John Pennington lost his primary election bid for sheriff of Mesa County, here in western Colorado, last month. I don’t know why he lost to Steve King, a former Republican state legislator, who just recently backed out of running because he is under investigation for some financial hanky-panky. But I do know why Pennington deserved to lose. And I only hope the reasons extend beyond this particular political contest.
Pennington ran as a “constitutional” candidate. That means he believes completely in the United States Constitution, which sounds good. The U.S. Constitution is the foundation that gives this country so much of its greatness, rooted as it is in the rule of law. But constitutionalist sheriffs apparently believe in the Constitution except for the parts they don’t believe in, such as that troublesome little clause in Article VI that makes the Constitution the supreme law of the land. Constitutionalist sheriffs believe sheriffs are the arbiters of the supreme law of the land, and they can ignore or enforce laws as they see fit.
During his campaign, Pennington received support from the Arizona constitutionalist Richard Mack, a man who’s become a hero to tea party adherents. Mack, the former sheriff of sparsely populated Graham County, Arizona, catapulted from obscurity to right-wing fame in the mid-1990s, when he challenged the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Surprisingly, he won a U.S. Supreme Court victory, successfully challenging provisions in the Brady Bill that required local law enforcement to conduct prepurchase background checks.
Mack’s notion that county sheriffs have supremacy over all other law enforcement agencies is a position born in the 1970s, when it was pushed by a movement calling itself Posse Comitatus. The Posse’s so-called Blue Book, written by white supremacist Henry Lamont Beach, asserts the county is “the highest authority of government in our Republic” and claims that whites are a higher kind of citizen subject only to “common law,” not the dictates of the government. Blacks, meanwhile, are merely “14th Amendment citizens” who must obey their government masters.
Ever since the notion of the supremacy of the county sheriff became popularized, it has continued to remain attractive, says Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door, a book that chronicles the racist underpinnings of the militia movement of the 1990s. People “don’t understand that what is behind it is violent lawlessness and vigilantism. That’s what Richard Mack stands for when you strip all the window dressing away – lawlessness and vigilantism.”
In recent times, Mack has appeared on radio talk shows like James Edwards’ “The Political Cesspool,” which promotes the views of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Holocaust-deniers. Mack has also been a longtime supporter since the 1990s of white supremacist Randy Weaver, of Ruby Ridge fame. More recently, Mack has aligned himself with Barbara Coe, one of the nativist movement’s more flamboyant characters. Coe, who died in 2013, was perhaps best known for her diatribes against Mexican “savages,” along with some imaginative conspiracy theories, says the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white-supremacist movements. In 2005, Coe acknowledged she was a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which calls black people a “retrograde species of humanity.”
I don’t know if John Pennington was or is a racist. I don’t even know if Richard Mack, who supported his campaign, is a racist. Like pretty much all racists, Mack claims he is not. But he sure is comfortable hanging out with them.
I’d like to think Pennington got defeated, at least in part, because we’re all better than that and because most of us care about our neighbors. I’d like to think that by rejecting Pennington, we rejected ex-sheriff Mack and all that he stands for.
Mesa County is a conservative county, and reasonable people can – and do – disagree. But Mack and his ilk preach and support a subtle form of “hate thy neighbor” couched in love of country. That doesn’t need to be us. We don’t need to go there. And on June 24, 2014, we didn’t.
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a retired ranger for the Bureau of Land Management and lives in Grand Junction.