It was October 27, and David Clarke was furious with a Fox scheduler.
The outspoken Milwaukee County sheriff had been set to appear on Stuart Varney’s Fox Business show, but there had been a mixup.
Clarke decided to air his frustration to the public.
“Cancel @Varneyco appearance,” the bombastic sheriff tweeted to some 400,000 followers. “Scheduling folks not on the same page with remote studio. Time lost I’ll never get back.”
Charlie Sykes, a recently retired conservative Wisconsin radio host who had been friends with Clarke for the better part of 20 years, couldn’t stay silent when he saw the tweet. As with a number of Milwaukeeans, Sykes believed that while Clarke was off becoming a media personality, he was neglecting the job the local community elected him to do — be sheriff.
And on that October day, he chose to say something.
“Maybe you could actually spend time doing your day job then?” Sykes tweeted at Clarke.
Clarke was having none of it. He blocked Sykes, an ally for more than two decades. And Clarke later tweeted — without mentioning Sykes’ name — that a “local guy claims to be a conserv & contributor @MSNBC. Sends ICYMI when he’s on. No wonder. No one watches!”
Over the course of the 2016 campaign, Clarke was elevated to the mantel of the nation’s most divisive law-enforcement figure. He emerged as one of President-elect Donald Trump’s most visible supporters on cable news, propping him up as he attempted to run a campaign heavy on law and order. He now looks set to earn an influential spot in Trump’s administration.
Milwaukee’s sheriff is adored by many on the right for his unapologetic tough talking, while he is loathed by others for making wild statements believed to be below the dignity of the office he holds.
But the “old” Clarke, as Sykes described him, was different. He had only recently been replaced by “the brand ‘Sheriff David Clarke’ who trends on Twitter and is on Fox News and is a YouTube sensation.”
“He clearly has just kind of moved on to this national stature,” Sykes said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of jobs you don’t have to show up for, but [sheriff] is one where you do.”
In Milwaukee people took notice.
Through a spokeswoman, Clarke did not accept interview invitations for this story. Business Insider spoke with several people who have known him for years.
‘The things he says transcend politics’
To understand Clarke, it’s important to gain a sense of his improbable rise to power, and his ability to maintain it against long-shot odds.
A son of a solider, he was born in 1956 in a predominantly white Milwaukee neighbourhood. Early in his adult life, Clarke went into law enforcement, sworn in as a Milwaukee police officer in 1978 at age 21. He spent 24 years at the city police department, serving as a patrolman for 11 years before being promoted to homicide detective.
According to a 2003 Milwaukee Magazine profile, he fired his weapon only once on the job, shooting and wounding a Saint Bernard that lunged at him while he was investigating a break-in. He also received two merit citations, one of which was for helping to catch a man dubbed the “ski mask rapist” in 1981.
In 1993, Clarke received another promotion, this one to lieutenant of detectives. One year later, he faced a complaint from the mother of a 15-year-old boy who claimed he used excessive force when arresting her son, including putting his gun to the side of the teen’s head and kicking him in the ribs. The complaint was later dismissed when the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission ruled the evidence was insufficient to charge him.
Clarke was promoted in 1996 to captain before becoming commanding officer of the intelligence division in 1999, where most of his work involved protecting major politicians who visited town.
By 2002, he had been a member of the Milwaukee police force for 24 years. And Clarke was looking for a big break.
He got one.
Unexpectedly, the Milwaukee County sheriff at the time resigned to take an early pension payout, and Clarke applied for the job. He was chosen by Wisconsin’s Republican governor at the time, Scott McCallum, out of a crowded field of 10 applicants.
Clarke was not a widely known figure in 2002, and when his first election rolled around shortly after the appointment, the overwhelmingly Democratic Milwaukee County still had no idea he was staunchly conservative.
The community’s political leanings left no viable option for Clarke but to run as a Democrat and make it through a contested primary, as he has managed to in every election since.
“The thing about his appointment that I think has not been picked up on by a lot of people who’ve been reporting on this is when Clarke was under consideration to be chosen at sheriff, there was not any hint from anywhere that he was a conservative,” said Mark Belling, a conservative Wisconsin talk-show host. “I mean, it was from nowhere.”
“A few weeks before the primary, somebody contacted me who was working with Clarke and whose opinion I trusted; they used an intermediary to say, ‘Mark, nobody really knows this, but Clarke’s a conservative,'” Belling continued. “The Clarke that ran in that first campaign in the Democratic primary back in his first primary, he didn’t talk about any of the things he talks about now. It was just kept a complete, I wouldn’t say a secret, but the candidate talked about other things.”
