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Brandon Straka, ‘conservative influencer’ charged in Jan. 6 insurrection, touts Guerneville fundraiser

A planned fundraiser at a Guerneville winery by a conservative social media figure charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is raising eyebrows for some and angering others.

Still others are questioning the timing of the event, which is scheduled for this weekend, just days after dramatic, televised testimony from a U.S. House inquiry into the deadly riot began unfolding.

Brandon Straka, a one-time liberal-turned-conservative media darling, plans to hold the event Saturday at Rio Crest Winery and charge guests $100 to $150 for admission, according to event postings online.

Straka is the founder of the #WalkAway political movement, which urges disenchanted Democrats to rethink their politics and embrace conservatism. He described the event online as a “comeback fundraiser” after Facebook and other social media companies restricted his access to their platforms.

On Jan. 6, Straka filmed himself at the entrance to the U.S. Capitol behind a mob of people pushing to get in. He can be heard encouraging those ahead of the crowd to take the riot shield from a law enforcement officer at the door, among other things. It does not appear he entered the building or directly assaulted anyone.

He was arrested in Nebraska, where he grew up, and faces a variety of federal charges, including impeding a law enforcement officer during civil disorder; entering and remaining on restricted grounds; disorderly conduct near a restricted building to impede official functions; and disorderly conduct with intent to disturb a hearing before Congress. His preliminary hearing is Aug. 25.

For many residents of Guerneville, known for its live-out-loud social acceptance, Straka’s arrival is not welcome.

The timing is particularly concerning, not only because of the televised hearings, but also because it comes during Lazy Bear Week, one of the town’s biggest annual celebrations of gay culture — “on a weekend that is all about love,” one local said.

“I’m amazed that the owners of Rio Crest would bring this hate into a community known for its inclusiveness,” said Michael Volpatt, a branding and marketing expert who also owns a local restaurant. “It’s also a very bad business decision. I’m also sad to see a gay person support a cause based on lies and a party that doesn't’ care about the LGBTQIA+ community.”

He and others said the fact that Straka is gay is irrelevant. It’s the fact that he supports a political party whose policies restrict LGBTQ rights to which they object, they said.

That it also follows painful testimony by law enforcement officers subjected to violence and hostility as they tried to defend the center of U.S. government makes it all the more intolerable, several critics said.

“A lot of us in town are horrified by this,” said Christopher Canning, a local food server. “We knew that there was a MAGA community out here but not to the point where they would be inviting influencers into our town. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. That’s just not something that anybody that I know anticipated ever happening.

“It’s actually a little bit scary, to be honest,” said Canning, who is nonbinary and uses gender neutral pronouns. “This is a large LGBTQ-plus community.”

Straka, a former New York City hair stylist who grew up in Nebraska, fled his home state as young man in large part because of its conservatism, according to past interviews.

He said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and “was scared to death” when Trump was elected but later decided the media had created a false narrative around him.

He also decided that liberals and the Democratic Party had become inhospitable to white males and that they stifled individual thought. When he formed #WalkAway it was to encourage others to follow his lead and exit the party.

In an announcement on Eventbrite about the Guerneville fundraiser, intended to be shared with like-minded people, Straka invites “patriots” to an “exclusive, private experience” benefiting the relaunch of #WalkAway that includes wine and cheese, a live Q&A period, “meet and greet” and live reading from his upcoming book.

But no venue was identified, and an asterisked note says, “We are attempting to contain all publicity surrounding this event. We ask that you please DO NOT share any details about this event on social media or any public forum.”

That caveat apparently went unnoticed by a group called BayAreaGOP.com, which shared information about the event and the location, which brought it to the attention of some folks in Guerneville last week.

Multiple calls to Rio Crest Winery and to its owners on Friday and Tuesday were not returned.

In a private email provided to The Press Democrat by one critic, Rio Crest owner Kevin Brown expressed alarm by how what had been planned as “a quite, private gathering of friends” had exploded, with dozens of phone calls and threats.

He wrote that he and his wife had known Straka for several years and judged him based on their interaction, disagreeing respectfully when they disagreed.

He also noted that he and his wife had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for community causes and national educational and health efforts.

Guerneville resident Kevin Batsford said he has followed Straka for several years and identified closely with his trajectory, having voted twice for former President Barack Obama before deciding the Democratic Party no longer had the interests of blue collar workers at heart. He also objected to Obama’s foreign policy, and said Democrats had become “a party that accepts war.”

He said he already was leaving the party when he discovered #WalkAway and Straka.

“Now he’s vilified for being one of many, many people for being in what I guess they call the incursion or the takeover of the Capitol,” Batsford said. “All I know is he was arrested, and we’ll have to see what for or what holds, because I think a lot of it is political show.”

Pat Sabo, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party said the timing of the fundraiser, amid the hearings on the Capitol insurrection, “is probably not a coincidence.”

“Anyone who went back to Washington D.C. and participated in that insurgence, I really question people who would support, back and listen to what they have to say,” Sabo said.

Jeff Bridges, owner of the R3 Hotel, a prominent resort in central Guerneville well known to the Bay Area, said, meanwhile, that he just found the idea of Straka in west county “illogical.

“People are mystified,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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