Politics & Policy

Back in the Saddle

Pro-gun sheriff David Clarke triumphs over Michael Bloomberg’s big-money efforts to oust him.

An African-American incumbent takes brave policy stances that go against his party’s orthodoxy. A multibillionaire from the East Coast spends big bucks to defeat him in the Democratic primary, and is joined by local millionaires. Together they spend more than the campaign budget of both candidates in the race. Faced with what the local newspaper called “an avalanche of outside campaign dollars,” the incumbent’s response is: “I trust the voters. The voters can’t be bought.” He goes on to win by five points, carrying both black inner-city neighborhoods and white suburbs, and is a shoo-in for reelection this fall.

Sounds like a great story worthy of national attention — maybe even a Hollywood-movie treatment. But there are reasons you likely haven’t heard about it. The African-American incumbent who won this week is Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, a conservative who has championed the Second Amendment and urged Wisconsin residents in unsafe neighborhoods to “become acquainted with firearms.” The billionaire who saw his money go up in smoke was former New York City mayor and liberal darling Michael Bloomberg, who helped found Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Clarke won both the city of Milwaukee, which is heavily minority, and the county precincts, which are dominated by whites. His victory over a union-backed candidate is another inconvenient fact for liberals.

Black leaders who focus on racial divisions are often showered with media attention and, what is worse, given a free pass on demagoguery — during his presidential run, Al Sharpton was handled with kid gloves by other White House contenders. At the same time, leaders such as Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice are often called sellouts, or worse, for the crime of not viewing every issue through a racial prism.

David Clarke is used to such double standards. Appointed sheriff in 2002, he has won election three times since then in part by promoting a more honest approach to race relations. Along the way, he has infuriated liberals for accusing other black elected officials of practicing a “cult of victimology” instead of making “real efforts to better the lives of black people.” His critics claim that the 57-year-old Democrat is a “Republican wolf in angry sheep’s clothing,” but his message seems to strike a chord with voters from all backgrounds.

Clarke’s opponent this time was Chris Moews, a police officer who said Clarke had so alienated local Democratic officials that he had seen his budget cut. “We’ve had 12 years of his dog-and-pony show,” said Moews. “Clarke is not tough on crime, he’s loud on crime. We need a real sheriff, not a fake cowboy.”

Clarke responded to the budget cuts by blasting the idea that his constituents should be punished for his outspokenness. He cut a radio ad last year that stated: “I’m Sheriff David Clarke, and I want to talk to you about something personal: your safety. It’s no longer a spectator sport. I need you in the game. But are you ready? With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option. You could beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back. But are you prepared? Consider taking a certified safety course in handling of firearms, so you can defend yourself until we get there. You have a duty to protect yourself and your family. We’re partners now. Can I count on you?” The in-your-face ad prompted local liberals to vow they would defeat Clarke this year, but they wound up doing no better than they had in 2010.

This election isn’t the only time that Clarke has attracted controversy. When he first took office, he inherited Crossfire, a program begun by the Clinton Justice Department to decrease violence. An educational element of the program used ads to remind convicted felons that they face serious penalties if they carry a gun, even if they don’t use it. Those who ignore the warnings are prosecuted in federal court, where penalties are more severe. Because more blacks than whites were picked up and jailed through the program, critics argued that its enforcement was racially discriminatory.

Sheriff Clarke dismissed the critics. “We’re not targeting a population. We’re targeting neighborhoods,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel back in 2003. “The majority of people arrested for violent crimes, they’re black males. Why should we kid ourselves? . . . They’re ravaging the lives of other black individuals.”

“I’m result-oriented, and our neighborhoods will never prosper if we don’t keep criminals from victimizing families,” Sheriff Clarke told me in an interview in 2003. And he knows from experience that minority citizens recognize it too. “They agree that our community will only be strong if we reject low expectations and failure on everyone’s part. A new generation of leaders think it’s time for a fresh message and more honesty.”

He said his blue-collar parents taught him “not to use race as an excuse,” and he mourned that today “playing the race card is done as if it were some kind of sport.” Sheriff Clark opposes the collection of race data for law-enforcement stops, which he believes are exploited by organizations eager to unfairly accuse police of “racial profiling.” He has also rejected the attitude that law enforcement can’t do much to improve safety in minority neighborhoods, stepping up neighborhood patrols in high-crime areas.  

Now that he has effectively won another term (he has no Republican opponent this fall), the six-foot-four Clarke says he is “back in the saddle” and ready to challenge local “imperial leaders,” who he says are “soft on crime.”

Don’t expect the culture wars in Milwaukee to abate, and you can be sure that Clarke will be right in the middle of them.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.


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