Right Frets Over Sheriff Babeu Scandal: Does Immigration Trump ’Gay Agenda’?

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 2, 2012

In what has become an all-too-familiar occurrence, an ultra-conservative politician has once again become the center of a scandal. The big difference here is that this one is perplexing right-wingers, because it gives them a "Hobson's choice" between the twin hatreds of gay men and immigrants. The rest of us can only look and wonder (and be amused).

As the sheriff of rural Pinal Country, Ariz., Paul Babeu thrust himself squarely into the public eye as one of the chief opponents of immigration. Moreover, as the sheriff of a county near the Mexican border, and in the one state where immigration has become the hot-button issue, he became both spokesman and symbol of the anti-immigrant movement, as reported here.

He was hoping to parlay that national status into a successful run for Congress -- until, that is, he ran into some publicity that made him another kind of symbol of the immigrant debate. In mid-February, following an expose in an Arizona alternative weekly, Babeu admitted he was gay while at the same time denying allegations that he threatened to deport his ex-lover.

Among Babeu's perceived transgressions was posting shirtless photos of himself on the gay cruising website Adam4Adam. But this presented a situation far beyond the normal coming out: Jose Orozco was a Mexican national and, perhaps, an illegal immigrant himself.

A darling of anti-immigration supporters, Bebeu was a featured speaker earlier in February at the notorious Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Ironically, several of the attendees posted adsfor gay sex () on Craigslist while they were in town; this, while CPAC had a very public falling-out with ultra-right gay group GOProud, a sponsor of last year's conference and dis-invited to this year's.

Latest in Line of Outed Ultra-Right Figures
Babeu is just one of a long line of anti-gay conservative government figures forced out of the closet, that goes back to Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's notorious partner in hunting out alleged communists in the 1950s. He died of AIDS in the mid-1980s.

They also include these luminaries:
• Former Idaho GOP U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, charged with soliciting sex from a male undercover copy at the Minneapolis airport.
• Former GOP Florida congressman Mark Foley, caught having sexual e-mail conversations with two former male pages.
• Washington State Rep. Richard Curtis, whom a hustler accused of soliciting sex.
• Ultra-right GOP California Congressman David Dreyer, accused of having sex with male staffers.
• Former California GOP State Sen. Roy Ashburn, caught leaving a gay bar with another man and then arrested for DUI. (He's since come out and admitted his mistakes and hypocrisies while in Sacramento.)
• Right-wing Spokane, Wash., mayor Jim West, recalled by voters after it was revealed he had a long history of gay relationships.
• Glenn Murphy, Jr., the one-time head of the Indiana Young Republicans, who allegedly performed sex on another Young Republican.

The Right's Dilemma: Condemn or Defend?
There's been a firestorm of criticism of Bibeau among conservatives in Arizona and elsewhere, but some have come to his defense. Ironically, because Arizona has strong libertarian roots, openly gay politicians may have a better chance of being elected there than in other conservative-leaning states.

Former Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe retained his seat even after coming out before retiring in 2007. This year, two openly gay Democratic state lawmakers are vying for congressional seats on Aug. 28: Rep. Matt Heinz and state Sen. Paula Aboud, both of Tucson, along with former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix, also a Democrat, who has said she is bisexual.

Many conservative political analysts, however, believe Babeu's political career is destroyed and he doesn't have a chance of winning.

"There is no question that his budding congressional campaign is over," longtime Arizona Republican political consultant Sean Noble wrote on his blog. "Because it is a Republican primary in a conservative district, it's likely that the thing that hurts him the most is that he was in a gay relationship."

Saying that Babeu also should resign as sheriff "for the sake of the party," Noble contended that his coming out was not the major sin, but allegations that he threatened his ex-lover with deportation. "I don't give a rip about him being in a relationship with a man from Mexico," the analyst wrote. "I care that as a Republican and someone who has repeatedly preached 'the rule of law,' he abused his power and is a hypocrite."

Michael O'Neil, an Arizona public opinion researcher, agreed. "You are elected to public trust, and if you have power as a function of holding a public office, you are not supposed to use that to your own personal benefit," O'Neil told the Prescott (Ariz.) News.

"There's just no question that this will hurt him," Bruce Merrill, senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, told the Phoenix CBS-TV affiliate.

