For years, Richard Mack wrote books and gave speeches, arguing for gun rights, sovereign states and "constitutional sheriffs."
At first, not many people listened to Mack, a two-term Graham County sheriff who lives in Safford. Many wrote him off as a radical.
But that's changing. The tea party's nationwide emergence and Arizona's drift to the right are bringing Mack's ideas from the political edge into the eddies of the mainstream.
Since Barack Obama's election as president, Mack, 58, has been a hot national speaker, and some of his dearest ideas have come up in the current Legislature.
A system for Arizona to "nullify" federal laws reached the floor of the state Senate before being voted down last month. Another bill would have forced federal regulators to register with the sheriff in any Arizona county where they want to work.
The bill's author, Rep. Chester Crandell of Heber, said Mack inspired him.
"I think the county sheriff has that power and should be protecting the rights of the people," Crandell said. "This is a way to send a message and say we are a sovereign state."
In the last 18 months, Mack said, he has given 125 presentations, including an April 15 speech last year before thousands in Amarillo, Texas, and a December appearance at Faneuil Hall in Boston.
But he's got plans, and they could include running for office in Pima County.
"Let's not beat around the bush here," Mack told about 25 people at the Dusenberry-River Library in the Catalina Foothills March 8. "We no longer live in a free country."
"They control our land, our air, our water, our education, our finances and now our health care," Mack said of the federal government in a later interview. "What do I get to decide for myself? Nothing."
inspired by speaker
Mack grew up in Safford, about 125 miles northeast of Tucson, the son of an FBI agent who tracked down federal-prison escapees and investigated felonies on Indian reservations. It was a conservative Mormon family, he said, not constitutionalist as he is now.
A star football, basketball and baseball player in high school, Mack attended Eastern Arizona College and Brigham Young University. After graduating in 1978 he applied to the FBI, he said, but he was turned down. Instead, he joined the Provo (Utah) police.
About that time, Mack's father retired from the bureau and was audited by the IRS. The audit took years, cost thousands and stirred Mack's anger against the agency, which he says should be abolished.
As a Provo officer in about 1984, Mack attended a class for police officers on the U.S. Constitution, led by W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing Mormon intellectual and former FBI agent. Skou- sen was a fervent anti-communist who wrote about religious and political topics and serves now as an inspiration for figures such as state Senate President Russell Pearce and talk-show host Glenn Beck.
About 240 officers attended the presentation.
"I don't know what happened to the other 239 of them, but this one was converted," Mack said.
Mack, his wife and five children moved back to Arizona in 1988 for him to run for sheriff, as a Democrat, in Graham County near the New Mexico border. He won that race and re-election in 1992. In the second term, he took on the fight he still discusses as his defining battle.
In 1994, Mack and other sheriffs challenged the constitutionality of a part of the Brady gun-control law that required sheriffs to conduct background checks on gun purchasers. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the requirement, saying the federal government cannot make local officers enforce federal regulations.
Mack was defeated for re-election in the 1996 Democratic primary, when local critics said he spent too much time on national issues. He moved his family back to Provo so he could run for Utah County sheriff in 1998, this time as a Republican, but he lost that primary, too. After returning to Arizona again, he ran for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian against Jon Kyl in 2006, but he finished third.
Mack doesn't care about political parties, he said, and views them as a means to an end.
Since 2000, Mack worked for Gun Owners of America and sold cars, but he has in a sense followed in Skousen's footsteps. Skousen made a career of speaking and writing about threats to America - mainly communism. Mack sees the threat as the federal government usurping local power and individual freedoms.
For Mack, who goes by what he calls his nom de guerre, "Sheriff Mack," the county sheriff should act as the citizen's protector against marauding feds. The title of Mack's 2009 booklet is "The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope."
The sheriff, Mack said, "is not a bureaucrat. He doesn't answer to a bureaucrat. He answers to the power source - we the people."
Analysts of right-wing political movements scoff at Mack's logic and say it derives from decades-old extremist ideas. Mack's local-control emphasis comes from the Posse Comitatus, an anti-federal-government movement that blossomed during the farm crisis of the 1980s, said Mark Pitcavage, a researcher of extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League.
"The core belief of the Posse Comitatus was that the county was the highest level of government because it was the level of government closest to the people," Pitcavage said. But that gives the sheriff unchecked power as the county's constitutional arbiter.
"No place in any state constitution or any body of law is there any suggestion that sheriffs have some sort of ultimate authority." he said. "It's a fictitious creation of anti-government activists."
message "not racist"
Mack strives in his speeches to reject prejudice.
"Freedom is for all Americans," he said in a 2010 interview.
In his presentations, Mack reimagines the story of Rosa Parks had a "constitutional sheriff" been in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus. That sheriff would have refused to arrest Parks because of the unconstitutionality of segregation laws, Mack said. He might have offered her a ride home and overnight protection.
Sheriffs should ask themselves, Mack said, "Would you arrest her?"
Mack skillfully maintains his broad appeal while working on the edges, Pitcavage said. He collaborated with white separatist Randy Weaver in a book on the siege of Weaver's northern Idaho home and the killing of Weaver's wife and son by federal agents.
Mack "is not fully in the extreme. He's got a foot over into that, but he's still got a toe in the mainstream," Pitcavage said.
But he keeps walking tightropes. He and his wife plan to move to Fredricksburg, Texas, where the Patriots of Gillespie County have promised support. "They want to help take the constitutional-sheriff concept and the state-sovereignty concept all across the country," he said.
But Mack said he will consider returning to Arizona to run for office in 2012, perhaps to replace Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a new target in Mack's speeches, or try again for Kyl's U.S. Senate seat.
"If I had my druthers, I would like to be sheriff again," Mack said. "Pima County would be a great spot."
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at email@example.com