Even after Clarke’s conservative views became more apparent to the masses, he kept winning Democratic primaries. In 2006, he won by 8 percentage points, before winning in 2010 by 6 and in 2014 by 4. Each year, the general election was a wipeout.
“There’s no way he should have survived some of the primaries he had before,” Sykes said.
Belling called his victories “extraordinary.”
“Everyone knows he’s not really a Democrat,” Belling said. “But he keeps winning these Democratic primaries, and he’s getting the support of a majority of Democratic voters despite his views that are clearly not Democratic, which tells me that the things he says transcend politics and if there is not universal acceptance, there’s more widespread acceptance for his beliefs and viewpoints than I think people realise.”
From ‘just another sheriff in the Midwest’ to ‘someone who has to be reckoned with nationally’
All the while, Clarke frequently feuded with local politicians with whom he disagreed, often finding backup on Sykes’ and Belling’s programs. He regularly found himself in hot water for politically charged rhetoric — much as he does today — aimed at black Milwaukeeans he believed were in a state of social dysfunction.
But his rants about black Americans and his full-throated defence of police during high-profile shootings were eventually what earned him a seat at the Fox News table.
As his profile began to grow, criticism of Clarke increased. Ahead of his 2014 race, a political action committee, headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, tossed in a large amount of money to defeat Clarke in the race, as did other state groups.
But with the backing of the National Rifle Association and conservative talk radio, he fought off his toughest challenge. The election took place just three days after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Those two things moved him from being just another sheriff in the Midwest to someone who has to be reckoned with nationally,” said Daniel Bice, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who has spent years covering Clarke.
Clarke relished the newfound spotlight in conservative media. He criticised President Barack Obama, claiming he had a “love affair with criminals.” He started using “Black Lies Matter” when speaking of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a 2015 op-ed, Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee went after Clarke, writing that it was time for him to “prove that he’s more than just another partisan agitator with a badge and a cowboy hat.”
“The self-proclaimed ‘people’s sheriff’ needs to drop the sideshow act and get serious,” she wrote. “Until then, I can only wonder if Sheriff Clarke is still a lawman or just a guy who plays one on TV.”
But Clarke’s brand only grew. He amassed more followers on Twitter than any political figure in the state, aside from House Speaker Paul Ryan. With his growing platform and his past interest in pursuing the job, conservative donors approached him in 2015 about the possibility of a 2016 mayoral run. But a source with knowledge of the meeting said Clarke seemed to blow off the idea.
The sheriff wanted to become a national figure.
Enter the 2016 presidential election.
Clarke became a boisterous Trump supporter and regularly skewered Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee. His fiery campaign rhetoric earned him a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear: Blue Lives Matter in America!” Clarke said from the lectern at Quicken Loans Arena at the onset of his prime-time convention speech.
He campaigned for Trump along the trail, sometimes performing the opening speech before the Manhattan billionaire took the stage.
The most memorable moment of the campaign for Clarke came in mid-October, when polls showed Clinton comfortably ahead nationally and in key swing states. He said ahead of a Wisconsin rally that the system was “rigged” and that it was “pitchfork and torches time in America.”
The crowd went wild.
“I think the ‘pitchforks and torches’ quote introduced David Clarke and his incendiary rhetoric to the rest of the nation,” Bice said.
Sykes said he knew the sheriff wasn’t actually calling for violence. But he called the remarks hypocritical, considering Clarke had tied rhetoric from Obama and Black Lives Matter activists to violence for years.
“I almost get the sense he feels the need to become more extreme and outrageous to maintain his brand,” the former talk-show host said.
Lt. Chris Moews of the Milwaukee Police Department, who ran against Clarke in the last two primaries, put it this way: “David Clarke, really in the last six months, has come unhinged.”
‘The most divisive figure in Wisconsin politics’
The blossoming of Clarke into a national star has correlated with his diminishing presence at home.
“You do have to come home at least once in a while,” Sykes said. “And all you do is speak out on [crime], that’s been the wrap on him. Big hat, no cattle. Talks a big game but he doesn’t actually do a lot of stuff.”
After he came out in support of Trump, Sykes said Clarke has been “routinely AWOL.”
“He has to run a law-enforcement department, which has very specific responsibilities, and a city that has had a really, really tough year,” Sykes said. “And when he gets involved, it often has an almost gratuitous, grandstanding sense to it.”
The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has relatively few functions compared to other local law-enforcement entities, such as the city’s police department. Its main responsibilities are to patrol the local freeways and parks, as well as to maintain the courtrooms and the jail. In Clarke’s reduced role at the office, Bice said a pair of inspectors are running the operation.
