Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s announcement yesterday on Vicki McKenna’s show was not a surprise but, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. The long-anticipated news that he is going to take a position at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was complicated by the word from the agency that they had no announcement to make.
Clarke’s announcement jumped the gun a bit, but later in the evening an administration official confirmed Clarke was offered the job. Politico previously reported that Clarke was in line for the job, so it's likely he's saddling up for a new life in Washington. His predecessor is not exactly welcoming him with open arms.
Assuming that the press release announcing the appointment was just lost by Sean Spicer in the bushes somewhere, Clarke’s new role will be as a public liaison between DHS and police agencies, which is really amazing considering his poor relations with the Milwaukee Police Department and even his own deputies. But the position doesn’t require Senate confirmation which, for Clarke, is important. He’s not a big fan of questions, any questions. Clarke even threatened the county medical examiner for asking questions.
Given the four deaths in the jail in the last year, the incident in January when he sent six deputies to confront someone who may have frowned at the sheriff, the Tanya Weyker case, and the long stretches away from the county to do public speaking, Clarke might have had some uncomfortable moments during a Senate confirmation hearing.
And then, of course, there’s the inflammatory rhetoric, which is putting it mildly. Clarke is consistently rude, obnoxious, and even childish when talking about other public officials. It’s one thing to oppose Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett or Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, it’s another thing to immediately drag the public discourse into the gutter with nearly every statement.
Let’s put Clarke’s world into context. He’s the sheriff of a county that doesn’t need a sheriff. There are no unincorporated areas in the county, there are no municipalities lacking a police department. In fact, there’s very little for the sheriff’s department to do: catch speeders on the freeway, run the jail, and, in theory, provide security at the courthouse.
Clarke’s aware of this and has been very jealous in protecting his remaining turf from encroachment. He resisted efforts to use private security at the courthouse and to contract out the running of one of the county jails. He also fought proposals to turn security of the county parks over to local police jurisdictions even though it means his deputies have to “island hop” from one park to the next if they’re going to do patrols.
When the county tried to cut Clarke’s departmental budget down to size, Clarke got the help of liberals on the county board who hated Abele, which is pretty funny because Clarke’s bobblehead doll shows him choking a liberal. Then Clarke also talked about fighting the escalating crime problem in the community, getting talk radio and suburbanites to rally to the cause despite the sheriff’s department having no effect on the crime rate.
Because the amount of actual law enforcement by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department is pretty minimal, this leaves Clarke lots of time to travel the country to do speaking engagements. He made more money talking than he did for being a sheriff last year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. At least when Clarke leaves town officially, he’ll have plenty of mementos of his travels.
Why do conservatives love Clarke so much? Clarke was the local version of Trump before Trump. He insulted Democrats and liberal judges the way so many conservatives would like to if given the chance. The fact that Clarke was so unapologetic about it just made him more popular. He was Ann Coulter in a cowboy hat.
Clarke was good at playing the liberals, too. His ongoing feud with Abele meant that Clarke was hated by the right (left) people. When the public service announcements by Clarke came out encouraging people to shoot first and wait for a 911 response later, the left was apoplectic, and suddenly Clarke was the darling of the NRA. Former New York Mayor (and anti-gun zealot) Michael Bloomberg made it even easier for Clarke when he decided to dump money into the last Democratic primary for sheriff. If Bloomberg had dumped another million into the race, Clarke would have won by an even wider margin.
Meanwhile, despite his nominal status as a Democrat, Clarke cozied up to conservatives through talk radio, even appearing on WISN as a guest host, and by appearing at conservative functions. Everyone would line up at Republican fundraisers to get their picture taken with the tough-talking black sheriff who hated Black Lives Matters as much as they did.
It may have amused some on the right when Clarke accused Abele of suffering from “penis envy,” or when Clarke said that Barrett would receive another beating like he received at State Fair. And some on the right probably found it amusing when Clarke threatened to beat up anyone who looks at him cross-wise on an airplane. But even those on the right who would normally look askance at such talk were quickly back on Clarke’s side whenever he was attacked by all the people they dislike.
So it was really no surprise that Clarke got on the Trump bandwagon early. It was the respect one showman had for a much bigger act. For Clarke’s loyalty during the campaign, he’s getting rewarded with a political position where it’s unlikely he’s be able to do too much harm, and the Trump Administration can still use their black sheriff to attack their enemies when they need him. Everybody wins, except the police agencies that might depend on Clarke doing his job.
Back in Wisconsin, will conservatives ever recognize how much they were played by this con artist, starting from his appointment by Acting Governor Scott McCallum in 2002? McCallum believed Clarke would run as a Republican, but he was played, too. Clarke’s been playing a role ever since, and after cashing in last year he gets to put his cowboy boots up on a desk in Washington. Life’s good if you remember what PT Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”