Sheriff could face recall for 'vitriol' comments after Tucson shooting

Several movements are afoot to oust Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. He ignited a national firestorm after the Arizona shooting with comments about political rancor.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik (l.) talks to a reporter inside the venue for the 'Together We Thrive: Tucson and America' event held to support and remember the victims of the mass shooting, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 12.

Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff in Arizona’s Pima County, ignited a national firestorm with remarks about “vitriol” after the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson. Now, several movements are afoot to oust Sheriff Dupnik from the office he has held for more than 30 years.

Soon after the Arizona shooting, Dupnik linked it to a climate of “prejudice and bigotry” in the state, and he suggested that America’s contentious political discourse might have played a part. Such rhetoric could have a powerful effect on some people, he said.

Dupnik’s comments created their own controversy, and some critics began mobilizing. On Friday, two events will take place: A Utah resident will launch a recall bid against the sheriff, and local tea party members will hold a “dump Dupnik” rally at the sheriff’s department in Tucson.

Also, the Pima County Republican Party this week unveiled a new website dedicated to raising money “to bring a new sheriff to town.”

The GOP is focused on “bringing a quality candidate to the table in the general election of 2012 and ousting the sheriff on Election Day,” says chairman Brian Miller.

Although the efforts are separate, they share the same goal: unseating the longtime lawman for what some call his irresponsible behavior.

When Dupnik alluded to the heated political rhetoric after the shooting, which killed six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), the public knew little about the suspect, Jared Loughner. But investigators described him as mentally unstable, and Dupnik said that mentally unstable people were particularly susceptible to the rhetoric.

The sheriff “abandoned his oath of office, and he compromised an ongoing investigation and therefore compromised the citizens of the state of Arizona,” says Dan Baltes, executive director of Americans Against Immigration Amnesty (AAIA) in Salt Lake City. Mr. Baltes is launching the recall effort.

In the days and weeks since Jan. 8, the talk of links between the shooting and the nation’s political rhetoric has ebbed. A CBS poll on Jan. 11 showed that 57 percent of Americans didn’t believe that political rancor played any role in the attack. Instead, the focus has shifted to the apparent alienation and mental troubles of Mr. Loughner, who has been charged in the attack.

Still, America has not entirely discarded concerns about political discourse. Civility has become a new buzzword, and in one recent effort toward that end, some Democrats and Republicans sat side by side during the State of the Union address.

Back in Tucson, a liberal stronghold in mostly conservative Arizona, Dupnik has his share of supporters. Among them is Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, who called the sheriff courageous for furthering a discussion on civil discourse in politics.

“He is one of the most beloved figures in Pima County, in the history of the Tucson area,” he says.

Dupnik has been elected time and again because he has done a fine job as the county’s top law-enforcement agent, says Mr. Rogers, who gives little credence to either a recall or a Republican challenge.

But Baltes, who is also an Internet radio-show host, says local volunteers are eager to start collecting the nearly 91,000 signatures required to force a recall election. Some of those volunteers are members of AAIA, but that group’s agenda will be kept separate from the recall effort, he maintains.

“We’re going to put a local structure in place. We’re just overseeing it and funding it,” he says.

Baltes has filed all the necessary documentation and can legally head the recall effort, even though he is not a local resident, says Brad Nelson, Pima County elections director.

But Baltes can’t sign the petition. Only signatures of Pima County registered voters will be counted, and all must be submitted by May 24.

Tom Rompel, who owns Black Weapons Armory, says he will make recall petitions available for customers and others to sign.

“The sheriff’s comments were outrageous,” he says. “I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t want to throw him out.”

Rompel also dislikes the sheriff’s opposition to Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Dupnik has called the law racist, and before it became mired in legal challenges, he vowed to not enforce it.

Dupnik, first elected in 1980, is about halfway through his current term. He has not indicated whether he will run for office again next year.

Should the sheriff seek reelection, Republicans are preparing to field a strong challenger, according to Mr. Miller.

But Rogers has no doubt Dupnik would win again.

“Let me put it this way: He doesn’t just win every time. He wins by a large margin. Nobody gets close,” Rogers says.

A few days ago, the sheriff’s department released a statement saying Dupnik would no longer comment on the shooting.

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