Though Belling argued the office is carrying out its responsibilities “just fine,” Moews strongly disagreed.
“He always talks a good game, very vocal, pointing fingers, very judgmental,” Moews said, strongly underscoring he was not speaking for the department. “But when it comes to enacting proactive policing strategies that would have an impact on violent crime in Milwaukee, and in Milwaukee County, he is completely absent from the situation. One thing that has been said about him in the past is never before has anybody had so much to say about law enforcement in Milwaukee County and so little to do with it.”
In 2005, Clarke cut the office’s witness-protection program. Not long after, in 2007, 24-year-old Maurice Pulley was gunned down after testifying against a man who had shot him in the face earlier that year. The program was later revived.
And, Moews said, things have “gotten even worse.”
“David Clarke is not a team player,” he said. “He’s someone who wants to be on the forefront of the headlines, but when it really comes down to it, it’s like the real-life version of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain there.”
In 2016 alone, Milwaukee faced a bevy of law-enforcement-related problems, including what Moews said is a spiked homicide rate. Although FBI Uniform Crime Statistics for 2016 have yet to be released, Milwaukee County saw a significant spike in homicides between 2014 and 2015.
In August, riots broke out in the city after the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith. Smith, who was black, was shot by a black officer on the police force. Body-camera footage later showed that Smith was holding a gun in his hand.
With the riots making national news, Clarke called for the National Guard to be mobilized, and he moved to shut down a neighbourhood park before its regular closing time.
“And to a certain extent, that sort of embodied what has become of Sheriff Clarke,” Sykes said. “He’s often absent, but when he shows up it’s some sort of an over-the-top symbolic gesture to assert his relevance when it doesn’t really accomplish anything and people have to say, ‘What was the point of that? To shut down an entire park just because it was near where some crime was committed four days ago?'”
But Clarke’s biggest controversy at home has been the four people who have died at the jail maintained by his office. One was a man who died of dehydration; another was a newborn baby delivered by an inmate.
Clarke has been almost entirely silent on the matter until recently, when he said the jail populations are “filled with sick people who have made a lot of bad decisions that have compromised their health.”
Moore, the congresswoman from the district, tweeted that the Justice Department, with weeks to go until Trump’s inauguration, told her they’re considering an investigation into the deaths at the jail.
Clarke fired back in a lengthy post on the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. He declared that Moore was “ghost-chasing” because he played a “key role” in getting Trump elected. Clarke also criticised local Milwaukee media for getting “suckered” into “making a fake news story out of it because they love when people attack the sheriff.”
“None of these political attacks on the Sheriff started until AFTER Donald Trump won,” he wrote, with a photo of himself and Trump included in the post.
Sykes called this “regular rant about media bias” tiresome.
“At some point, you do actually have to do your job,” he said. “He goes around the country wearing that sheriffs uniform.”
Bice called him “the most divisive figure in Wisconsin politics.”
“And that’s saying a lot given that the governor went through a recall election,” he said, referring to former Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker.
Moews, who said he intends to make another run for county sheriff in 2018, called Clarke an ineffective, absent “egomaniac” who has “no interest in sharing the responsibility of the problems we’re facing.”
“He’d rather be the guy in the headlines who’s saying whatever he is saying because he’s saying a lot of outlandish things,” he said.
David Clarke, Scott Walker, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and Sean Hannity.
With Trump’s unexpected election win, Clarke has a shot at a job on the national stage, one for which he’s certainly been angling.
Although he did not get the nod as the Department of Homeland Security secretary, a position for which he interviewed, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told WTMJ “we definitely” want Clarke to be involved “in the administration at some level” and that he is “going to have opportunities” to serve in the Trump White House.
Belling said the sheriff could be valuable as a policy adviser in the areas of law enforcement and homeland security.
“He has a lot of credibility with the public, and at least with the conservative public,” he said. “He is an outstanding communicator.”
Taking a post in the Trump administration would be a big change for Clarke — a Milwaukeean his whole life — as he would have to make the transition to DC.
Regardless of what his next move is, it seems widely accepted that the sheriff’s story is far from over. The more he is ridiculed for his incendiary remarks, the more popular he becomes.
“He’s offering a perspective that is shared by tens of millions of Americans, but that virtually nobody offers,” Belling said. “You also can’t get past the symbolism of the fact this is an African-American law-enforcement officer who has a very strong, tough-on-crime high-morals stance. The symbolism of Clarke is powerful. It drives his critics crazy that he’s always out there wearing the sheriff’s uniform and wearing the white hat, but that is powerful symbolism.”
“I think that’s what makes him important,” Belling added. “And it’s what drives his critics crazy.”
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