Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a candidate for Congress in the new Congressional District 4, denied a published allegation that he threatened an ex-lover who is a Mexican immigrant with deportation.
"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 at a Saturday afternoon press conference in front of his sheriff's office in Florence. "That's the truth - I am gay."
Babeu vowed Saturday to continue his campaign for Congress, but he quit as state co-chair for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. The 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.
"This whole rumor, this whole of idea of who I am in my private life has been shopped around," Babeu told reporters during the hourlong press conference. "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."
Babeu issued his 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.
A story published online late Friday by the Phoenix New Times alleged that Babeu had used his attorney, who is also his campaign manager, to threaten Babeu's ex-lover with deportation if their past relationship was made public.
Babeu told reporters he believed the man, identified only by the first name José, was living in the country legally.
José had done work on Babeu's campaign websites and done other Internet work for him, but sabotaged some sites in September. That prompted an exchange of letters between attorneys for Babeu and the ex-lover, as well as conversations in which the ex-lover alleges the deportation threat was made.
Babeu has made numerous nationwide appearances, speaking about border insecurity and criticizing the Obama administration.
Babeu is embroiled in a tough race for the Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. House. He's running against current U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar and state Sen. Ron Gould in a new district that encompasses an area that sweeps from northern Pinal County, around the east side of metro Phoenix, northwest across Prescott to Lake Havasu City and much of western Arizona. The district is heavily Republican and its voters are generally conservative.
Babeu is taking on an incumbent tea-party Republican who switched districts and Gould, a conservative from northwestern Arizona, in the 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." U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) resigned last summer after he posted a photo of his clothed crotch on Twitter.
"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."
Gould also said he believes Babeu's sexual orientation will hurt him in the district. Gould sponsored an Arizona constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, an amendment he said drew strong support in the rural counties he and Babeu seek to represent.
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."
Star reporter Tim Steller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.