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

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaks at the Pima County Sheriff's Office in response to Saturday's shooting of U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) among others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona January 9, 2011.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaks at the Pima County Sheriff's Office in response to Saturday's shooting of U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) among others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona January 9, 2011. (Reuters)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 12:01 AM

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.

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"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.


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