Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has never lost an election, but that was before his remarks assigning blame for the deadly Tucson, Ariz., shooting to political “vitriol” and calling Arizona “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Now it’s Sheriff Dupnik who finds himself on the public-opinion hot seat. A group opposed to illegal immigration has begun an effort to recall the sheriff in a special election. Meanwhile, a Pima County tea party group is planning on holding a “Dump Dupnik” rally next week outside his office.
“I haven’t been a fan of Dupnik’s for a long time, but this really was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Tom Rompel, co-owner of Black Weapons Armory in Tucson. “He’s law enforcement. We expect ‘the facts, ma’am,’ not his opinion. He leans far left, always has, and frankly, people have had enough.”
Not that the sheriff should worry about turning in his badge just yet. Sheriff Dupnik has won election eight times, and he’s a Democrat in a Democrat-majority county. While some constituents were appalled by his comments, others have applauded his forthright indictment of the state’s political climate.
Witness the “Clarence Dupnik is my Hero” page on Facebook, which so far has 9,582 who “like this.”
“He is not afraid to call the bullies out on their part in this mess. Civility without hate speech is our mission!” says the page in its description paragraph.
Sheriff Dupnik’s comments came about an hour after the Jan. 8 shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been greeting constituents outside a Safeway.
At the time, little was known about the suspect, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner. Since then, Mr. Loughner has emerged as a mentally unstable ex-student who became focused on Ms. Giffords after asking her a bizarre question about control of language at a constituent gathering in 2007.
Conservatives have bristled at Sheriff Dupnik’s insinuation that Republicans and the tea party movement were somehow responsible for the rampage. The Pima County Tea Party Patriots plan to “indict” the sheriff at their rally for “politicizing the shootings, blaming free speech for the crime without evidence, failing to protect Giffords, failing to recuse himself from the investigation, and embarrassing the community in front of the nation,” according to the Arizona Daily Star.
Sheriff Dupnik’s office issued a statement Wednesday saying he would have no further comment on the shooting.
Dan Baltes, executive director of Americans Against Immigration Amnesty, said he began looking into the recall effort after being deluged by phone calls and e-mails from the group’s members, including many in Arizona. The eight-month-old organization is based in Salt Lake City in neighboring Utah.
“I’ve gotten e-mails from people who support the sheriff, who support what he did, and who want me to keep my nose out of it,” Mr. Baltes said. “But for every one of those, I’m getting 50 saying ‘Thank you,’ and that’s from Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The group needs to gather 90,809 valid signatures within 120 days to qualify the recall for the ballot. The recall would require a special election, which could be held at the earliest in March 2012, said Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson.
That’s a lot of signatures in a county with 485,629 registered voters. In order to oust Sheriff Dupnik, recall organizers would also have to make sure another candidate runs against him, and so far the sheriff is batting 1.000 against Republican challengers.
“He’s never been in a close race. He wins by huge margins,” said Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers. “He is widely respected and beloved public official. You want to run for office in this town, you want a picture of Clarence Dupnik standing next to you.”
He noted that Pima County is a bit of a political outlier in red-state Arizona. Despite the 2010 Republican wave, both Mrs. Giffords and Rep. Raul Grijalva managed to stave off strong Republican challenges in their re-election bids, albeit by narrower-than-usual margins.
“Tucson and Pima County are kind of like the Berkeley of Arizona,” Mr. Rogers said. “We held onto every congressional seat and legislative seat except one. Almost every elected city and county official is a Democrat.”
Still, Sheriff Dupnik’s popularity took a hit months before the shooting when he came out against Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s toughest-in-the-nation anti-illegal immigration bill. While it would be inaccurate to cast Sheriff Dupnik as soft on border security — he has called for public schools to check the immigration status of students — he faces inevitable comparisons to his stauncher neighbors, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
“People would love to have a Sheriff Arpaio or Sheriff Babeu,” Mr. Rompel said.
Another factor is Sheriff Dupnik’s age — he’s now 75 — and it’s possible he may decide to call it a career before facing re-election in November 2012. But don’t count on it. “He’s very mentally and physically healthy, and he’s on his game,” said Mr. Rogers. “I expect he’s going to run again.”