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.
Soon thereafter, a Department of Education report faulted the school for failing to adequately respond to the girl's complaints. The Lake Arrowhead Mountain-News obtained the report and the girl's mother gave the paper a graphic account of what she says the boy had said: "I want to lick you where you pee. I want to hump you all day and night."
According to the mother, the boy also threatened to harm the girl's classmates if they reported him. She said that he said: "I know where you live. If you tell somebody, I will go to your house and kill your dog." The boy also allegedly threatened to rape the girls' mothers and sisters.
That spurred another, more vehement protest — this time from parents who denounced school administrators for not doing more to protect their daughters.
The story had an especially profound effect on Donnelly. He embellished it in Internet postings, saying the boy had "molested and terrorized 11 girls.
"He told them things that would make you ashamed to have even heard them," he wrote. "He told the girls that if they told, he would kill them or their sister or their mother after first doing even more unmentionable things."
Donnelly attributed those quotes to an Education Department report, although in fact all the more salacious details had come from the girl's mother. He repeatedly said the boy's parents were illegal immigrants, although that was never proved, and argued that the problem should have been solved with one phone call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Donnelly reserved special scorn for Navarro — an "ethnic hustler" who "labeled us all 'racists' " — and the school administrators who had been slow to react. He said the most outrageous moment was when an administrator said, "This boy has rights."
"That comment by that administrator turned me from an average citizen to an activated citizen," he wrote. "I am proud to be a 'racist' if the definition of racist means that you can tolerate being called names in order to protect children from sexual predators."
He began to study the immigration issue online, and started to feel like he was living a Kafka-esque nightmare. Millions of immigrants were living in the country illegally, and nobody cared. Worse, when he tried to explain it to people, they thought he was a lunatic. Then, he heard Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist issue a call for volunteers on Los Angeles radio station KFI. He knew he had to go.
He kissed his sobbing wife goodbye and set out for Tombstone.
"I think she thought I was crazy," he says.
He wasn't sure she was wrong. On the drive, he wondered how he would make himself useful. Unlike some volunteers, he hadn't served in the military or in law enforcement, and he wasn't an experienced outdoorsman.
Once there, he saw rows of satellite trucks, and discovered his mission. "I started seeking out the cameras," he says.
Leveraging media attention was the whole point of the Minuteman Project, and Donnelly turned out to be pretty good at it. He learned to talk in sound bites. He went on Fox News Channel. On subsequent trips, he would meet Anderson Cooper and Greta Van Susteren.
"I remember him being very talkative," Gilchrist says. "He was a pretty good guy. No personality problems. Certainly not a racist."
Donnelly told the story about the 10-year-old boy in Twin Peaks. And while at the border, he picked up an even more vivid account. Standing outside his hotel one morning, a woman spotted his Colt .45, and thanked him for joining the Minutemen. She told him she lived near the border, and that she would often hear the screams of women being raped as they crossed her property. She also said the smugglers would leave the women's underwear on the trees as a "badge of honor."
That's the account he gives now. But when he told the story to journalists in 2005, there was a major difference: He said he had heard the screams himself.
"I thought the wailings we heard at night were the coyotes barking at the moon," he told The Washington Times. "I didn't know until later that those sounds were the cries of women being raped in the Mexican desert, some less than 100 yards away from the border. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it. It's something you never forget."
The reporter said Donnelly "grimaced as he turned away to hide his emotions."
When this was reported, bloggers demanded that the mainstream media "end their silence about the rape trees."
Donnelly visited the border a few more times over the next year. But media interest in the Minutemen petered out, and he struggled to figure out what to do next. He flirted with launching a new political party: the Minuteman Party. It seems to have been little more than a website, which is no longer online. It is accessible through an archive, and Donnelly's writing there offers an unvarnished look at his worldview.
On his "roll call" of members, Donnelly lists himself and two friends, giving each one's experience with the Minuteman Project in military terms.
Dan Russell of San Diego "served 1½ Weeks. 1st tour: Naco Border Sector 5. 2nd Tour: Huachuca Line (Hwy 92) Sector 1. (11 illegals caught on one watch.)"
Don Silva of Los Angeles "served 1 Week. Sector 1 in the Canyons. Night Shift. Ham Radio Operator. Active with SaveOurState.org. Protests against Home Depot and day laborer sites."
Tim Donnelly "Served 1 Week. Stump Canyon/Naco Border Night shift. Minutemanparty.com."
The closest Donnelly gets to a statement of purpose is an editorial titled "Tell Me No Lies," dated Aug. 6, 2005:
"We are told the illegal alien is now a resident of our communities, entitled to all the protections of the law, but none of its penalties. We are told that 'diversity' is a goal, and although it is unclear when we will reach this utopian dream, it involves more Hispanics and fewer of everyone else.
"We are told that anyone who does not go along with the above program (or pogromme) is a 'racist,' 'xenophobe' or a 'vigilante.'...
"We are told that raping young girls, marrying extremely young girls, ogling women in an aggressive manner and using a child as a human shield are all cultural differences that we must learn to accept.
"Really. As an American, I am not accustomed to being 'told' anything. In fact, it is 'we' who generally do the telling. 'We the people' are finished listening. ...
"We are a kind and generous people. Do not abuse our generosity or mistake kindness for softness. We are also the best armed nation on earth, and do not suffer abuse lightly."
