Joyce Dales, 38, a website operator from New Hampshire, was watching the aftermath of the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., on television when Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik made a plea for politicians and pundits to dial down the rhetoric. Dupnik called Arizona a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry," assigning a measure of blame for the rampage that killed six and wounded 14 others to overheated political "vitriol."
Dales was stunned. "I was expecting to hear the usual scripted lines from a police officer and instead found myself nodding at everything he said," she wrote in an e-mail to TIME. So she took to Facebook to create the fan page "Clarence Dupnik is my Hero." It has since garnered nearly 9,000 supporters. "The sheriff is simply saying, 'Enough is enough!' " Dales said. "I love how he hasn't backed down in the face of all this criticism. He's a man of his convictions."
To Dales, Dupnik, 75, may be a hero. But his star turn has also spurred inevitable comparisons to his better-known counterpart: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 78, who is known for his virulent anti-illegal-immigration policies and for housing prisoners in tent cities and outfitting them in pink underwear. He's also the target of a Justice Department probe into whether Maricopa County has systematically discriminated against Hispanics through raids and harsh jail conditions. The contrast of two septuagenarian lawmen riding herd in a rapidly changing state and spouting apparently opposite ideologies has proven irresistible to many members of the media, who have positioned Dupnik as the "anti-Arpaio."
It's true that there are major philosophical differences between the two men. Dupnik initially opposed SB 1070, Arizona's stringent new immigration law, which Arpaio ardently supports. And the Pima County sheriff remarked in September that the Tea Party movement "brings out the worst in America." But casting the voluble Dupnik as Arpaio's liberal foil isn't quite right either.
"I've known Clarence well for many years. He ain't even a liberal," says Alfredo Gutierrez, a former majority leader in the state senate and a well-known activist for Hispanic causes. Arpaio gives the impression that the Arizona heat has sapped his capacity for compassion toward criminals; he penned a book proclaiming himself "America's Toughest Sheriff." But according to Gutierrez, "Dupnik is a much tougher sheriff. He's tougher on crime. He's just not insane. He doesn't have tent cities or pink underwear shorts. He doesn't do the kinds of excesses Fox News and the right wing swoon over." Adds Gutierrez, "Any cop in this state, from the attorney general to the U.S. marshals to the FBI and young sheriffs, will tell you the sheriff they admire most is Dupnik."
A Texas native, Dupnik attended the University of Arizona and stayed on in Tucson to join the city's police department in 1958. Nearly 20 years later, he was made a sheriff's deputy, and in 1980 he was appointed to the top job by the county board of supervisors before winning an election to the post later that year. He has since been elected six more times on the Democratic ticket a hefty feat in the conservative Copper State. His success is no accident. Dupnik's views often overlap with conservative concerns. He asserted last year that schools should ask about the immigration status of their students, and bemoaned the millions of dollars spent "catering to illegals." Says Gutierrez: "I think he's a man of his generation. In his generation, we were [known as] wetbacks and illegals. He uses unfortunate terminology." Nevertheless, the activist adds, "I don't believe Dupnik is in any way racially motivated or in any way using the issue of undocumented [immigrants] to further his own political career."
Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, agrees that Dupnik has been improperly pigeonholed. "His response to a lot of things has been more pragmatic, but like a lot of things, it has been misinterpreted," she says. "He's been in law enforcement his entire life. He is really strong on enforcing the law. His objection to SB 1070 was more along the lines that ... the requirements of 1070 would take them away from curtailing more important crimes than everyone who gets stopped for a traffic offense." After a federal judge issued an injunction against the language in the law that codified racial profiling, Dupnik dropped his opposition.
While Dupnik is no liberal, his comments over Tucson's tragic weekend have been accumulating adversaries on the right. After he savaged the state's permissive gun laws as "the height of stupidity," state representative Jack Harper, the author of a bill that would let students and professors carry firearms at colleges, blamed the sheriff for not protecting Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the target of the Jan. 8 shooting. "If he would have done his job, maybe this doesn't happen," Harper said. A federal judge, speaking anonymously to the conservative American Spectator, said Dupnik "should be strung up" for politicizing the rampage. Scores of conservative commentators have issued withering assessments of Dupnik's performance, arguing that he should stick to the law and leave punditry alone.
In an interview with TIME, Arpaio at first declines to second-guess a fellow sheriff, but then goes on to do just that. "I don't know how you can make those comments. You can't put the blame on everybody else for what this 22-year-old kid did. That's going to be a good defense for him ... I don't like criticizing [Dupnik], but indirectly he's criticizing me because I'm the outspoken guy," says Arpaio, whose habit of steering the conversation toward his own exploits hints that he's none too thrilled about sharing the spotlight. "Come on up to the big city and we'll show you our tents and our pink underwear," he offers. "If you think his comments are going to stop me from doing my job, I've got news for you I'm not going to stop."
Dales, the creator of Dupnik's Facebook fan page, says that "even if you disagree with the timing, it doesn't make him any less right." For his part, the sheriff has cited an obligation to speak up while he has the soapbox. "I don't have a political agenda. I don't have any kind of agenda," Dupnik told CNN. "Hopefully, next week, people will forget who this idiot sheriff is in Tucson."