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 all the more 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 ex-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.
Now the conversations that have ensued here since _ in one of the most politically conservative states in all the union _ are astonishing in their own right. There are questions, many of them, about Babeu and his "choices" and judgment, about whether the sheriff may have somehow abused his power. Yet voters, Republican voters in particular, are also asking some intriguing questions of themselves, about acceptance and identity and values, about what really matters most to them.
"This may be a litmus test," said Patton, not just of whether a gay man can survive running for Congress in a deeply conservative district in a red state but, more so, of the contrast between how far society has come _ and still has to go. "I have many, many, many friends in my life that are gay and have been gay, and I don't have issues with it. But, you know, it's a hurdle for a lot of people, and it's, I think, a shame. ... I think he's going to have a hard row to hoe."
Before all of this, the 43-year-old was considered 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 a culturally diverse part of Arizona. Having previously commanded a National Guard unit in the border town of Yuma, Babeu quickly became known for his tough stance on illegal immigration. He appeared alongside Sen. John McCain in a 2010 ad in which McCain advocated completion of a border fence, and last year was chosen as America's "Sheriff of the Year" by his colleagues in the National Sheriffs' Association.
In January, he announced his candidacy for Arizona's newly drawn 4th Congressional District, and polls soon showed him as the favorite against an incumbent tea party Republican who switched districts to run and a GOP state senator who once sponsored legislation to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
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, denying the threats but acknowledging, with stark candor, that he is gay.
"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."
Some Arizona political insiders were quick to declare Babeu's congressional aspirations _ indeed, his political career _ over, in large part because of questions that go beyond his sexual orientation. 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.
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." The New Times also published an old profile of Babeu's from a gay dating website showing another shirtless photograph, with Babeu's face mostly cut out.
Then, on Friday, The Arizona Republic reported that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether one or more of Babeu's employees at the sheriff's office engaged in on-the-job politicking.
As a columnist for that newspaper wrote earlier in the week: "Sheriff Babeu is not in political (or perhaps legal) trouble because his lifestyle has been exposed. He's in trouble because he was involved in a messy relationship that spilled over into his public life and has raised questions about his judgment. And when you're running for the U.S. Congress your judgment is an issue. ... It isn't a gay thing. It's a trust thing."
Whatever the "thing" is, the reaction to it has _ thus far _ not been quite what some may have expected.
When Babeu posted a link to his news conference on his Facebook page and implored voters to "stand with me as we talk about the issues that matter," more than 1,000 comments flooded in. While some expressed disappointment and said that the sheriff had lost their support or branded him a hypocrite for being gay and Republican, the vast majority supported Babeu _ from locals who know him to out-of-staters declaring that they, too, are conservative and gay.
"First gay man I can agree with," read one post. "We conservatives have his back," said another. And: "We still support you Sheriff. Gay or straight. Let's get this country back on the right track."
DeRose said Friday that Babeu had received $17,000 in political donations since his news conference, and that his supporters in Arizona "are more enthusiastic than ever."
Whether this is all just political posturing or even, political correctness that may soon fade remains to be seen. 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.
The event was held in Yavapai County in the heart of the congressional district, which covers a huge swath stretching from the border near Yuma through the horse pastures of Prescott Valley up north to the conservative stronghold of Mohave County near the Nevada border. Phoenix political consultant Chuck Coughlin described the district as one of the most right-leaning in the state _ with a rural, older demographic that does not "lend one to believe that there is a high degree of likelihood" of Babeu winning the congressional seat or even staying in the race for the long haul.
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.
"If you're an openly gay Republican, you face a platform that is sometimes not welcoming," said Chuck Wolfe, the fund's president. "It's going to take a while to reverse that feeling."
Kolbe, who represented a more diverse, swing district than the one that Babeu hopes to win, was elected to Congress in 1985 and disclosed in 1996 that he was 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."
"I think in a few years the media won't be paying that much attention to this issue. The public clearly is ahead of the media on this, and as the polls show people don't seem to be that concerned about this kind of an issue," he said. "The issue is whether Paul's a good candidate for Congress or not, and I think he is."
Coughlin and others noted that Babeu has a few things working in his favor: He's charismatic. Arizonans like his stance on illegal immigration and other conservative issues, but they also genuinely like him. Several voters also said that the sheriff's sexual orientation was one of the worst-kept secrets in Arizona political circles and that while they wish it hadn't come out the way it did, the fact itself was hardly surprising.
"Everybody knew on some level, and we never gave it a second thought," said Republican Shawna Thornton, 38, a before-and-after Babeu supporter who lives in Lake Havasu City, within the 4th District, and believes that the now openly gay sheriff still has a chance.
Old assumptions of how party affiliation defines a voter's position on social issues such as homosexuality no longer ring true, insisted Thornton, noting that for her and many others "conservatism" isn't about abortion or gay marriage but rather limited government, fiscal responsibility and "values" in the sense of understanding right from wrong.
"I'm finding that people are more middle of the road, less extreme, more accepting of how different people are deep down inside," she said.
Added Coughlin: "Life's a mosaic of issues and people, and although we want to see the world in black and white there's very little of that around. It's a lot of grays, and a lot of colors in between."
Some voters contacted for this story were hesitant to discuss the situation as they await the outcome of the independent probe. But the ones who did appeared to be genuinely muddling through all that had happened _ and their own feelings about it _ in ways that shunned the extremes.
"Well ... I just think that ... You know, I don't know," said Barry Denton, 52, a horse trainer and president of the Yavapai Republican Men's Forum, whose group played host to Babeu for a speech only days before all the "news" of his private life broke. As always, Denton said, he was well received.
"I think he's done an extremely good job as sheriff, and I think he's done a great thing by making people more aware of the immigration problem. I guess I wish he had come out with the gay thing sooner. I think he should have been a little more upfront, `cause he's a pretty upfront guy.
"I don't agree with his lifestyle. That's his business," he said, "But as far as what he's accomplished, it's been impressive. ... I'm just disappointed."
Denton said he thinks the allegations against Babeu will prove unfounded, and that he hadn't yet picked a candidate to back. When asked whether all of this might persuade him to choose someone other than Babeu, he said: "I haven't come to any conclusion there yet."
There were similarly mixed feelings at the tea party meeting on illegal immigration, at which Babeu was initially scheduled to speak. Tea party representatives and Babeu's campaign manager said the sheriff had to cancel because of another previously scheduled event.
Jeff Tomb, a businessman who is running for county supervisor in the area, was frank in allowing that he didn't think, in his district, that "the homosexual thing is going to go over real well." But only moments later he questioned his own conclusion: "I don't know. People are getting more and more accepting now. He came out and said it and he was honest about it, which is a big plus. That's a good sign of a good honest man, and we need an honest man."
Halpin and Patton, the tea party board member and president, were among those who said they didn't care whether Babeu is gay. As for whether that meant they could vote for him, Halpin said he wouldn't rule it out, should Babeu remain in the race. (He is, however, adamantly opposed to the Babeu opponent who switched districts.) Patton went further, saying she probably would support the sheriff. But then she admitted that, in reality, she doubted he would remain in the race _ or that he could win if he does.
"You know, we put people in boxes and we expect them to behave a certain way and then when people are outside the lines ... there's punitive measures that happen," she said. "I don't know. I just hope people are bigger than that, and I don't know that they're going to be. I don't know what to tell you. This is such a difficult situation. I wish it had not come down the way it did. I wish it hadn't happened."
"But," she said, "here we are."
AP National Writer David Crary in New York contributed to this story.