After he was elected city attorney of Huntington Beach in 2014, Michael Gates went to war.
He booted a nudist group that had been renting a city pool and gym.
In the name of local control, he fought state officials on zoning laws and immigration.
At first, his right-wing combativeness was relatively popular. But as more Democrats won elections in a city still famous for its conservatism, he became increasingly isolated.
Now majority Democrat, the city council has discussed hiring outside law firms as a check on Gates’ office. A related measure is on the Nov. 8 ballot.
And the brawny former high school wrestler is running for reelection against a former employee who won a $2.5 million age discrimination settlement against the city.
“I’m offering a different vision of what the city attorney’s office can be about,” said Gates’ opponent, Scott Field, a Democrat and former deputy city attorney. “Fighting losing battles isn’t a good strategy. You have to be selective.”
Gates, 47, was politically aligned with Tito Ortiz, who ascended to the Huntington Beach city council in 2020 as a former UFC champion and hardcore Trump supporter.
At the height of the pandemic, Ortiz flouted mask rules, appearing bare-faced at council meetings.
While this appealed to the crowds that gathered at the Huntington Beach pier to protest pandemic rules, Ortiz resigned after six months, citing personal attacks and unrelenting negative press.
To replace him, the council appointed Rhonda Bolton, Huntington Beach’s first Black council member, creating a Democratic majority for the first time in recent memory.
After that, the council began discussing hiring outside law firms, which would report directly to them.
“I’m definitely a target, and there is a partisan cause against me,” said Gates, a lifelong Republican.
Republicans maintain a 9% voter registration advantage over Democrats in Huntington Beach, with 22% listing no party preference. The coastal city of nearly 200,000 is majority white, but Latinos at 19% and Asians at 13% are significant minorities.
Dan Kalmick, a Democrat who was elected in 2020 to the city council with Ortiz and another Democrat, Natalie Moser, said the issue is not ideology but staying on the right side of the law.
“We don’t live in the Republic of Huntington Beach,” he said. “We have to follow state rules.”
In most California cities, the city attorney is appointed by the council.
While their ethical obligation to follow the law may occasionally put them at odds with council members, appointed city attorneys are unlikely to adopt an agenda that is fundamentally opposed to the council’s aims.
Huntington Beach is the only city in Orange County and one of 11 statewide — including large cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco — with an elected city attorney.
“There’s more accountability, in theory, to the voters since to maintain the job, the city attorney must run for reelection,” said Pamela Fiber-Ostrow, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor. “[But] most voters are not familiar with the position, what it requires and what the norms of office are.”
In his early days as city attorney, when Gates was still in step with the city council, one of his biggest battles involved a council decision to defy a state-approved development plan for affordable housing.
The Kennedy Commission, an Orange County affordable housing nonprofit, sued.
Gates argued that Huntington Beach had broad control over zoning. An appellate court agreed. In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that required charter cities like Huntington Beach to comply with state housing laws.
Last year, a judge awarded the Kennedy Commission $3.5 million in attorney fees.
Gates remains defiant, asserting that his office will win on appeal.
Gates also pushed back on immigration, suing the state because he did not want to comply with the so-called sanctuary state law, which restricted police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Residents and activists flooded city council meetings to speak in favor of the lawsuit.
“Sincerely, it was about local control,” Gates said. “If we don’t fight, then the state eventually will control everything — every matter, every aspect of local governance. What will be the point of local city councils?”
An Orange County Superior Court judge sided with Gates before an appellate court overturned the ruling, finding that the state law “does not intrude unnecessarily into municipal interests.”
“He’s trying to frame these issues as just a political fight about charter control,” Kalmick said of Gates. “What are the issues that he wants to maintain control on? They’re right-wing issues not in the mainstream of California.”
Gates moved to Huntington Beach from Cincinnati as a young boy after his father took a defense industry job.
His family attended Mass every Sunday and revered President Ronald Reagan. Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher became a household name.
Gates excelled at football and wrestling at Marina High School. As a law student at Chapman University, he joined the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
He became a partner at a Santa Ana law firm before beating a 12-year incumbent for the Huntington Beach city attorney post.
Field, Gates’ opponent, earned a law degree from UCLA, and moved to Huntington Beach in 1989 with his wife and two children.
He served as the city attorney of Temecula and Mission Viejo before becoming a deputy city attorney in Huntington Beach in 1995. It was a “dream job,” he said — until Gates arrived.
In the age discrimination lawsuit, Field, 66, alleged that Gates created a hostile workplace where older or disabled attorneys were pushed out or replaced in favor of younger hires. After being promoted to assistant city attorney in 1999, Field was demoted twice under Gates.
Field, who retired after the lawsuit settled, alleged that Gates reprimanded him for taking time off to treat his cataracts.
According to Gates, the previous city council considered the lawsuit frivolous, while the Democrats elected in 2020 pushed to quickly settle it.
The council later ordered an audit of how the city attorney’s office and an outside law firm handled the case.
The 69-page audit found that Gates was “overly aggressive” in asserting the authority of his office but concluded that Gates broke no laws.
Field said the audit’s findings prompted him to run for city attorney.
“I’ve worked in that office for almost 25 years under two prior city attorneys,” he said. “Nobody ever questioned the principle that the attorney has a fiduciary relationship with the city council, because they are the client.”
Gates has raised more than $100,000 for his reelection compared to Field’s $37,500.
Four city council seats are open in next month’s elections, meaning the balance of power is in play.
Gates is campaigning with a slate of four council candidates who, like him, are endorsed by the Republican Party of Orange County.
All appeared at a “victory rally” this week at the pier, pledging to save Huntington Beach from Sacramento’s “destruction.”
A big banner displayed a “contract” with Huntington Beach voters that was signed by the four council candidates, who pledged to give Gates the authority to fight state mandates on Day 1.
Gates also headlined a private event Monday at Basilico’s Pasta e Vino, an Italian eatery that gained notoriety by refusing to serve masked patrons during the pandemic.
“I’m going to continue fighting for the city no matter what our leadership is,” Gates said. “Whether it’s on the wrestling mat or in court, that’s what I do is I fight.”