In the wake of tragedy, an outspoken sheriff steps into the spotlight

As a shocked nation learned of Saturday’s shooting rampage in Arizona, a solemn President Obama appeared briefly to decry an “unspeakable” act. But in the wake of a tragedy rife with political undertones, an avuncular man most Americans had never heard of unwittingly stepped into the spotlight with plenty to say — and instantly broke the political ice.

“I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are — how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik said in a nationally televised news conference.

He followed it up with an encore TV appearance Sunday, calling Arizona the “tombstone of the United States” for its lax gun laws and railing against “the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates.”

“To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with,” he said, in a stern lecturing tone.

Dupnik, a friend and political ally of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, didn’t name names. But apparently he wanted to.

“He told me [Saturday], ‘I had to hold myself back from not mentioning people by name,’ ” said former senator Dennis DeConcini, a fellow Democrat from Arizona and longtime friend of the sheriff.

Whom did Dupnik have in mind? “We talked about [Rush] Limbaugh and the national press people like Glenn Beck,” DeConcini said. “He said, ‘You know, I turn those things on and they develop hatred.’ ”

National tragedies often produce unexpected new folk heroes and objects of scorn. This time, it is the blunt, imposing Dupnik, who turns 75 on Tuesday, who has emerged as both, depending on one’s political perspective.

For some on the left, who question tea party fervor and former governor Sarah Palin’s calls to make Giffords’s district a campaign “target,” Dupnik has become the one national figure with the courage to tell it like it is.

“He stepped up and said what we were all thinking but were a little hesitant to say, given all the turbulence and the grief,” said Jeff Rogers, the Pima County Democratic chairman, who, as a former corrections officer, has known Dupnik for more than 30 years.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are wary about what they see as an unfair linking of their movement to a mentally deranged criminal.

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl told CBS on Sunday that he “didn’t really think that [Dupnik’s comments] had any part in a law enforcement briefing.” A Tucson conservative talk radio host, Jon Justice, called Saturday for Dupnik’s resignation.

“To say, as Dupnik did, that comments made on the airwaves essentially motivated this person to commit this crime is exactly what he blamed talk radio of doing, inciting through pure rhetoric,” Justice wrote in an e-mail published on the Web site of the Tucson Weekly. “It was [a] complete misuse of his power and he owes the media in town, TV and radio, an apology for his horrible comments in the middle of such a tragic day.”

But such emotive opining is not unusual for Dupnik. His friends say that America is suddenly getting to know exactly the man they have admired for decades. A devout Catholic who has sung in his church choir, he is the father of six children plus two stepchildren.

Born in Helena, Tex., and raised in Bisbee, Ariz., Dupnik has degrees from the Keeler Institute in Chicago, the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville and the Urban Affairs Executive Institute at MIT, according to his bio on the Pima County Sheriff’s Department Web site. The Tucson Police Department hired him as a patrol officer in 1958, and he worked his way up to major. He became chief deputy with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in 1977.

In 1980, Dupnik took over a county sheriff’s department that was riddled with problems and corruption and turned it around, friends said Sunday. He has won reelection every four years since, and he’s expected to run again in 2012.

About two years ago, he was cited for speeding by a local officer in Tucson but did not seek special treatment. Instead, Dupnik submitted to a driver’s education course, along with other speeders — including former senator DeConcini.

“We sat there next to each other while a former motorcycle cop gave us the course,” DeConcini recalled. And Dupnik never said anything about being sheriff.

Dupnik is accustomed to controversy. He was an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough new anti-illegal-immigration law, calling it “racist” and at one point vowing that his department would not enforce it.

In the heat of the national debate last year over the Arizona statute, Dupnik reached out to Justice, the local conservative talk show host and a leading advocate for cracking down on illegal immigrants, asking to appear on his show. The sheriff and Justice sparred for about 10 minutes until Justice said he was “ashamed” of Dupnik for his position on the law. Dupnik replied that Justice was “one of the people that are responsible for the angry tone that is set in this country.”

“So when he made his comments the other day, a lot of us went, ‘Oh my gosh, here he goes again,’ ” Justice said in an interview Sunday.

But Dupnik has also angered immigrant advocates and fellow Democrats, telling a Senate hearing in 2009 that schools should check the immigration status of children and report findings to the federal government. Several local Democratic officials signed a letter calling the sheriff’s comments “inflammatory,” according to coverage in the Arizona Daily Star. “If you read the blogs, and I don’t know if you do, I think you’ll have a different opinion,” he said, according to the paper.

Last year he taped an ad for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard, who was challenging Gov. Jan Brewer, the champion of the controversial anti-illegal-immigration law.

Friends said Sunday they knew the state of political debate in the community — and in the country — had been eating away at the sheriff.   

“He despises this right-wing or left-wing rhetoric,” said Joe Cesare, a Tucson real estate developer who plays golf with Dupnik twice a month. “He absolutely despises it.”

DeConcini said Dupnik’s disgust with the harsh tone in American politics came up when the two had dinner together a few weeks ago. “We were both so discouraged with our political system,” the former senator said.

Friends said the sheriff’s comments were not scripted or planned — but that he was probably consumed by anger over the horrific attack on two of his friends, Giffords and federal judge John Roll, who was killed. Reporters asked him about motive, and he simply spoke his mind.

“In a situation like this, I don’t think anybody can judge it,” said F. Ann Rodriguez, the county’s elected recorder and a longtime friend. “It was a question asked of him and he did not hesitate. You didn’t see him stumble on his words. He has at least a very honest man.”

Dan Benavidez, a former spokesman for the county attorney’s office, said Sunday that Dupnik “was speaking as a Tucsonian who has been impacted by this. He’s been upset about the political debate in Arizona, and these were his friends.”

 
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