By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo by Jenne RiceNot since President George H.W. Bush ralphed upon an unsuspecting Japanese prime minister has an act of political excretion caused as much uproar as when Gary Copeland spat upon radio host Brian Whitman.
Copeland is no stranger to controversy. The 46-year-old CEO of the Trabuco Canyon-based company NextCure and Libertarian gubernatorial candidate first drew serious flack from his liberty-loving party for discussing his Druidic beliefs with OC Weekly and for posing for an accompanying photo in his Druidic robes. Now the party has officially rescinded its endorsement of him and is lobbying to have him removed from the ballot for his impromptu spit-take.
"Do I know how to create a center, or do I know how to create the center?" says Copeland, in what amounts to Celtic self-effacement about his tendency to appear in the limelight—and usually not in a positive way.
Indeed, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that he seeks the negative attention. Something must be working, though. Copeland currently holds 4 percent of the vote, according to the Public Policy Institute of California—high for a Libertarian and tied with Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, whom then-Governor Ronald Reagan called "one of the 10 most dangerous men in California."
And funnily enough, Camejo is also at the center of Copeland's most current controversy, as the two were on air together when things got moist. Camejo, who was phoning in the interview, was challenging KABC talk-radio host Whitman's views against granting driver's licenses to noncitizens. Although Camejo at no time directly accused Whitman of racism, Whitman preceded to get defensive, saying, "But if I don't support getting driver's licenses to those who are not legal citizens, that should not be an invitation for you to accuse me—uh, quite thinly veiled I might add—of racism, and you should be ashamed for that, Peter."
Before Camejo could rebut, Copeland leapt into the fray, accusing Whitman of racism and indicting U.S. immigration policies back to the poor treatment of Asians in the 19th century and the Japanese internment camps of World War II. At that point, Whitman turned off Copeland's microphone, and Copeland began to storm out. But Whitman continued to berate Copeland, saying, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass, Gary" and calling him a "lunatic" on the air.
"Why is it that he could continue to denigrate me on the air, swear at me on the air, and I had to sit there and take it?" Copeland later asked. "No, I had to make a statement for every person who has not been able to stand up and speak freely. He stripped away my rights to answer his comments, and I . . . showed my disgust in the only way I had left. . . . I walked over, looked him straight in the eyes, and hocked the biggest fucking loogie I could and hit him dead square in the face."
Copeland has since apologized for the incident, but it's hard to say he really regrets it. The whole episode is par for Copeland's rather eccentric political course—a course that has him discussing Druidry one minute, and the next telling voters to "take the red pill," a reference to the Matrix, not the candidate's acid days with Timothy Leary.
Beneath it all, though, seems to be a seething contempt for anyone and everyone's expectations of him, including his Libertarian colleagues, who have, perhaps justly, thrown up their arms in exasperation over him. Ironically, it's an almost punk rock sort of stance that's not altogether at odds with Libertarian philosophy, and to tell the truth, Copeland seems fine with his estrangement.
"Those are my people: the revolutionaries, the geeks," he said. "They're the ones making a difference in America. It's not Barbie and Ken that make a difference; it's the geeks, the nerds, the outcasts—the people who are different because individuality is what's important."