Until last weekend, the face of Arizona law enforcement had been Republican Joe Arpaio, the tough-talking sheriff in Maricopa County known for housing jail inmates in tents, having them wear pink underwear and using posses of volunteers to help round up illegal immigrants.
But hours after an assailant shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six bystanders, there was a new Arizona sheriff in town. His name is Clarence W. Dupnik. He’s a Democrat and a Rachel Maddow fan. And when he linked the Tucson shooting rampage to harsh conservative rhetoric, he drew cheers from some and brickbats from others.
Dupnik, who turns 75 on Tuesday, has spent 30 years as the top law enforcement officer in Arizona’s second-most-populous county. But just as Pima County and Tucson are overshadowed by the more conservative megalopolis of Maricopa County and Phoenix to the north, Dupnik has been overshadowed by the more media-hungry Arpaio.
No more. On Saturday, Dupnik, a friend of Giffords and a federal judge killed in the attack, spoke during a nationally televised news conference:
“When you look at unbalanced people, 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. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Dupnik hasn’t backed down from his remarks, even though no ties have publicly surfaced between the suspect in the shootings and conservative political groups. In an interview Sunday, Dupnik had the air of a man who had reached his limits and couldn’t remain quiet any longer.
“They don’t like to see us trying to tone that down,” Dupnik said, referring to criticism of his call for civility. “Most of those people would wish I would never say anything like that.”
Dupnik’s comments cheered many residents of this relatively liberal town.
“He’s a very private guy, he’s a very closed guy,” former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini said of Dupnik, a longtime friend. “I’m so glad it’s someone like that who did it, who’s not a publicity seeker.”
But it also horrified many conservatives.
“I was surprised to see him jump to political conclusions that have no basis in reality,” said John Munger, a former state Republican Party chairman and a lawyer in Tucson.
Arizona’s Republican Sen. Jon Kyl on Sunday said the comments had no place in a law enforcement news briefing.
Joe Cesare, a Tucson developer and Democrat who has served as Dupnik’s finance chairman during political campaigns, attributed the statements to the sheriff’s exhaustion and the heartbreak of the day.
“As a friend of his, I wish he hadn’t made those statements because they don’t necessarily go along with what’s there,” Cesare said Monday. “He dislikes anything that’s far right or far left. This is a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.”
Born in Texas, Dupnik was raised in the Arizona town of Bisbee near the Mexican border. He joined the Tucson Police Department in 1958. In 1977, he was appointed to serve as the undersheriff of Pima County, which runs from the border to Tucson, and became sheriff when his boss retired in 1980.
“You have to understand where he came from,” said Chuck Huckelberry, the Pima County administrative officer. “He views almost everything through the prism of a professional law enforcement officer, not a politician. So some of the things he says are not particularly safe.”
Still, until last year, Dupnik had little role in state politics. That changed when Gov. Jan Brewer, a former Maricopa County supervisor, signed a law known as SB 1070, which would require local police to investigate the status of people they stop and also suspect are illegal immigrants.
Dupnik had previously drawn fire for once suggesting that illegal immigrants shouldn’t attend public schools. Then, in response to questions from reporters, Dupnik called SB 1070, backed by Arpaio and other Phoenix-area Republicans, “racist” and “disgusting” and flirted with the notion of not enforcing it.
A federal judge soon declared much of the law unconstitutional and placed it on hold. Rudy Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said that Dupnik had become the target of right-wing anger after his stance on the immigration law.
“He might be reeling from the hits he took after 1070,” Espino said.
Friends say Dupnik has long been privately troubled by the angry turn in political speech over recent years. DeConcini said he had spoken with Dupnik recently about the angry rhetoric coming from the conservative media — specifically Fox host Glenn Beck.
Espino also noted that Dupnik’s views, and those of many other officials in Pima County and elsewhere, don’t always have a big effect on state politics. That’s because two-thirds of the state population is in Maricopa County.
“People refer to Maricopa as ‘the state of Maricopa’ and all the rest as Arizona,” Espino said. “There’s this constant tension between Maricopa and the rest of the state.”
In an interview Monday, Arpaio, a Republican, didn’t sound pleased about the behavior of — and attention received by — his southern counterpart.
“I don’t see much of him because he seldom goes before the media like I do. I just hope he’s not giving this 22-year-old an alibi by blaming talk radio,” Arpaio said, referring to the suspect in the Tucson shootings.
Still, other Republicans said they hoped that Dupnik’s call for greater civility could be embraced by Arizonans and Americans of all stripes.
Among them was Pima County Supervisor Ann Day, sister of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “I mourn the loss of civil discussion on the issues,” Day said, praising the sheriff. “He speaks from the heart and he’s not politically correct.”
Times staff writer Sam Quinones in Tucson contributed to this report.