Jeff Toborg, the 50-year-old mayor of the fast-growing town of Parker, Colorado, wants everyone to know he made a mistake.
In the days before conservative social networking platform Parler went dark on Jan. 11 in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — shut down by tech companies that refused to host the site until it did a better job policing user-generated content promoting violence — a concerned Parker resident posted to Facebook a handful of screenshots of Parler posts made by the mayor of the Douglas County town.
“Newly elected mayor of Parker, Colorado, Jeff Toborg, on Parler,” wrote the resident, who tagged several local news stations in a post that was widely shared, including to a popular community forum for the town of some 58,000.
“Q-Anon, Anti-vaxxer, conspiracy theorist. As a citizen of Parker, upon seeing this I fear for the health and safety of my family.”
Toborg, a lifelong Republican who works in the IT field, was elected mayor in November after serving two years on the town’s council. He would rather talk about Parker’s incoming economic development director — “we’re growing, growing, growing,” he says — but said in an interview he understands why shots of his Parler posts have caused an uproar and wants to set the record straight.
He also said he understands now, after his posts drew the attention of the local newspaper and at least one TV station, how a lot of his fellow Republicans might have gone down some rabbit holes — and thinks that he's been afforded a chance to reflect and look objectively at some of the misinformation out there, including some he fell for without scrutinizing it closely enough.
It's also an opportunity, Toborg said, to serve as an example of someone who fell into the trap, owned up to it and is moving forward.
The screenshots depicted a grab-bag of right-wing conspiracy theories and misinformation, including two references to President Donald Trump’s claims that the presidential election was stolen, an internet meme mocking the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, a video that purported to explain how “the entire ‘storming’ of the Capitol was a left-wing FALSE-FLAG operation," and a photograph of an American flag under the abbreviation of a slogan popular among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Within days, images of Toborg’s posts were ricocheting around the internet with increasingly alarmed messages attached.
“Parker is now run by a raving madman known as Jeff Toborg,” said one Twitter user. “He's gone full Trump mania.”
Before long, Nick Puckett, a reporter at the Parker Chronicle, heard from more concerned residents, including an unnamed individual who started a Facebook group to recall Toborg from office and a county Democratic Party officer who said the post about the COVID vaccine made him think that Toborg “does not have the health and safety of the Town of Parker in mind.”
Toborg didn’t respond to Puckett beyond saying he’d deleted his Parler and Twitter accounts, but the town of Parker, whose officials are elected and serve on a nonpartisan basis, issued a statement making that clear.
“While our Mayor and Town Council have personal political affiliations, those affiliations are not considered when conducting official Town business. The personal social media accounts of elected officials are not maintained or endorsed by the Town of Parker,” it read.
Toborg told Colorado Politics he wants to apologize.
“You know, I made a mistake,” he said. “I'm owning it. I'm owning it left and right.”
He’d only been on Parler for a little over a month, from late November to early January, he said, curious about the forum that seemed to be attracting conservatives.
“Like a lot of us, like a lot of Coloradans, a lot of Americans, I was disappointed with the results of the election. I was looking for answers,” he said. “Upon reflection, I get it. I made a mistake. My words, my actions — I'm accountable for them. I need to do better, and I will.
“This is a great town, and it deserves a leader, a leader for all. I'm sincerely apologetic for causing this distraction. But I really do want to get back to focusing on being the best mayor for our town. You know, we're ranked Money magazine's second top town, and I really would like to get to No. 1.”
In the weeks after the election, Trump maintained a steady, consistent narrative that he was cheated out of a second term by a sprawling conspiracy involving millions of fraudulent mail ballots and a zombie army of dead voters in key swing states. The fiction spurred on dozens of failed lawsuits and the attempt by Trump supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.
Toborg said he regrets “echoing” a couple of posts — the Parler equivalent of retweeting a post on Twitter — effectively repeating some claims made by the president’s supporters that the election was rigged but wants it understood that he was “looking for answers, like a lot of us.”
“We thought the election — again, in disappointment, we thought it was going to turn out one way and it turned out another. I was just searching for answers. Did I get a little bit wrapped up in it? Probably.”
How did a mainstream Republican — Toborg’s Parler bio described him as a “Proud conservative and unapologetic defender of the inalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” — go from posting about town events and sharing photos of his children on social media to posting a QAnon meme and echoing discredited arguments about fake ballots and voter fraud?
“For the record,” Toborg said, “I don't believe in Q.”
On Dec. 20, Toborg posted a photo of an American flag, waving against a dramatic winter sky, under the initials WWG1WGA — short for “Where we go one, we go all,” a notorious QAnon slogan.
“Until this thing hit,” Toborg said, “I didn't even realize that was a Q thing. I know that makes me sound ignorant, but it's kind of a cool phrase, it's a very unifying phrase. But since this week, basically, looking into it, it seems out there. Some of that dangerous rhetoric, it doesn't have a place in the public forum.”
The outlandish and intricate conspiracy theory, which has spread like wildfire in the last year, imagines Trump waging a secret, epic battle to stop Democrats and Hollywood elites from trafficking in stolen children, whose blood and glands they consume in Satanic rituals.
Trump and some of his associates have given oxygen to QAnon beliefs in recent months, and some followers have been implicated in the attack on the Capitol.
Toborg said he was shocked at the Jan. 6 attack and had a hard time believing the rioters were the Trump supporters he knows.
"The people that I know who support Trump would never do anything like that. Republican and Democrat alike in Parker, I don't think any of us would have done something like that. I'm joining with lots and lots of leaders in condemning that violence. It has no place in our republic. It was an assault on our republic," he said.
"Violence on any side is never OK. They always joke about, 'The Republicans write memos.' That's how we protest — we protest peacefully. Protesting your government is never a bad thing. It's when you take it to that extreme. I mourn for the loss of life, I mourn for the injured. That's never acceptable. Violence is never a form of protest."
As for Biden's impending inauguration, Toborg said he believes Trump has had the legal opportunity to make his case but that was exhausted when Congress certified the electoral vote.
"We'll have a new president next week," he said. "And I'm hopeful we can begin to heal. Biden's message is unity and healing, and I'm hopeful we can begin to do that."
He said he's anxious to put his brief flirtation with Parler behind him.
"I'm proud to live in Douglas County, obviously, but we have that moment — we learn our lessons, we get back out there, we talk to the people. Because the conservative message resonates with people — smaller government, lower taxes. We need to get back to our message."