The crisis hasn't happened here. Not yet anyway, El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton says. But really, isn't it only a matter of time?
She stares back with earnest eyes and a bright smile, looking, as seasoned politicians are wont to do, like she's eager to know if you're on board with this logic. After all, she's saying, hasn't the federal government been trampling the boundaries of its power with alarming regularity? Look at the way it's cracked down on farmers selling raw milk. Or at the testing standards imposed on schools. Look at gun control laws. Or at Obamacare.
"Any time that you take something away from the local control and try to make it a behemoth, top-down type of a regulatory structure, it's just not going to work," she says. "It's not their job."
How soon, she asks, until the feds really cross the line and start arresting people without due process, taking away guns, or seizing private land?
It's a concern shared by conservative groups and citizen militias across the country, including the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Some might remember charismatic leader Richard "Sheriff" Mack and the Constitutional Sheriffs for their part in the protests at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada in April. The incident featured a standoff between armed protesters and government officials who were trying to seize Bundy's cattle because the rancher had refused to pay over $1 million in grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management. The showdown was national news and led to some conservative politicians and pundits rushing to Bundy's defense. The government ultimately backed away, but is still looking into the matter.
Littleton is on the Constitutional Sheriffs advisory board. But she says she didn't follow the Bundy incident closely. Nor, she says, was she aware of the aftermath, in which Bundy was filmed bizarrely suggesting that "the Negro" was probably better off during slavery — though upon hearing about that during our interview, she calls such comments "totally inappropriate."
At 54, Littleton is perky and petite, her blue eyes and blond hair popping noticeably against the royal blue of her skirt suit. The shelves in her office hold photos of her grown children and new grandson. On her neatly decorated coffee table pamphlets are splayed, with a copy of the U.S. Constitution sitting on top.
Littleton is currently running for reelection against Democratic opponent Jariah Walker, and thus she's brought along her campaign manager, Dede Laugesen, the wife of Gazette editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen. (Disclosure: Walker's campaign manager is Chet Hardin, former Independent reporter.) As Littleton details the federal intrusions she has encountered, Dede Laugesen nods along.
At this point, Littleton says, the federal government has been more of a nuisance in El Paso County than an actual threat. It throws down unfunded mandates to the state, which impact the county because it's a branch of the state. Thus, she says, a huge portion of the county government budget is completely spoken for. And why, she asks, would the federal government have such deep concerns about what footwear jail inmates wear, or what food they eat?
Why don't they care more about something that is rightly their responsibility — like detaining illegal immigrants whom she says put a financial stress on local government? And why, she asks, when the feds do give money to the county, are there so many strings attached, so much red tape that it's almost not worth it to take the money?
"When we receive federal funding," Littleton says, "my question always is — and while we're contracting with other entities to carry that out with the social services that we provide, I always say — if the federal government ends up not having funding for that, are we as the citizens and the taxpayers of El Paso County going to be stuck holding the tab for that, or do we have an out clause?"
In 2012, she crafted two county resolutions of which she's quite proud, related to federal issues. One was to nullify the National Defense Authorization Act, and the other to show support for the Second Amendment. It was around that time that she first met Sheriff Mack.
A big draw
Mack worked for the police department in Provo, Utah, for nearly 11 years before returning to his childhood home in Arizona, where he was elected sheriff of Graham County in 1988 and went on to serve two four-year terms. But he gained national fame after he and six other sheriffs sued the federal government in 1994 over the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, saying the federal government couldn't mandate that local officials conduct background checks of gun purchasers at their own expense. (The requirement was an interim system put in place while a national background check system was being developed.)
The rationale was that the federal government couldn't force local law officers to enforce federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mack's favor.
"I was the first sheriff in American history to sue the federal government and win a case at the U.S. Supreme Court," Mack says in a phone interview.
Mack was named the NRA's 1994 "Law Enforcement Officer of the Year," and the Gun Owners of America awarded him the Defender of the Second Amendment Award.
But Mack's attempts to regain elected office haven't been fruitful. He lost a 1998 run for sheriff of Utah County, Utah, a 2006 bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, and a 2012 run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in Texas. But his online biography notes, "During the past two years Sheriff Mack has been a speaker at more than 70 different Tea Party rallies all across the country, ranging all the way from Honolulu to Bangor, Maine. Mack has supported this noble movement, because it is both effective and peaceful."
Mack is also the author of numerous books, including From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns (1994), The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope (2009), and The Magic of Gun Control (2011).
Not everyone's a fan. Mack once sued the Southern Poverty Law Center, claiming it had sullied his good name in a series of articles. (The case was thrown out.) To this day, Mark Potok, SPLC's senior fellow and leading expert on extremism, says Mack and other far-right groups have spread conspiracies and falsehoods about the government that have been gaining ground.
He points to Internet stories on various sites that claim the Federal Emergency Management Agency is setting up concentration camps into which they will throw Americans. Or the belief that a 1992 United Nations sustainable development plan known as Agenda 21 was actually a global conspiracy aimed at turning the country socialist. Or — and Mack has made it his mission to spread this idea — that the sheriff is the highest lawman in the land.
"You know, these kinds of ideas 20 years ago were rightly seen as utterly far out, belonging to the far fringes of our society," Potok says. "Today, thanks to the likes of Richard Mack, they actually have made real inroads not only into the political mainstream but into law enforcement, into the world of men and women who are given guns and the authority in some cases to make life-and-death decisions about the rest of us. So I think it's terrible. I think it's shameful."
Littleton, however, says she was excited when she first heard about Mack. Back in March 2011, she was speaking at a conference with the Eagle Forum, a deeply conservative group led by Phyllis Schlafly, an attorney and mother who lists among her signature achievements leading "the pro-family movement to victory over the principal legislative goal of the radical feminists, called the Equal Rights Amendment."
