About 350 people rallied outside the Pima County Sheriff's Department headquarters on Friday in a show of just how strongly Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's supporters and opponents feel about him.
Crowd estimates split the number of people about evenly between those who support the sheriff and those who want him out of office following comments he made linking the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting rampage to vitriol in politics.
The Pima County Tea Party Patriots first announced they were holding the rally to "Dump Dupnik" last week. The group has called for the sheriff to resign because it says he politicized the shootings without evidence and embarrassed the community to a national audience.
That rally prompted those who support the sheriff to show up as well, despite the Pima County Democratic Party chairman's request they avoid a counterdemonstration.
Both sides talked about free speech as they practiced it with signs and chants on the shoulder of Benson Highway just west of South Kino Parkway.
"We're here to send a message to Sheriff Dupnik that he's not going to silence us and we believe that's what he attempted to do with his comments," said Allyson Miller, a Pima County Tea Party Patriots organizer.
One of those who disagrees with Dupnik is Walt Setzer, who filed paperwork this week to run against Dupnik in 2012.
Setzer, who filed to run as a Republican, said he thought someone should run against Dupnik when the sheriff announced last summer that he would not support Arizona's new immigration-enforcement law. Then Dupnik expressed his opinion during the shooting investigation, Setzer, a former U.S marshal and former Border Patrol agent, said he decided to run for office.
"Law enforcement officers don't do that," he said of Dupnik's comments on both issues.
Kathy Armbruster said she didn't like the way Dupnik painted the community to a national audience.
"It makes it sound like we're such a horrible state with such awful people. We need someone who likes Arizona" in office, she said.
On the other side, supporters also talked about what Dupnik said Jan. 8.
"He was exercising his freedom and I completely agree with what he said," said Priscilla Benbrook. "It's fine to disagree, it's fine to argue. But in terms of rhetoric ... once it gets to hatred there's no need for it."
James Panico said he was out of town the day of the shootings, and saw Dupnik's remarks on television.
"I think he said something in public that needed to be said," Panico said. While he said he doesn't think the vitriolic political discourse is the sole reason for the gunman's actions, "it seeps into the culture and affects people," Panico said.
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is facing federal charges in the attack.
Supporter Cheryl Bechtle said she came to the rally to support Dupnik because she didn't want to just stand by.
"He called it like he saw it. The truth is that vitriol is infecting the whole country, not just Arizona, and it's dangerous," Bechtle said.
The two groups were divided by police officers standing between two lines of police tape, spaced about 15 feet apart. Occasionally the two sides would shout across to one another, but the rallies were peaceful.
Tucson police officers supervised the event, which was inside city limits, and Dupnik did not make an appearance.
A group working to recall the sheriff was also at the rally. Though not associated with the Pima County Tea Party Patriots, Dan Baltes kicked off his recall campaign Friday afternoon and gathered signatures for the recall outside the sheriff's headquarters.
Baltes is executive director of Americans Against Immigration Amnesty and hosts an Internet talk-radio show in Salt Lake City. He's heading up the Dupnik recall because many of his organization's members contacted him wondering what they could do after they heard Dupnik's comments, he said.
He said Friday that the move is not political, but is instead because Dupnik shouldn't have linked the shooting to political motives when he didn't have evidence and the investigation was still under way.
Among the quotes that have gained attention, Dupnik said Arizona "has become the mecca of bigotry and hatred."
"If this was a Republican that made the same statements, I would be doing the same thing," Baltes said Friday.
Dupnik is up for re-election next year.
The sheriff has declined to comment on the recall effort and the rallies. A spokesman for the department did not say whether Dupnik was at the office during the rallies.
Contact reporter Andrea Kelly at email@example.com or 807-7790.