Sexual aggression is a recurring theme in Donnelly's writing. It comes up again in a post from March 16, 2006, in which Donnelly described his friend Gregg Imus' trip to Jensen's Mini-Mart in Cedar Glen, where Imus was "confronted by 27 suspected illegal aliens crowding the parking lot."
"After taking some photographs of them, Gregg went in the store & complained to the manager," Donnelly wrote. "Gregg told him he would not be doing business at Jensen's Mini-Mart anymore, nor would he be sending his wife and daughter through the mob outside to be ogled or harassed."
Donnelly complained about the incident to the Sheriff's Department and his congressman, but was told nothing could be done. Imus called the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, again to no avail.
At times, Donnelly is driven to nearly apocalyptic despair. He posted this on a conservative website:
"The facts are incontrovertible that allowing an illegal invasion of the United States will destroy the American Southwest, and very probably wipe out the freedoms we American Christians enjoy, as Muslim Extremists blend in with the so-called 'innocent' illegal aliens, and eventually proselytize them. It is not a stretch to picture a revolt in Los Angeles, whose population is comprised of over 50 percent illegal aliens. At the rate of influx and births, it will be 80 percent illegal alien within a decade. ... None of this bodes well for the citizens who live in Southern California now, nor will it improve the life of the poor alien, but it is well on its way to wiping out everything that was once good in Southern California."
Throughout his writing, there is a sense that the government has betrayed "the little guy" — "the small business owner or employee who works hard and plays by the rules."
During a three-hour interview with L.A. Weekly on his front porch, Donnelly brought up the Obama health-care plan, which he described as "taxation without representation." It turned out Donnelly had canceled his family's health-insurance plan because his business was struggling. It was either drop health coverage or pull his kids out of a private Christian school, and his wife wouldn't stand for the latter.
Asked what he would do if he or his children needed to see a doctor, he said he would pay cash. And what if it was a critical situation and he couldn't afford the bill?
"It is scary," he said. "The last two years we've had to subsidize the business with savings. What didn't get wiped out, we used to survive. We're at a point where we don't have anything to lose."
But, he said, isn't that who we want representing us in Sacramento?
"Maybe we should send a guy there who's struggling financially," he said. "I don't want some rich kid to represent me."
Donnelly is running for a seat held by Anthony Adams, a Hesperia Republican who was forced into early retirement after voting for $12 billion in tax increases. Donnelly jumped into the race shortly before the February filing deadline, with no experience in politics and practically no money. On his website, he listed his only endorsements — friends and family. He scraped together enough money for one campaign postcard mailing and a handful of radio ads.
What set him apart from the field was his support for the Arizona law, which gives local police the power to detain suspected illegal immigrants. Opponents saw it as racial profiling, but Donnelly saw it as common sense. That message resonated from Arcadia to Apple Valley.
"We tried to think like the Founders," says Imus, who serves as Donnelly's campaign manager. "This is the beginning of the second American Revolution. It's a political revolution. It's a peaceful revolution."
The favorite in the race was Chris Lancaster, an advertising executive at the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. He spent $200,000, roughly 10 times Donnelly's budget.
Donnelly got a big boost when he was endorsed by KFI radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. In a six-candidate field, he edged out Lancaster by 600 votes in the June primary. "It just shows you the networking strength of the Tea Party," Lancaster says.
Soon after the primary, Donnelly drove to Sacramento, where he was introduced to the Inland Empire's top power brokers.
"I really liked him," says Jim Brulte, a former Senate Republican leader. "He has the courage of his convictions."
Donnelly also had lunch with Dick Mountjoy, a former state senator most famous for introducing Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that aimed to strip illegal immigrants of access to social services.
Mountjoy told the Weekly that Donnelly would be a leader on illegal immigration: "I don't know if there's anybody up there that knows the issue better than Tim. He's been on the border. He's been part of the Minutemen."
But Mountjoy predicts it won't be easy to get anywhere with the Arizona law.
"If it's a Democrat-controlled Legislature, of course it dies in 30 seconds," Mountjoy says. "That's no reason not to try it. I tried [Proposition 187] 27 times before I put it on the ballot."
Republican Assemblyman Steve Knight from Palmdale also has experience with the immigration issue. During the last session, Knight introduced a bill to roll back a law allowing undocumented students to get in-state college tuition rates.
"That didn't go real well," Knight says. "I was treated very poorly in committee. They got a lot of college students to testify against me, and the chair on the committee pretty much ripped me a new one."
Knight says his constituents have been clamoring for him to introduce the Arizona law.
If Donnelly introduces it, Knight says he'll be happy to back him, but he shouldn't expect it to go anywhere. "I love his passion. But I want him to understand that it's going to have to be written in another way than it's been written before, or it's not going to get out of committee."
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Republicans have a 9-point registration advantage in the 59th District, which should be more than enough for Donnelly to dispatch Democratic opponent Darcel Woods. But after that, Donnelly faces uncertainty. The district lines will be redrawn next year. More important, the state will switch to open primaries, a move that will favor centrist, pro-business candidates.
Donnelly, however, doesn't foresee a problem.
"If I do the right thing, why would I have trouble getting re-elected?" he asks. "All you have to do is fight for the right things.
"That's what I want. I want a guy who falls down half-dead on the floor of the Assembly, carrying the torch of freedom and carrying the voice of the common man."