The Republican nominee challenging Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, spread debunked conspiracy theories to her half-million social media followers and has the support of a former Proud Boy.
Tina Forte, a Rockland County resident running in the Bronx and Queens congressional district where she grew up, said she doesn’t regret being on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
“I went there to shine light on the election,” Forte said in an interview. “I did nothing. I didn't participate in anything that went on that day, from what I see on videos or anything that they want to call it.”
“I’m not going to say I regret it because I don’t,” she added.
Forte, 52, a popular right-wing influencer who runs a Bronx beverage distribution company and sells a politics-themed clothing line, gained more than 500,000 social media followers since 2020 posting pro-Donald Trump content, QAnon conspiracies and misinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
She has little chance of winning based on Ocasio-Cortez’s 2020 performance, in which the Democrat was elected 71.6% to 27.4% over the Republican candidate. As of Aug. 3, Ocasio-Cortez raised almost $11 million, while Forte has raised just over $672,000, according to federal campaign finance records. But Brian Graham, a Florida-based political consultant for Forte’s campaign, said her next filing will be a “good bit higher” than her last one.
Forte said she decided to get involved in politics after contracting COVID-19 in March 2020 and being denied a prescription to hydroxychloroquine, a drug that medical experts say does not combat the disease.
“So I start ranting about the masks and the medication and [then-Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and his power grab and that’s how really that all starts,” Forte said.
After gaining a social media following among those who supported then-President Donald Trump and attacking COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates, Forte decided to jump in the race against Ocasio-Cortez, calling her a “communist” who is “anti-freedom.”
“AOC is anti-American and she’s anti-police, she’s anti-job, she’s anti-freedom, she wants government to control everything,” Forte said. “New York is being treated as a dictatorship for the [Gov. Kathy] Hochuls and the AOCs.”
Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment.
Forte claims she never believed in QAnon and used the slogans associated with the conspiracy movement unknowingly, including once donning a hat bearing a popular QAnon catchphrase.
“I am not a conspiracy theorist,” Forte said. “I put on a hat and I did not know that it was a QAnon, whatever, saying.”
But experts said QAnon adherents often deny their support when it no longer benefits them.
“It’s actually fairly common for people who have promoted QAnon to say ‘I don’t know what QAnon is, I have nothing to do with that, I’m not one of those crazy people, I’m just a patriot who’s asking questions,’ ” said Mike Rothschild, author of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.” “You get that a lot.”
Forte used a misspelled version of the QAnon slogan — “WWG1WGA,” or “where we go one, we go all” — in Facebook posts throughout 2020. In an Aug. 13, 2020, Facebook video, she accused social media of censoring the hashtag “#SaveTheChildren,” another popular conspiracy theory based on the belief Democrats or elites are trafficking children.
“Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You all want to censor conservatives. You all want to censor the truth about what’s going on with the child trafficking,” Forte said in the video.
Attending and promoting Jan. 6
In the months prior to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Forte shared hundreds of social media posts promoting the Jan. 6 protests and election fraud conspiracies. Her Dec. 16, 2020, tweet was one of the earliest notable promotions of Jan. 6 as a key date in the “Stop the Steal” movement, the New York Times reported.
On Jan. 6, Forte recorded a live stream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, helping unveil a massive banner designed by Scott LoBaido, a pro-Trump Staten Island artist. It featured Nancy Pelosi with fangs tearing up the Constitution.
Associations with extremists
Two people who have helped Forte campaign are Dion Cini — who once yelled ”‘white power” at an event attended by Forte and told NY1 he was “never gonna say whether I was or wasn’t” in the Proud Boys — and Carl Ulzheimer, a Bronx man identified by federal prosecutors as a Bonnano family associate.
Forte told NY1 she knew Ulzheimer for over 20 years and the two grew up together, mentioning he was friends with her nephews. He is often present at the pro-Trump and anti-Ocasio-Cortez flag and banner “drops” Forte and her supporters organize, involving the reveal of a large banner hanging off an overpass or a prominent public place like Yankee Stadium.
In 2016, Ulzheimer posted pictures to Facebook showing a “Mein Kampf” tattoo along his collarbone, a reference to Adolf Hitler’s 1925 antisemitic manifesto.
“I know where you’re going with Carl,” Forte said, claiming she has never seen the tattoos in person. “I don’t know what he did. I don’t know what he believes. I just know I grew up with him in the neighborhood.”
Ulzheimer did not return a request for comment.
Cini, who helped design Forte’s banners, told NY1 the FBI has visited him a handful of times in connection to his appearance at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and other investigations. He has testified in front of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol this summer.
A spokesperson for the committee did not return a request for comment.
Appearing with New York Republicans
Despite her conspiratorial views and connections to extremists, Forte is not a pariah in New York Republican circles. She said she is on “friendly terms” with the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Rep. Lee Zeldin. The pair have attended the same events over the past few years, most recently an Aug. 24 fundraiser for Zeldin on Long Island.
They first met at rallies before she announced her run for Congress, Forte said, but they “formally met” at a Sept. 2, 2021, event at Da Noi Restaurant on Staten Island. The Conservative Party of Richmond County held a dinner attended by Zeldin, Forte, Staten Island Rep. Nicole Malliotakis and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, as Slate first reported.
While at the August fundraiser, Forte — who was not an invited guest at the gathering, which started at $750 a plate — took photographs with Zeldin, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Alison Esposito, and the fundraiser’s headliners, Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle.
At a Queens Village Republican Club meeting on May 5, Zeldin picked her out of the audience and asked her how her primary was going. Forte was running against Desi Cuellar, a military veteran who had the backing of the Bronx Republican Party. She won with 1,530 votes to Cuellar’s 722.
Zeldin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Queens City Councilmember Vickie Paladino, who invited Forte to speak at the Whitestone Republican Club in August, did not return a request for comment.
Joe Pinion, the Republican nominee to challenge Sen. Chuck Schumer, has been photographed with Forte on multiple occasions and interviewed her on his Newsmax show a week before Jan. 6.
Pinion said in a NY1 interview that he hopes Forte “brings a vision to D.C. that is more in line with the needs of the people of that district” than Ocasio-Cortez’s policies.
“But as far as Proud Boys or Jan. 6 or people trying to defend the indefensible about what happened on that fateful day,” Pinion said. “No, that is not something that is aligned with our campaign.”
Later that night after the interview, Pinion and Forte took photos together at a Queens Republican Party gala in Howard Beach.