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Arizona's back-to-basics sheriff

By John D. Sutter, CNN
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Sheriff: Hard right 'fueling' the fire
  • Critics say Arizona sheriff politicized shootings that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
  • Sheriff Clarence Dupnik pointed to prejudice, blamed radio, TV for spreading "vitriolic rhetoric"
  • He says seeing bigotry toward Latinos while growing up helped shape his disdain for prejudice
  • Dupnik says he has no agenda; his often-blunt comments have sparked fire on the left and right

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Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- A little-known sheriff has stepped into the national spotlight with a back-to-basics lesson for America:

Treat people with respect; engage in civil discourse; be nice.

Those aren't the sexiest talking points. But in the wake of Saturday's mass shooting in Tucson in which six people were killed and a congresswoman was critically wounded, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik says a little moral fortitude is what America needs.

"Tucson and Arizona and the rest of the country have become very divided by a lot of the rhetoric that exists, particularly over the radio waves and some TV air, which is designed, in my opinion, to inflame the public against public officials, elected officials, government and the administration," Dupnik said in an interview with "And that kind of an atmosphere, in my opinion, influences people who are not stable -- people who have troubled personalities."

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Those remarks echo a sentiment -- worded more strongly -- that brought Dupnik national attention and criticism this week. At a press conference Saturday, after the shooting that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, the sheriff called Arizona a "mecca of prejudice and bigotry" and blamed the news media for spreading "vitriolic rhetoric."

Weight of words in focus after Arizona shooting

Asked Monday what would help heal these divisions, Dupnik talked about a return to old-fashioned morality. It's an outlook that comes from a man who has seen "simpler" times and who tends to view the world through the lens of right and wrong -- moral and immoral decisions.

Dupnik, who turned 75 on Tuesday, grew up in a Catholic family in Bisbee, a small mining town near Arizona's border with Mexico. His parents taught by example, he said, something he sees as rare in an age when people are fond of talking about their own greatness.

"We were taught to respect authority, and parents and, basically, everything," he said. "And, in my opinion, that's one of the most basic things that has changed in our society: People don't have much respect for anything. They use foul and vulgar language. Violence is -- it fills all the movies. It's hard to watch a movie that's not filled with violence and vulgarity and sex."

This right-and-wrong discipline was reinforced in school.

"I went to a Catholic school for eight years, and we were not allowed to behave in a deviant way. When we did, we paid a price," he said. "I had my oily hair pulled once by nuns, and I have been slapped across the wrist a couple of times."

Dupnik, a Democrat, has a history of taking a stand when he believes in something strongly -- without much care for consequences.

In high school, he boycotted his town's yearly dance because Latinos were not allowed to attend. His best friend was Latino. It didn't seem right to go without him, he said.

"I didn't stand up for anything," he said, noting that he didn't try to draw attention to that decision. "I just refused to go."

Racial discrimination reared its head again when Dupnik worked in Bisbee's copper mines, which he said would not let Latino workers advance into management roles.

Seeing such bigotry helped shape his current disdain for prejudice.

"It's not right," he said. "When you start treating people based on where they were born or where their ancestors were born -- it's not right. It wasn't right then, and it's not right today."

Dupnik was appointed sheriff of Pima County in 1980 and subsequently was elected to the post seven times, according to the county website. But his reign has not been without controversy, with his actions and often-blunt comments sparking fire on the left and right.

Despite his strong speech, his viewpoints are sometimes hard to follow. The sheriff is widely known for calling Arizona's tough immigration law "racist" because he said it required local law enforcement to engage in racial profiling. He refused to enforce it.

But when it comes to illegal immigrants, he doesn't have complete sympathy.

"It's wrong for the taxpayers in this country to spend the millions and millions and millions of dollars that we do catering" to illegal immigrants, he was quoted this week in The New York Times as saying.

Slate's Christopher Beam adds: "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."

On Saturday, when Dupnik again spoke his mind, he set off a new wave of criticism, with some opponents saying he politicized the shootings in Tucson.

"I feel incredibly bad for our brave Pima County Sheriff's Officers who have to serve under Clarence Dupnik," Jon Justice, a prominent conservative radio host in Tucson wrote in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "Within hours of the horrific shooting that took place at the congresswoman's event, Dupnik was telling local media that talk radio and the media was partly to blame, only to repeat his statements again during the press conference that was receiving national attention.

"We have no idea at this point the motivation of this murderer's act. Yet Dupnik took his moment in the spotlight to drive a political wedge into the event."

The Arizona Republic wrote that the sheriff was becoming part of the problem by continuing to talk about the hate in Arizona, days after the shooting.

"Dupnik needs to recall that he is elected to be a lawman," the paper wrote in an opinion piece dated Tuesday. "With each additional comment, the Democratic sheriff of Pima County is revealing his agenda as partisan, and, as such, every bit as recklessly antagonistic as the talk-show hosts and politicians he chooses to decry."

Dupnik told he's not out for political gain.

"Organizations and individuals need to examine this issue of civility in public discourse, political discourse, and I think it wouldn't hurt for some aspects of the media -- radio and TV, primarily -- to examine their motivation and behavior," he said.

"I think most people understand, and my heart tells me that millions of people feel the same as I do. I don't have a political agenda. I don't have any kind of agenda," he said. "Hopefully, next week, people will forget who this idiot sheriff is in Tucson."

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