Prairie Lights: Yellowstone County GOP’s embrace of Sheriff Clarke a disgrace

Former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is the Yellowstone County Republicans’ Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner speaker next month. (Gage Skidmore)

When I read the Billings Gazette’s editorial about former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who will be the featured speaker at the Yellowstone County Republicans’ Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner next month, I almost sympathized with him.

The unsigned editorial, which chastised the local GOP for bringing Clarke to Billings, basically made two charges against Clarke: that he was named in a lawsuit over a death by dehydration that occurred in the Milwaukee jail while Clarke was sheriff, and that he once tweeted that the way to deal with the “lying lib media” is to “punch them in the nose and MAKE THEM TASTE THEIR OWN BLOOD.”

Being named in a lawsuit is a far cry from having committed a crime, and if making incendiary remarks on Twitter is unforgivable, President Trump should never be allowed to give a speech anywhere.

Then, last week, the Gazette printed Clarke’s rebuttal, and my sympathy for him began to evaporate. What little sympathy I still had disappeared entirely after I did some looking into Clarke’s past. Everything I read about him, and his own words in the rebuttal, demonstrated why he doesn’t deserve an invitation to speak — but also offered clues as to why Yellowstone County Republicans extended that invitation.

He is simply a provocateur, an attack dog, the Paris Hilton of politics, famous for being infamous. I guess the local Republicans couldn’t resist his notoriety.

Which makes it all the more amazing that the Gazette didn’t provide more easily available evidence that this man has no business addressing a gathering of responsible adults.

At an inauguration-eve gathering of Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., Clarke said, to cheers: “When I hear people say that we need to reach across the aisle and work with people, with the Democrats, you know what I say? The only reason I’ll be reaching across the aisle is to grab one of them by the throat.”

About the same time, when Clarke was still sheriff, he called ahead on a flight back to Milwaukee and had six deputies and two police dogs meet him at the airport — so they could intercept and detain another passenger who had had the temerity to ask Clarke if he was indeed Sheriff Clarke, and when told yes, to shake his head.

And when that passenger complained of Clarke’s abuse of power, several threatening messages were postedon the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. One said, “Cheer up snowflake … if Sheriff Clarke were to really mess with you, you wouldn’t be around to whine about it.”

Another comment, apparently from Clarke himself, said, “Next time he or anyone else pulls this stunt on a plane they may get knocked out.”

In 2006, Clarke invited members of an Evangelical Christian group to speak at several mandatory employee meetings, at which the evangelicals engaged in outright proselytization. Several deputies, who apparently had read the Constitution, objected, but Clarke ignored them.

A couple of deputies and their union ended up suing Clarke over the matter. A U.S. District Court determined that Clarke’s actions were unconstitutional, a determination upheld on appeal.

Clarke, who hadn’t read the Constitution, or more likely doesn’t give a damn what it says, tried to argue that his free-speech rights should have allowed him to “invite” the evangelicals to speak to his employees.

Clarke has also recommended that the president suspend habeas corpus and “scoop up” everyone in America who has “pledged allegiance” to ISIS and deposit them indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay. How many people might that be? “I would suggest hundreds of thousands,” Clarke said, “I would suggest maybe a million.”

In 2015, he visited Russia with a group of National Rifle Association bigwigs, hosted by a Russian group called The Right to Bear Arms. Clarke’s expenses — nearly $20,000 — were paid for by the Russian group and NRA First Vice President Pete Brownell, CEO of the world’s largest firearm accessories supplier.

Press reports suggest that Russia would never tolerate a group promoting gun rights in that country — unless it was controlled by the government and had a mission other than promoting gun rights. Wasn’t it Lenin who coined the term “useful idiots”?

Clarke, in his Gazette rebuttal, rightly took aim at the original editorial’s tone-deaf use of the word “thug” in reference to the sheriff, but then said, “When someone on the right uses that term in reference to black criminals, the left claims it’s a racist term.”

Well, no. In recent years, conservative provocateurs like Clarke have most commonly used the word “thug” with the intent of dehumanizing African-Americans, criminal and non-criminal, or to make them appear responsible for their own misfortune — such as being killed by a police officer.

Most everything else in Clarke’s rebuttal consists of recycled slurs, tough-guy challenges, questionable history and even the hilarious assertion that the Gazette editorial board remained silent in the face of various affronts by leftists like Obama — as if Clarke has been an avid reader of the Billings Gazette for many years now.

The Gazette, meanwhile, missed something else. Its editorial referred mockingly to Clarke’s “bedazzled cowboy hat,” but the hat is nothing compared to the chestful of medals Clarke regularly wears in public appearances. Except that they aren’t really medals at all, but pins and trinkets of negligible value or merit.

He wears no badge more proudly than that of being a black conservative, which gives him, in his mind, permission to say the most outrageous things imaginable, and then to accuse his critics of picking on him because he’s a black conservative.

Please don’t think I’m in favor of abridging Clarke’s right to free speech. If he were to climb up on a box in the lunatic’s corner of some public square, I’d probably stop and listen, just for the entertainment value.

But for county Republicans to embrace this symbol of partisan hatred, this serial defiler of the Constitution, this dancing bear who performs for pay and this inciter of violence, to give him a platform in a state where we might have hoped this sort of behavior would not be tolerated — that is just a shame, and a disgrace.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.