Arizona's White Supremacist Problem

First, a hate group says it gave money to Gov. Brewer. Then, an alleged neo-Nazi surfaced, doing desert patrols. Terry Greene Sterling on the race issue now dogging Sen. McCain’s campaign.

Jan Brewer (Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo)

Paul Babeu was elected sheriff of Pinal County, on the eastern edges of the Phoenix metro area, in 2008, and soon learned that opining about crime on the border was one way to get political attention. The tall, lanky, 40-year-old sheriff has bemoaned the federal government’s failure to police the border on Fox News, and has stumped for former presidential candidate John McCain in his red-hot Republican Senate primary battle in Arizona, including starring in a famous TV ad in which McCain insists the inept feds (read, Dems) build the “dang fence.”

Arizona’s new immigration law gives “racism a place to hide,” says professor Roxanne Doty.

Now J.D. Hayworth, McCain’s primary opponent, has gleefully prodded McCain to dump that dang TV ad—and distance himself from Babeu. What changed? The sheriff was a guest on a conspiracy-theorist show in early July, during which he hinted the Obama administration’s legal challenge to Arizona’s immigration law was “borderline” treason. The sheriff followed that interview up with a cameo appearance on a radio show linked to white supremacists.

The sheriff claimed ignorance, his spokesman took the blame for not researching the venues adequately—and McCain's team blamed the Hayworth camp for trying to smear a good lawman.

But the Babeu flap is just the latest way in which the fierce debate over Arizona’s new migrant law, which is being challenged in federal court and, barring an injunction or court ruling, is slated to take effect on July 29, has stirred up the ugly underside of immigration—hate groups with nativist and white-supremacist links. Long story short, Arizona’s new immigration law gives “racism a place to hide,” says Roxanne Doty, an Arizona State University professor who has long studied the nexus of white supremacy and immigration policy in Arizona.

These days, tough-talking election-year politicos like McCain and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the state’s new measure into law, are learning the hard way that their campaign tough-stand-on immigration rhetoric can attract strange and unwelcome bedfellows.

Questions continue to swirl around a reported donation by a white-supremacist group to a legal defense fund set up by Gov. Brewer. The defense-fund contribution was announced July 13 on the website of American Third Position, a white supremacist political party. This came swiftly on the heels of the news that a heavily armed gaggle of “patriots” with alleged neo-Nazi ties had begun patrolling the border area.

American Third Position, a California-based party, has been designated as a white-supremacist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups in the United States. A3P, as it’s known, claims on its website that it “exists to represent the interests of White Americans because no one else will.” (A3P does not list a phone number on its website and could not be reached for comment.)

Recently, A3P announced that it had made a “triple digit” contribution to Brewer’s legal defense fund, which she set up to help defray the costs of defending a slew of lawsuits that contest SB 1070 on constitutional grounds.

Brewer, through her spokesman Paul Senseman, says she won’t accept donations from racists and will return the donation from American Third Position—if the contribution exists in the first place. Staffers have been diligently sifting through names of about 25,000 donors who have contributed about $1.3 million to the fund, Senseman says, and have yet to find the A3P donation.

Support of Arizona’s immigration law by white supremacists is not surprising, says Heidi Beirich, a SPLC expert on hate groups, who contends folks who want the United States populated by whites only view the law as one good way to reduce the population of brown people.

“My view is you can’t separate white supremacists from what is going on with Arizona immigration,” Professor Doty says. “Even if politicians say they aren’t associated with white supremacists, the ideas behind SB 1070 are very attractive to white supremacists… The new face of the white supremacist isn’t the guy with a sheet and a burning cross, it is the more highly educated person with a professed focus on family values, national identity, and border security.”

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Babeu, the sheriff who’s brought heat on the McCain campaign, was once a headmaster for a Massachusetts boarding school. He became a cop for the city of Chandler, a Phoenix suburb, before being elected sheriff of Pinal County two years ago.

He was outed by a media watchdog group for appearing in early July on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show, during which he said President Obama was undermining the rule of the law and fretted that America was “sprinting down a path to socialism.” The next day, Babeu caused a stir in Arizona by being a guest on Political Cesspool, a radio talk show affiliated with white supremacists. Political Cesspool’s website is upfront about its “paleoconservative” worldview and lists among its principles a desire “to revive the White birthrate” and “to grow the percentage of Whites in the world relative to other races.”

(The host of Political Cesspool, James Edwards, is on the board of directors of A3P, the political party that is the self-professed Brewer defense-fund contributor.)

Babeu’s press officer, Tim Gaffney, takes the blame for his boss’ cameo on Political Cesspool. Gaffney tells The Daily Beast he checked out the Tennessee radio station that invited Babeu on the show, and gathered from the website that it was a Christian venue. Gaffney says he verified that the producer who’d invited Babeu on the show actually worked at the station, then booked his boss Babeu as a guest. Both Gaffney and Babeu say they had no idea they were dealing with a purported hate radio show.

Edwards, the talk-show host, claims in a July 21 blog post that Babeu and his spokesman knew exactly what they were getting into. Instead of distancing himself from the show, Babeu should have voiced pride to be included in a “pro-white show, and if they don’t like it they can go to hell,” Edwards writes.

The Babeu talk-radio fiasco provided political ammunition for J.D. Hayworth, McCain’s primary opponent. Babeu was “elevated to stardom by McCain” and at the very least showed “poor judgment to go on a pro-white and neo-Nazi show,” says Hayworth spokesman Mark Sanders, who on Wednesday asked McCain to distance himself from Babeu and pull the famous ad featuring Babeu and McCain strolling along the “dang” border fence.

Sanders downplays the fact that early in the campaign, Hayworth’s border adviser was Chris Simcox, a founder of Minuteman Civil Defense who left the campaign “because he had personal issues he had to deal with.”

“Sheriff Babeu has already said he regrets calling into this radio show—and has made clear that he was obviously unaware of its hosts’ repugnant views,” counters McCain spokesman Brian Rogers in an email. Babeu is still featured as a McCain supporter on the opening page of the campaign's website.

Rogers points out Babeu was recently lauded by the Anti-Defamation League for condemning desert patrols in Pinal County led by alleged neo-Nazi J.T. Ready, who has long been singled out by the SPLC as one of Arizona’s premier haters.

Ready characterizes his SPLC designation as “Internet crap,” and contends the ADL is a “Jewish supremacist group.” But he says neither Babeu nor his deputies have discouraged him and his heavily armed buddies from patrolling the borderlands in search of narcotraffickers.

And anyway, these days, Ready says, he has had a change of heart. In a quirky flip flop that could only happen in Arizona, the 37-year-old alleged Nazi spins himself as more of a liberal than some of the mainstream politicians running for office on a secure-the-borders platform.

“My view has significantly changed since I’ve been patrolling the desert,” Ready asserts. He’s “re-evaluated” a lot of things and has “modified” his earlier views. He is no longer a member of the National Socialist Party, he says. Bumping into migrants in the desert who are thirsty, hungry, and injured has opened his “whole humanitarian side.”

“I no longer see them as invaders,” he claims. “I see them as economic refugees.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at Her book, Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, was published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.