Lone ranger: Tucson's tough-talking sheriff suddenly has national spotlight

Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, called Arizona the 'capital' of hatred after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. He's no stranger to controversy. He has said the tea party brings out the 'worst in America' and called Arizona's immigration law 'racist.'

Chris Morrison/AP
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaks at a news conference Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., following a shooting spree that killed six people and wounded 14, including US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has been both lauded and lambasted for linking Saturday's mass shooting at an event for US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) to a climate of "prejudice and bigotry" in Arizona and to political "vitriol" across the country.

Among the people he serves in Tucson, Ariz., however, the controversial comments come as no surprise.

To Arizonans, he is the state's foil for Joe Arpaio, the outspoken sheriff of Maricopa County whose unyielding stand against illegal immigration has led to national recognition. As the sheriff for 30 years of the more liberal Pima County – home to the University of Arizona – Dupnik has license for making controversial comments that appear out of line with the rest of the state.

Now, however, his comments have thrown him into a national spotlight, making him either a brave speaker of hard truths or a symbol of a willful desire to stereotype and malign conservative America.

In September, he made similarly pointed comments when he said that the tea party movement brings out "the worst in America."

"We didn’t have a tea party until we had a black president,” he said at an immigration forum at a local church. Asked to explain the comment, he added: "I was talking about how bigotry is alive and well in America.”

Sheriff Dupnik also has taken aim at Arizona's immigration law, which originally would have required law-enforcement officials to ask people who looked like illegal immigrants to provide proof of legal residency in the US. He said of the law: "it is unwise, it's stupid, and it's racist."

Before a federal court put a hold on the most controversial aspects of the law Dupnik vowed to not enforce it.

On Saturday, he pulled no punches again.

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," said Dupnik, who is a leading investigator of the shootings, which killed six and wounded 14, including Congresswoman Giffords Saturday.

“And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital," he added. "We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Although the motive of suspect Jared Loughner is still unknown, authorities have described the 22-year-old as mentally unstable.

As a lawman and friend of Giffords, Dupnik has a unique view of the case. But some Arizonans say the longtime sheriff is right on mark – and that the immigration law, known here as SB 1070, has attracted pervasive hostility to the state.

“It just seems that with the advent of [SB]1070, it has brought a lot of attention to Arizona,” said David Gonzales, US Marshal for Arizona. “And it does bring a lot of tension.”

When people think of Arizona these days, they generally think of Gov. Jan Brewer, Arpaio or state Sen. Russell Pearce, who wrote the stalled immigration law, says Roberto Rodriguez, a University of Arizona professor. He called the trio “the poster children of the state’s move toward legalized discrimination and racial profiling.”

But others view the sheriff's remarks as irresponsible and ill-timed. "It's not his place to do it at the time he did it," says Trent Humphries, organizer of the Tucson Tea Party.

Richard Elias, a member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, does not see a direct link between the acts of the suspected shooter and Arizona's charged political atmosphere. On the other hand, he notes, "We are all influenced by the political dialogue that goes on around us. And when it’s not healthy, it’s not good for any of us. And certainly that is the situation here in Arizona.”

At least in part, Mr. Humphries blames Dupnik's comments for a deluge of hateful e-mails he has received since the shooting and says the lawman's comments have served only to escalate the political rhetoric.

As far as Dupnik's assertion about bigotry in Arizona, Humphries says that "may be in the eye of the beholder."

"That may be a discussion we can have," he says. "But it did not need to be during the press conference to discuss this particular crime."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.