MILWAUKEE (AP) — With a brash, unapologetic personality reminiscent of President Donald Trump, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is positioning himself as an in-your-face conservative firebrand who has some Republicans swooning over his prospects for higher office.
The tough-talking, cowboy-hat wearing lawman is also one of the most polarizing figures in Wisconsin politics, frequently dishing out eyebrow-raising comments that make even his one-time supporters blanch.
At a pre-inauguration party for Trump last month, Clarke addressed the crowd and told them his idea of bipartisanship.
"I am one of those bare-knuckle fighters," he said. "When I hear people say we need to reach across the aisle and work with the Democrats, you know what I say? The only reason I'll be reaching across the aisle is to grab one of them by the throat."
Once thought a possible candidate to be Trump's Homeland Security secretary, Clarke's window to join the administration is shrinking. But in recent weeks, some fans have launched a campaign to encourage him to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018.
Clarke hasn't publicly responded to the effort and he declined interview requests.
His rise in some conservative circles comes with Clarke facing the most scrutiny he's seen since he took office in 2002: Four people died last year at the jail he oversees, including the newborn of an inmate who is now suing and a man whose death from dehydration is being reviewed by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office.
And this week, a 24-year-old Milwaukee man filed a lawsuit against Clarke alleging he had sheriff's deputies detain and question him after a flight from Dallas last month because, while boarding, the man shook his head at Clarke, who was wearing Dallas Cowboys gear on a day the team played the Packers. Clarke said afterward that "he reserves the reasonable right to pre-empt a possible assault" and mocked his accuser on the sheriff's office's Facebook page, calling him a "snowflake" and writing, "if Sheriff Clarke were to really mess with you, you wouldn't be around to whine about it."
Clarke was one of the few African-Americans to speak at the Republican Party convention last year. He has been vocal about gun rights and critical of what he called the "hateful ideology" of the Black Lives Matters movement, saying at times, "Stop trying to fix the police, fix the ghetto."
His combative persona is appealing to his supporters, who want him to run for higher office or get a spot in the Trump administration.
"He's got a little Trump in him. He's got a little snark. If you prick him, he fires back," said Nate Pendley, an attorney helping raise money to encourage Clarke to challenge Baldwin next year. The committee's website calls Clarke "The Black Rush Limbaugh with a Badge."
Clarke grew up in Milwaukee County, one of five children, and spent more than two decades in the city's police department before he became sheriff.
"He was raised value-oriented family. I do think that the background that Clarke came from — those are some of the things that ground him," said Mark Belling, a conservative talk-show radio host in Milwaukee. He said he believes millions of people agree with Clarke, but that "the media and liberals hate any African American who expresses conservative viewpoints."
The fact that he supports Trump, Belling said, "gets under the skin of a lot of people."
Clarke's ascent in the political spotlight has been lucrative. Last year, the frequent Fox News guest earned more than $105,000 in speaking fees — almost as much as his sheriff's salary — at more than three dozen events across the country.
"He's virtually invisible here in Milwaukee," said Charlie Sykes, a conservative former radio host who criticized Clarke on Twitter in September for spending so much time out of the city. Sykes, who's known Clarke for 15 years and once supported him, said the sheriff blocked him on Twitter after that and their relationship has soured.
"He wears a very big hat but he's very thin-skinned," Sykes said.
Clarke's provocative commentary has earned him new admirers — and cost him some of his earliest advocates.
Evan Zeppos, a public relations executive in Milwaukee who was an early supporter and financial backer of Clarke's, once called the sheriff "a John Wayne character" but has since changed his mind.
"Now, at best he's like Barney Fife," he said.
Zeppos said the turning point for him came in 2013 when he advised Clarke to tone down his comments after he accused the Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a frequent foil, of "penis envy."
"All he did was scream at me," Zeppos recalled. "And that was the last meaningful conversation I had with him."
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