turnout, but the anti-Romney gathering was nonetheless diverse, with the Californian Tea Party also making an appearance. The group, which supports Ron Paul, apparently did not get the memo regarding the dress code for the demonstration; members were wearing baseball caps, jeans and the occasional American-flag-emblazoned item. They stood on the opposite end of the sidewalk from the Occupiers, trying their best to garner media attention with a 10-foot sign reading, “We the People of the California Tea Party Do Not Support Mitt Romney.”

Tea Partier Brian Brady made the drive from San Diego to say that as a formerly frequent donor to the Republican party, he wants a refund. “I gave money to the Republican party, and now they are sending rich delegates [to the Republican convention] who are a part of the political establishment,” said Brady. “We don’t want people such as Meg Whitman and Darrell Issa representing us.”

Although the Ron Paul/Tea Party demonstrators seemed reluctant to associate themselves with the Occupiers, the side-by-side protests may be an indication of things to come during the November elections.

Both groups have more than a few ideological differences, though they have stood on common ground regarding certain issues: opposition to bank bailouts, heavy-handed drug enforcement, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). They share another, unfortunate similarity in terms of public perception, having each originated as a grassroots movement only to devolve into a caricature of itself, with intense media scrutiny over fringe members and their tactics.

But with the upcoming elections, both groups seem to determined to oppose the two-party system in November. “When Obama comes back to the area for a fund-raiser, I will be out there, too,” said Stein. “Romney and Obama are two wings of the same bird. It’s the same ugly people; it’s the same ugly system on both sides.”

About an hour into the protest, after most reporters had departed the scene, several of the Occupiers, including Larsen, ventured over to the Tea Party crowd in an effort to spark a dialogue that might bridge the gap between the two movements.

“It’s interesting to think a politician such as Ron Paul, whom I strongly disagree with on domestic and economic issues, can also be so on the mark with foreign policy and citizen-rights issues,” Larsen said.

 “We’re all pissed off at Romney,” he continued. “I guess the fact both us and the Ron Paul guys are out here is not a good sign for him, now is it?”

Originally published in the OC Weekly (June 7, 2012)