A former Arizona sheriff revered by the militia movement for his outspoken criticism of gun control and government tyranny is returning to the Inland Northwest for meetings with local GOP groups, triggering a rift among some Republicans.
Richard Mack, who now lives in Texas and is running for U.S. Congress, is a self-described conservative constitutionalist with ties to various political parties and movements. He served as sheriff of rural Graham County, Ariz., as a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Utah as a Libertarian and now is trying to unseat a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the GOP’s upcoming Texas primary.
He will be a featured speaker at fundraisers for the Republican parties of Spokane and Kootenai counties, though his North Idaho appearance was canceled at one point, then re-established after fraud allegations arose from the intra-GOP process used to disinvite him.
The presence of the controversial speaker and the debate surrounding him is something that a local expert says could be a valuable experience for the community, particularly with another nationally recognized law enforcement expert with different political views also making a Spokane visit this month for a speaking appearance. Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper, whose stances are considered far more liberal than Mack’s, is speaking at the Bing Crosby Theater on March 29.
Spokane police Detective Doug Orr, who also serves as a criminal justice professor at Gonzaga University, has urged people to attend both events, suggesting that while the speakers represent different ends of the political spectrum, they both advocate the best route to reform is through individual community members working together.
Orr, speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the police department, said he’s not surprised that Mack’s appearance has garnered controversy. But that’s the point of dialogue.
“We know what the answer is when we shut people out, but what are the answers when you show up and listen?” Orr said.
But Republicans who oppose Mack’s appearance in Kootenai County say their event isn’t about debate – it’s about promoting Republican candidates and raising money, and Mack doesn’t support that.
Some say the rift represents a larger battle taking shape nationally within the Republican Party. Mack is a tea party favorite, who speaks nationally about the role of county sheriffs in guarding against government tyranny and has written about why Americans should arm themselves with guns.
But does that represent the views of the mainstream party?
“This is a microcosm of what’s going on nationally,” said Duane Rasmussen, an attorney and former vice chairman of the Kootenai County Republicans. “This is not mainstream Republicanism. These are fringe groups that have come in. The Kootenai County GOP has been overrun by people from other parties who are basically parasites.”
Tina Jacobson, chairwoman of the Kootenai County GOP, supports Mack and said she doesn’t understand the controversy from her fellow Republicans.
“He’s an excellent speaker, and he’s speaking all about the 2nd Amendment for heaven’s sake,” Jacobson said. “We’re very excited to have him here.”
Mack is running as Republican in Texas for the U.S. House of Representatives.
He was elected sheriff of Graham County in Arizona in 1992 as Democrat, when the county’s population was 30,000. He hasn’t been elected to office since but is a frequent speaker at tea party events and has run for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian.
He wrote a book with Randy Weaver in the 1990s about the federal siege at Ruby Ridge and was part of a successful lawsuit against the Clinton administration challenging sweeping gun control legislation.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Mack as “an iconic hero of the militia movement.” Mack’s website states that the biggest threat to individual freedom isn’t terrorism, it’s the federal government.
Jeff Ward, president of the Idaho Federation of Reagan Republicans, was among 14 elected GOP committee members who submitted a letter to county GOP leaders calling for them to rescind Mack’s invitation.
“It’s not a matter of him not toeing the line. He’s not even close to the line,” Ward said. “Most of the time he’s promoting Constitution Party and Libertarian Party candidates.”
“This is an event specifically for supporting Republican candidates,” Ward continued.
The letter led to a 31 to 30 vote in favor of ditching Mack. But when the validity of one of the ballots was questioned, it was thrown out and the vote was split evenly. The executive committee then voted 6 to 3 to re-invite Mack, Jacobson said.
The Spokane and Kootenai county Republican parties split Mack’s $2,500 speaking fee, Jacobson said.
It’s not the first time Mack has spoken in the area. A crowd packed the Greyhound Park in Post Falls in November 2009 to hear Mack, who was joined by Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich also attended the speech and said he heard a message about respect. “Respect for states, respect for individual rights, for the job of the sheriff,” Knezovich said at the time.
At the time, Mark Potok, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s director of publications and information, questioned why so many elected officials would choose to attend a speech by a man with extremist views.
Mack is suing the organization, claiming slander, libel and defamation.
Orr said he doesn’t feel attending the speech is an endorsement one way or the other.
“I don’t see how politically damaging it could be to sit in an auditorium for an hour and a half and listen,” Orr said. “I’m going to be there, and I don’t care what people think of me.”