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Associated Press
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu acknowledged Feb. 18 that he is gay. The Republican is running for Congress in Arizona’s 4th District.

Tea partyers stick with outed gay sheriff

– A few days ago, the Yavapai Tea Party gathered at a church in rural Arizona to discuss the all-too-familiar topic of illegal immigration. Among the conservative, mostly over-55 crowd, it is a subject seen in black and white. Build a fence, add agents, reject amnesty – period.

And so it was striking when, off to the side in a room with “Jesus Loves Us!!” written on a chalkboard, the conversation turned to the subject on everyone’s mind, if not the agenda: the conservative Arizona sheriff and Republican candidate for Congress who less than a week earlier had admitted to reporters, his constituents – indeed to the world – that he is gay.

The absolutes were, in large part, absent.

Consider the comments of Bill Halpin, a 64-year-old former Air Force pilot who serves on the local tea party board: “I care less. I just care less. Don’t preach it on me. Don’t push it on me and, by golly, I respect your rights.”

And this from Mona Patton, the 60-year-old real estate agent who is the group’s president: “I’m a Christian, but who am I to make a judgment about somebody else? I don’t have that right, and I look beyond that. … I still believe in him. I still back him. I still like him. That doesn’t affect that.”

Sheriff Paul Babeu’s “coming out” moment on Feb. 18 was surreal enough, given the man, his politics and the venue – a news conference in front of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department with Babeu, in uniform, surrounded by deputies. Then, of course, there was the startling reason for the sudden admission: a story in an alternative weekly publication in which a former lover accused Babeu of threatening his immigration status if he revealed their relationship.

In response Republican voters are asking some intriguing questions of themselves, about acceptance and identity and values.

Rising star

Before all of this, the 43-year-old was a rising star in Republican politics. A retired major in the Army National Guard and an ex-police officer, Babeu was the first Republican elected sheriff in Pinal County, nestled between Phoenix and Tucson.

In January, he announced his candidacy for Arizona’s newly drawn 4th Congressional District, and polls soon showed him as the favorite.

Then came the Feb. 17 headline on the website of the Phoenix New Times: “Paul Babeu’s Mexican Ex-Lover Says Sheriff’s Attorney Threatened Him With Deportation.”

A day later, Babeu found himself before microphones and reporters.

“I’m here to say that all these allegations ... are absolutely completely false except for the issues that refer to me as being gay. Because that’s the truth.”

An independent investigation, begun at Babeu’s behest, is looking into the allegations of intimidation and threatening behavior. Babeu has denied threatening his ex-boyfriend with deportation and said his understanding is that the man, originally from Mexico, is in the country legally.

The former boyfriend also told CNN that he was here legally.

Judgment issues

Still others have questioned Babeu’s judgment because of a photograph the New Times published showing him shirtless and standing in his underpants. Babeu had sent the picture to his former boyfriend, and his campaign manager and attorney, Chris DeRose, said Babeu “realizes that was a mistake, and he shouldn’t have done that.”

Babeu, who declined an interview request, has vowed to stay in the congressional race, and the primary is still six months off. He continues to make campaign appearances, including a speech at a Lincoln Day dinner the same day he admitted being gay.

“So, how is your weekend going?” he joked, and his audience laughed.

Political precedents

There have been no openly gay Republicans in Congress since 2006, when another Arizonan – U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe – retired. And the nation’s 7,382 state legislators include 93 openly gay Democrats but not a single openly gay Republican, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

Kolbe was elected to Congress in 1985 and disclosed in 1996 that he is gay. Last week, he endorsed Babeu, and he said in an interview that while no one could predict whether Babeu will emerge from this and still be able to succeed politically, “we have come a long way.”