Gay sheriff's political star tarnished, but he's not quitting

As he walked into the cafeteria of Walker Butte Elementary School to help recruit local citizens as law enforcement volunteers, the recently outed sheriff of Pinal County got an immensely warm welcome. Men shook his hand. Women embraced and kissed him.

Paul Babeu did not seem to be a man whose career and political aspirations were crumbling, as some have claimed. Except for his raggedy voice, he seemed about as comfortable and upbeat as could be expected of a man who had just faced the world to acknowledge publicly for the first time that he was gay, while denying he had threatened his former lover, a Mexican national, with deportation.

"The week actually has been very trying," Babeu, 43, said after the Thursday evening meeting. "Yet I am stronger for it. I never thought of quitting. And I've been overwhelmed by the measure of support we've received.... Did you see all the hugs I received here tonight?" The affection was hard to miss; at least three women whispered "I love you" in his ear.

Until a few days ago, Babeu was one of the Republican Party's bright new prospects. Known for his strident opposition to illegal immigration, he announced in January he would run for Congress, squaring off against a Republican incumbent in a newly drawn district with a large number of socially conservative voters. The race was always going to be tough; now, many say, Babeu's political future is in doubt.

"My guess is that it will be difficult for him to even continue in the race," said Arizona pollster and political scientist Bruce Merrill. "At some point he may have to withdraw."

Handsome, polite, impeccably uniformed and a hawk on border security, Babeu was the first Republican elected sheriff in Pinal County, a swath south of Phoenix about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. A vociferous critic of the Obama administration on immigration, Babeu, an Iraq war veteran, has called for the resignation or impeachment of Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.

He's been a frequent guest on Fox News. In 2010, he had a cameo in a TV spot for Sen. John McCain's reelection. As the pair walked along the border fence, McCain said, "Complete the danged fence."

Then, on Feb. 17, the Phoenix New Times published the deportation claims of Babeu's former lover, Jose Orozco, 34, who had set up Babeu's websites and social media accounts. After the apparently tumultuous relationship soured, Orozco posted derogatory information about Babeu on the sites and posed as the lawman on Babeu's Twitter feed. Babeu has accused Orozco of identity theft and hacking. Orozco's legal status is unclear; Babeu has said repeatedly he believed Orozco was here legally.

Orozco's attorney, Melissa Weiss-Riner, told the alternative weekly that Babeu's attorney and campaign manager, Christopher DeRose, raised the possibility of her client's deportation in a September phone conversation.

"That never happened," DeRose said Saturday. "Our only objective was to prevent another hacking incident, and the only thing I ever asked for was an agreement to refrain from doing so in the future."

In a phone interview Saturday, Weiss-Riner said the word "deportation" was not used. But she said DeRose told her that Orozco was in the country on an expired student visa, and it would be in his best interest to sign an agreement with the sheriff pledging not to discuss their relationship because it could embarrass Babeu.

"What he was saying is my client should be interested in that agreement because he is here illegally," said Weiss-Riner, who would not comment on Orozco's status. "You can take that for what you want."

The New Times published text messages it said were between the lovers, and sexually suggestive photos of the sheriff provided by Orozco. In one, Babeu has his hand in Orozco's open shirt. In another, Babeu stands before a mirror clad only in underpants.

Babeu paid an immediate political price. He resigned as Arizona co-chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Last week's GOP debate in Mesa would have given him another moment in the sun; no longer welcome, he did not attend.

The day after the story broke, Babeu held a news conference. All allegations were false, he said, except for one: He is gay.

As he spoke, deputies, staff and elected officials stood behind him in solidarity. Eight spoke glowingly about his work and ethics. He is the only member of his department who is openly gay.

Like many people, the sheriff had been only half in the closet.

When he was in college, he said Thursday, he'd come out to family and friends. "I'm not ashamed of myself," he said. "I'm proud of who I am."

Raised a Catholic in Massachusetts, the 10th of 11 children, Babeu revealed in 1986 that he'd been sexually abused by priests starting at age 11. He sued and won a settlement, becoming an advocate for victims. He said he was determined not to allow the experience to destroy him.

"I have used these experiences to triumph and temper my spiritual, my emotional steel," he said, adding that being outed was a relief. "I have had teenagers write to me, married men that are closeted, people who I know have disclosed very personal stuff."

Many Arizona journalists say they knew or suspected he was gay; an assignment editor at a local news station said that in the last year, his station had received photographs of Babeu in casual poses with men in social situations. But no outlet in a position to publish the story thought it was news. Babeu was not an opponent of gay rights, after all. And he could not discuss his sexual orientation because until September 2010, when he retired from the National Guard, he was subject to the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Babeu detractors have pegged him as a hypocrite: A closeted and socially conservative anti-immigration lawman takes a lover who is here illegally, allows the lover to violate the law by working for him, then abuses his power when the affair goes south — none of which has been proved, and all of which Babeu strenuously denies.

Supporters say he is a victim of forces eager to derail a nascent political star at a moment of maximum impact. Indeed, all eyes were on Arizona for its Republican debate on Wednesday; the state's presidential primary is Tuesday.

"This is a complete assassination of character," Carol Condit, 62, a hospice nurse, said at a Maricopa County Republican lunch Tuesday. Condit said she thinks the sheriff was "stupid" to transmit suggestive photos, but she doesn't think his prospects have been hurt. "I don't care if he's gay," she said. "I love him because he's honest, he's sincere, he's drop-dead gorgeous. I mean, come on, darn it anyway."

But even people who accept the sheriff and his version of events now may have a change of heart in the voting booth, Merrill said: "It's certainly going to be a negative. Babeu built his reputation as kind of a junior Joe Arpaio, a tough two-gun sheriff, shoot 'em up, tough on illegal immigration, and that whole thing just doesn't hold together."

U.S. Rep. David Schweikert said while shaking hands at the GOP lunch that Babeu would have to earn back the trust of constituents. Babeu (pronounced bab-YOU) will face Rep. Paul Gosar and state Sen. Ron Gould in the August primary.

"Oddly enough, it's not coming out of the closet that's the problem," Schweikert said, noting Arizona's famous libertarian streak and ticking off the names of other gay GOP elected officials. "So sometimes it's more about, 'Were you frank and honest with me?' That's the big hurdle to get over."

At Babeu's request, Arizona Atty. Gen. Tom Horne said his office would handle an investigation.

Orozco, after giving a brief interview last week to CNN, which disguised his face and voice and did not use his last name, has slipped out of view.

"I can tell you right now he's reeling from all the attention," Weiss-Riner said. "He honestly didn't believe it was going to be this big a story."

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