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Tim Donnelly took two handguns on his first tour with the Minutemen, back in '05. His Colt .45 was photogenic, like that of an Old West gunslinger. But before heading to the Mexico border, Donnelly took it to the range and couldn't hit the target. So he bought a Model 1911c — a semiautomatic that would shoot straight, if it came to that.
He had been pushed to this point by a fourth-grader. The boy, the 10-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, had been accused of sexually harassing a white girl at Lake Arrowhead Elementary. In the weeks since the story appeared in the local paper, Donnelly had grown obsessed with illegal immigration. When he tried to talk about it, people looked at him like he was crazy. The next thing he knew, he was driving eight hours straight to Tombstone, Arizona.
This is the Year of Rage in politics, but Donnelly was angry before it was popular. He got his start with the Minutemen, and then joined the Tea Party. In June, he stunned the Inland Empire establishment by winning the Republican nomination in the 59th Assembly District. Now he is poised to win a seat in the state Legislature on Tuesday, and to become one of a handful of Tea Party successes in California.
The key to Donnelly's primary election victory was his pledge to introduce Arizona's immigration law here. If elected, he will be Sacramento's leading foe of illegal immigration.
In an interview over the summer at his house in Twin Peaks, outside Lake Arrowhead, Donnelly showed a visitor his entire rifle collection. It's in a small room behind the garage. He carefully unloaded each weapon before handing it over. Here's an antique Winchester .22. Here's a replica of a Henry repeating rifle, which he won at a National Rifle Association dinner. Here's an M14, which fires .308 rounds.
"The round on this is full metal jacket," he said. "It'll go through a tree at 100 yards and still kill a man."
A few weeks later, though, Donnelly refused to be photographed with his guns. He'd grown wary about how he is portrayed. He is especially miffed about a photo that appeared in the Pasadena Star-News in which he stands outside his house, surrounded by tall pine trees. It looks innocuous. But to Donnelly, the subtext is clear. He was shot from below to make him look like a racist.
This comes up a lot. Donnelly is so sure you will think he's a racist that he brings it up before you do. For the record, he says he is not. For proof, look no further than his wife, Rowena, who is of Filipino heritage.
"In 2005, I went to my in-laws' house for Thanksgiving and I was the only white guy there," he says. "I'm the only white guy in my entire extended family, and I never noticed it until people started calling me a racist because I believe in the rule of law."
Born in Georgia and raised mostly in Michigan, Donnelly came to California for college. For a while, he lived on an old boat in San Pedro Harbor while he worked odd jobs — courier, fisherman, boat salesman. In 1992, his girlfriend gave him two conditions: Before she would marry him, he had to have a real job and a house. The only places in his price range were Compton and Twin Peaks.
For nearly 20 years, he has run a small business out of his garage, providing feed screws to the plastic injection-molding industry.
Twin Peaks is little more than a bend in a mountain road. It has a general store, a karate studio and a local church offering "servicios en español." At the Mountain High Market, there is a sign that reads, "Shoplifters will be merrily beaten to a bloody pulp." You can buy ball caps that read, "One Way to Jesus."
When Donnelly moved to Twin Peaks, the area was overwhelmingly white. The mountain communities had been relatively isolated from the tide of Latin American immigration sweeping over the rest of Southern California. But as immigrants fanned out in the late '90s and early 2000s, they also reached Lake Arrowhead, brought in largely by utility companies to cut down dead trees.
Over the next decade, the Latino population doubled. The trend was noticeable in public schools, where the number of Latino kids also doubled, to about 20 percent of the student body.
"Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, there was much more of a difference between what was going on in a small mountain community" and the rest of Southern California, says Sandy Caprine-Esquer, a former board member at Rim of the World Unified School District. "These days it's becoming more of a melting pot all over the place."
The furor over the fourth-grade sexual-harassment case began when Gil Navarro, then head of the local chapter of the Mexican American Political Association, protested the district's decision to transfer the boy. Navarro claimed the district had taken the allegations at face value, without giving the boy's parents a chance to respond. "I don't think it would have happened with any other ethnicity," Navarro said.