FLORENCE, Ariz. — A sheriff seeking the GOP nomination for an Arizona congressional seat was forced to confirm he is gay Saturday and resigned from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Arizona committee amid allegations of misconduct made by a man with whom he previously had a relationship.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu denied claims he tried to threaten the man, a Mexican immigrant and a former campaign volunteer, with deportation if their past relationship was made public. The man’s allegations were first published Friday in The New Times, a Phoenix alternative weekly magazine.
Babeu, a first-term sheriff who has risen to national prominence with his strong opposition to illegal immigration and smuggling, said the accusations were an attempt to hurt his political career.
He vowed to continue his campaign in Arizona’s rural western 4th Congressional District seat, but said he had called presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s staff to say he would step down from his post as state campaign co-chair.
“This whole rumor, this whole of idea of who I am in my private life has been shopped around,” Babeu said during an hour-long press conference Saturday in front of his sheriff’s office. “This was a way, the hook, of how this could be brought out, and to malign and attack a sheriff who does stand for conservative principals, who does enforce the law.”
The lawyer for the man, Melissa Weiss-Riner, told The New Times that Babeu’s attorney and campaign consultant falsely told her client that his visa had expired. Babeu said he believed the man, identified only by his first name Jose, was living in the country legally.
The New Times posted a photo provided by the man of the two embracing. It also posted a cell phone self-portrait of a smiling Babeu in his underwear and another of what appears to be the shirtless sheriff in a bathroom, posted on a gay dating website. The man provided the magazine with photos of himself and Babeu and text messages between the two. Babeu didn’t deny their authenticity.
The huge congressional district where Babeu is seeking election runs from western Arizona all the way to the desert south of Phoenix. Its voters are heavily Republican and generally very conservative.
Babeu issued a sweeping denial of any wrongdoing in front of his headquarters. The press conference was attended by about three dozen high-ranking uniformed deputies, local elected officials and citizens.
“I’m here to say that all the allegations that were in the story were untrue — except for the instance that refers to me as gay,” Babeu said. “That’s the truth — I am gay.”
He said he didn’t have the power as a local sheriff to get anyone deported.
Babeu, who is not married, said he had been in a relationship with Jose that ended sometime before September. Jose also ran his campaign website and Twitter account, and Babeu said he began posting derogatory items on the sites after their breakup.
Babeu said he had his lawyer contact Jose and demand that he stop and turn over passwords allowing access to the sites. Babeu said the postings and actions amounted to identity theft but that he chose to deal with the matter privately through his lawyer.
It’s wasn’t immediately clear if Babeu’s admission would hurt him politically, but his primary opponents came out swinging.
Babeu is taking on an incumbent tea party Republican who switched districts, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, and state Sen. Ron Gould, a conservative from northwestern Arizona, in August’s 4th District primary.
Gould said he believed Babeu’s posting of pictures on what the lawmaker called a “homosexual hookup website” were a “Congressman Weiner type of moment.”
“The real issue here is the poor judgment of a government official, posting those kinds of photos on a public website,” Gould said. “I think that shows a lack of good judgment.”
He also said he believes Babeu’s sexual orientation would hurt him in the district. Gould sponsored Arizona constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, an amendment he said drew extremely strong support in the rural counties he and Babeu seek to represent.
“This is about an abuse of power, a misuse of public trust, bad judgment and the continued use of official resources for personal and political gain,” Gosar said.
Babeu said he has never defined himself based on his ethnicity or sexual orientation, and he would continue to focus on unemployment and the federal deficit in his campaign.
“What I’m trying to do is (be) as forthright as possible, talking about deeply personal, private matters, and trying to be upfront,” Babeu said. “The disclosure of that information is something that I feel no American should have to do.”
Babeu acknowledged that he has sent and posted the photos, but said they were personal. When asked if posting such pictures on a public website showed poor judgment for a public official, he reiterated that he believed they were personal.