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Since the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has emerged as something of a liberal folk hero. In his first press conference after the attack, Dupnik was quick to blame the violence on heated right-wing rhetoric: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry.” Arizona has “become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” he said.
His blunt remarks, hailed on the left and decried on the right, earned Dupnik more than a few depictions as a kinder, gentler version of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which borders Pima County on the north. “He’s basically taken on the role of … being the opposite of Sheriff Joe,” a Republican consultant in Phoenix toldPolitico. AOL News called him the “anti-Joe Arpaio.” It’s not the first time he’s been compared to Arpaio: Dupnik’s initial refusal last year to enforce Arizona’s new immigration law, which would empower police to question anyone who they had a “reasonable suspicion” was an illegal immigrant, made him the media’s fuzzy alternative to Arpaio’s chain-gang justice.
But a look through Dupnik’s past reveals a much more complex figure than his current portrayal as a liberal Democratic crusader. Dupnik first joined the Tucson Police Department in 1958, was appointed sheriff of Pima County in 1980, and has won re-election ever since. Perpetually over-tasked and under-resourced, Dupnik’s force has the near-impossible job of dealing with not just the usual case load, but also the continuous flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. In 1981, Dupnik sent a message to all residents: Arm yourselves. Police couldn’t adequately protect the populace, he said, because they didn’t have sufficient manpower: “Not only are things not good, they are going to get worse. For those who are so inclined, it’s time to start protecting yourselves.”
It was an early example of Dupnik’s bluntness—how often does a sheriff confess he can’t protect the populace?—and his pragmatism: Better to be honest and safe than to feign safety and risk danger. Since then, Dupnik has become the go-to sheriff to give a candid, ground-level view of illegal immigration. Speaking to Sean Hannity in July 2007, Dupnik said, “I don’t know that there’s any reasonable solution to the problem.” Hannity pushed him: What about more agents? A border fence? Predator drones? Dupnik stood his ground: “I’m not sure there is a solution.”
Arpaio and Dupnik disagree over whether local law enforcement should be responsible for fighting illegal immigration. But their differences aren’t as stark as you’d think. After all, you don’t get re-elected sheriff seven times by being soft on “illegals” (Dupnik’s term). In 2007, Dupnik raised the hackles of immigration activists when he proposed to have federal agents work alongside his own border crimes unit. Opponents argued that this kind of cooperation would allow federal agents to enforce local law, and police officers to enforce federal law. Dupnik said the purpose was only to increase communication and cooperation between the forces. Nevertheless, he withdrew the plan in early 2008.
Dupnik provoked the Hispanic community again in April 2009 by suggesting that public schools should check students’ immigration status when they enroll, even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that denying enrollment to the children of illegal immigrants is unconstitutional. “It’s wrong for the taxpayers in this country to spend the millions and millions and millions of dollars that we do catering to illegals,” Dupnik said, including providing free education to their children. Rep. Raul Grijalva and 10 other prominent Democrats signed a letter requesting an apology. Grijalva even called Dupnik “Arpaio light.” Dupnik refused to apologize and downplayed the backlash: “If you read the blogs, and I don’t know if you do, I think you’ll have a different opinion.”
Even the stance for which Dupnik is best known—his opposition to S.B. 1070 in 2010—isn’t so cut and dried. When the Arizona legislature first passed the law, which would crack down on undocumented immigrants and the people who harbor and transport them, Dupnik said he would refuse to enforce it. Dupnik objected to the provision that would allow law enforcement officials to ask people who looked like immigrants to show their documentation, dismissing the law as “disgusting,” “unwise,” “stupid,” and—his own word—”fornickaboobery.” Once the profiling language was removed, though, Dupnik supported the law. “I don’t have any problem with it now,” he told Megyn Kelly on Fox News on Aug. 11. (Parts of the law have yet to be implemented after a federal judge issued an injunction. Politifact argues that profiling could still be a concern despite the bill’s revisions.)
Dupnik has garnered praise for his apparent lack of interest in media attention. And compared with Arpaio, he’s not a publicity monger. But that doesn’t mean he’s not press savvy. In 1991, Dupnik refused to hire an otherwise competent man as the county’s top emergency services official because he believed in UFO’s. Dupnik called it “not the kind of image we want to project.” Nor is Dupnik exempt from publicity stunts. In a weirdly Arpaio-like move in 2006, Dupnik ordered every inmate on trial for a felony outfitted with a shock-inducing belt. At least one judge ordered them removed from her courtroom.
At the same time, Dupnik hasn’t been afraid to take stances that might be unpopular. During the Keating Five scandal in 1990, he traveled to Washington to testify in favor of former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who was born in Tucson. Asked whether DeConcini ever made fundraising a prerequisite for his attention, Dupnik said, “That would be a ridiculous assertion.”
One reason the Dupnik-Arpaio rivalry (or what the media sees as a rivalry) has never gotten out of hand is that neither speaks ill of the other publicly. Dupnik couches their disagreement in terms of resources, not ideology. If Pima County tried to police illegal immigrants like Maricopa County does, “I would use all my resources for that purpose, and I couldn’t provide for the safety of this county,” Dupnik said in 2006. Likewise, Arpaio doesn’t take shots at Dupnik. Both are politicians as much as sheriffs. They know which battles to pick, and which to leave be. And in that sense, perhaps they are most alike.