OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — Body-armored and gripping a high-powered rifle, former Sheriff's Capt. Clay Higgins looks at the camera and leaves no doubt what he thinks of the young men alleged to be members of a violent Louisiana gang called the Gremlins.
On-camera, Higgins, who is white, refers to the law enforcement officers arrayed behind him, along with several black community leaders.
"Men like us?" he says. "Son, we do dumbbell presses with weights bigger than you."
Higgins' boss, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, told Higgins to tone down the rhetoric. Instead, the man dubbed by the media as the "Cajun John Wayne" resigned — and now he's running for Congress.
Higgins, a Republican, is one of seven candidates vying for the seat in Louisiana's southwestern district, which is being vacated by Republican Rep. Charles Boustany, who is running for Senate. Also in the race: former gubernatorial candidate Scott Angelle, the fundraising leader so far.
What Higgins, 54, lacks in money he makes up with fame. His over-the-top Crime Stoppers videos have been growing in popularity since last summer and even made it onto "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," where Fallon jokingly suggested Higgins should run for president.
Higgins — who says he's of Irish, not Acadian, descent — is counting on his straight talk to boost his candidacy.
One popular video features his recounting of an otherwise unremarkable break-in at Stelly's Supermarket and Restaurant, a pit stop near fields of corn and sugar cane.
"Look at me, son," Higgins says, addressing the unknown burglar with a touch of menace in his Louisiana drawl. "The sheriff likes Stelly's restaurant. And so do I."
Reaction has run the gamut from praise to amusement to ire. The Gremlins video, in particular, drew criticism from the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said, "nothing that Mr. Higgins said will make his community safer."
Higgins sought to pre-empt any accusation of racial motivation. In the video, he tells viewers to look at the black community leaders arrayed behind him, side-by-side with law enforcement officers. "This is not about race," he says.
New Orleans black activist Raymond Brown argued otherwise. "He knew ... his name was going to go big by interjecting race," Brown said.
Clarence Lazard, a black Baptist pastor who took part in the Gremlins video, supports Higgins. He says that, beneath Higgins' "country bumpkin" drill-sergeant persona is "a unique gentleman who's not scared to say what he thinks."
Guidroz issued a statement that he supported the "overall message" of the Gremlins video, but that earlier videos sometimes crossed the line with comments he called unprofessional. He also said Higgins violated policy — for instance, by using the sheriff's office address to register a business selling mugs, T-shirts and other "Captain Higgins" trinkets.
Higgins may also face another issue in the campaign: a recently unearthed 1991 divorce record in which his first wife, now deceased, said he once put a gun to her head.
"I fell out of my chair," Higgins said in a recent interview of the moment he was contacted by a reporter about the record. He said he had not contested the divorce and knew nothing of the allegation.
He said the marriage fell apart after the death of their 6-month-old daughter. But, he insisted, there was no violence, no threats.
Now married to his fourth wife, Higgins is a New Orleans native. He grew up on a horse farm north of the city, achieved financial success in the automobile business and served in the National Guard. He says he began turning around an admittedly raucous lifestyle — "I worked too much, I drank too much, I didn't honor my wedding vows" — after a divorce from his second wife and the resulting separation from their children.
He slips Bible references into some of his videos and wears wrist bands with the words "Redemption" and tiny crosses.
If politics doesn't work out, he's still in law enforcement, now a deputy marshal in the city of Lafayette. One campaign selling point: He says his fame means he won't be just another freshman when he walks into the Capitol.
"When I show up representing Louisiana, they're going to have to pay attention," he said.
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