Judging from reader comments on the ultra-conservative blog FreeRepublic, Babeu may not have a prayer. "This dude is finished" was a common refrain.

"I guess Megan McCain is so proud of her turd poker," said one in referencing the ardently pro-gay daughter of John McCain.

"The only real question remaining: who played the boy and who played the girl?" wrote another. "Lord, this society is sick!"

"Pardon me while I throw up," said one comment. "He is just another corrupt queer cop."

Another homophobe contributed this gem: "Who would have thought that the fecal-eaters would be receiving positive press?"

However, other FreeRepublic readers supported Babeu. "But now they find out he is gay, and suddenly he is the enemy," wrote one. "The man is still the same guy he was last week."

"His mistake was not coming out in the first place; all this BS in the leftist media could have been avoided," said another. "He is a conservative and has a great record as Pinal County Sheriff."

Two Tea Party officials in Babeu's district told the Associated Press they weren't turned off by his sexual orientation either.

"I care less," said Bill Halpin, a 64-year-old ex-Air Force pilot who serves on its board. "I just care less. Don't preach it on me. Don't push it on me and, by golly, I respect your rights."

"I'm a Christian, but who am I to make a judgment about somebody else?" said Mona Patton, the group's president. "I still back him. I still like him. That doesn't affect that."

At least one political observer also believes his sexual orientation shouldn't be an issue.

"I don't care about his private life," Audrey Mullen of
Advocacy Ink in Alexandria, Va., a public relations firm that represents pro-business, largely libertarian-leaning clients, wrote in an email to EDGE. "However, I believe all politicians (of all preferences) should take down their online dating profiles while they are campaigning."

Juliet Williams, associate professor, Department of Women's Studies at UCLA and author of "Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals," in an interview discussed the phenomenon of closeted politicians outed by sex scandals.

Sex: The Other Mother's Milk of Politics
If, as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, money is the mother's milk of politics, sex is the wine.

Two patterns have emerged in the 15 years since the infamous Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal that can be applied to gays, according to Williams. "When revelations are deemed scandalous among a conservative audience that doesn't approve of men having sex with men, you see a concession, a promise to repent, a request for forgiveness," Williams said. "You basically see people who agree that it's wrong for men to have sex with other men."

On the other hand, there are the politicians such as Babeu and former Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who declare they are gay without apology. McGreevey's admission ended his career in politics, "but not his ability to contribute meaningfully in public life," per Williams.

Then there's the whole issue of Newt Gingrich's serial philandering and subsequent marriages, which has become a major issue in the current race for the Republican presidential nomination. The former House speaker's second wife recently alleged that during his second marriage, he tried to persuade her to have an "open relationship" with his mistress and current wife No. 3, Callista.

"We are entering a new era in which the unapologetic approach is gaining traction," Williams said, a propos of the ongoing Gingrich soap opera, "which is a good thing. It's clearly been demonstrated that there is no rule about whether a scandal will end your political career or simply become an embarrassing moment from which people will move."

Gay Republicans have to endure the challenge of homophobia among Tea Party members and social conservatives, she cautioned. That could well prove to be the Republicans' loss.

"Republicans need to ask how many otherwise greatly promising members of their party they will lose because of clinging to an entrenched form of homophobic hatred," said Williams.

She finds it ironic because gay people are actually in favor of family values. "They are saying, 'It's just that we want to be married to the person we love.' If an allowance cannot be made for that, it's a problem."

It's been pointed out by several observers that one of the great ironies of the marriage equality debate is that, with heterosexuals increasingly marrying later or not at all, and out-of-wedlock births at an all-time high, gay men and lesbians now represent the conservative side of the debate over the institution.

GOP at a Crossroads
Williams views the rise of social conservative issues in the presidential primary campaigns as a detriment to those conservatives who want small government. "They're in the losing wing of the Republican Party right now," she observed. "The party should be saying, 'Let's focus on government conservatism and let people live their lives.'"

It should be. How the party and voters in Arizona respond to the revelations about Sheriff Babeu may portend how the national party will play out the ongoing, raging debate about the "gay agenda."

Or, it could simply be a reflection of the priorities of Republican Arizonans: immigration or sexual identity?

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].