At the talk, Littleton met representatives from the Oath Keepers, a group of former and current military members, police and first responders who vow to oppose any law or order they find unconstitutional. Littleton began looking into the group, and was later referred by those connections to Mack, who says he started CSPOA in 2010. She asked him for help writing her Second Amendment resolution, which she planned as a response to President Obama's call for gun control legislation.
"We really hit it off, and it was when all the Second Amendment stuff was really starting to come to a head even internationally," Littleton says. "And at that point in time, when Sheriff Mack and I were working on this resolution, he said, 'Hey, we're having a conference coming up. Would you come speak about habeas corpus, civil liberties and the Second Amendment?' And so I said, 'Gosh, I'd be honored to do so. What a great opportunity.' So I researched what they do a little more — really just defenders of the Second Amendment, and not any more than that."
Taking a stand
The stance of the Constitutional Sheriffs is spelled out on their website: They believe that federal law enforcement officials have exceeded their Constitutional authority and illegally encroached on the authority of local law enforcement agencies. And they believe it's the duty of sheriffs and other local law enforcement officers to seize that power back.
"In America, who bestows all power?" Mack asks. "We the people. And the only law enforcement officer in the country, or in the county, that directly reports to we the people, is the sheriff. He's not a bureaucrat, he doesn't answer to a bureaucrat."
Mack says the group has about 300 sheriffs as members, and over 4,000 members in total, including citizens. Skimming through its website, and Mack's own website, reveals an array of other opinions, many of which would have widespread appeal (outrage over the assassination of American citizens by the American government), and others that might not (disbelief that driving regulations, like the requirement to wear seatbelts, are legal). A Mormon who says he's never drunk, smoked, or done drugs, Mack opposes drug use but says the Drug War is a failure. And he gripes that immigration laws aren't being strictly enforced.
But on the phone, Mack is eager to say that his positions are rooted in principle and not just conservatism — and certainly not racism or prejudice. He notes that as sheriff he protected the rights of Earth First protesters, who are known to practice radical environmental activism, despite not agreeing with them and getting pushback from other law enforcement officials.
Likewise, he's extremely concerned about illegal immigration's potential for bringing "dangerous criminals" into the country, but he notes that he and his wife took in a Guatemalan family for months while their daughter was in the country getting charity-funded surgery. And he says even his strong belief that the sheriff is the top law enforcement official has exceptions — for instance, he believes federal officials were right to overstep the sheriff to enforce integration in the Civil Rights era, because they were "standing for freedom principles."
If Mack, a graduate of the FBI National Academy, were content to simply espouse political opinions and interpretations of the Constitution, he might not warrant a second look. But Mack and some of his followers took it a step further in April, when they participated in a standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government.
Saying Bundy owed more than a million dollars in fees and penalties for letting his cattle graze illegally on protected public land, the feds were rounding up and impounding his cattle. That's when about 300 members of anti-government groups rallied to Bundy's defense. Reportedly, some aimed guns at federal agents. On April 12, citing safety concerns, officials backed off. The FBI is looking into the incident.
Around the time of the incident, Mack told Fox News' The Real Story, "We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they are going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers." He later told a radio host that he would even have put his own wife or daughters in the line of fire.
Asked about the incident now, Mack says federal regulation is driving ranchers from their land across the West, and that "the only thing the federal government doesn't want on public lands are the public."
Mack says he urged Bundy protesters not to carry guns so as not to tempt federal officials into excessive force, but he admits he had his pistol on his hip. Mack compares the situation to Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the 1970 Kent State shootings of student protesters — all, he says, federal government overreaches that should have been stopped by a "Constitutional sheriff."
Bundy, of course, went from a controversial figure to a pariah overnight after his racist comments, which Mack says he doesn't agree with. But he still defends the Bundy family, which Potok says is telling.
"We had congressmen, we had the governor of Nevada, we had all kinds of television pundits like Sean Hannity depicting Cliven Bundy as a great national hero, a guardian of the Constitution, until that day that Cliven Bundy decided to start talking about the problems of the quote Negro unquote," Potok says. "And then they all fled like scared little bunnies with their tails between their legs. ... [O]f course the truth about Cliven Bundy is that the man is a thief. He stole over a million dollars from you and I, from the citizens of the United States."
The Bundy standoff hit the news again in June, when Jerad and Amanda Miller shot two police officers and a civilian dead in Las Vegas. They claimed in a note that they were starting a revolution. Jerad Miller was earlier filmed at the Bundy standoff, where he suggested the group would respond to violence with more violence.
Mack says it's unfair to tie him to the Millers: "We don't invite people who need to be institutionalized to be a part of our movement." He says he's an advocate of peaceful resistance, à la Gandhi.
Littleton actually attended two 2012 conventions with the Constitutional Sheriffs, charging the county a total of $708.68. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa also attended a convention with the group, though he only charged the county $156.
The inaugural convention took place in Las Vegas, and was covered by the Denver Post in a February 2012 story that said about 100 sheriffs attended. Colorado reportedly had the biggest representation with eight sheriffs, plus Littleton.
A February 2012 YouTube video of the event features speeches by both Littleton and Maketa. In addition to giving a warm introduction to Maketa, and noting her faith in God, Littleton calls out that year's National Defense Authorization Act, a wide-ranging federal law that sets the budget and expenditures of the Department of Defense, determines the agencies responsible for defense, and has language addressing other subjects, like terrorism.
"While this [law's language] is currently in the context of referring to anyone associated with terrorists who supported al Qaeda, who's to say that in the future that those who carry Bibles, have more than seven days' food supply, have personal firearms, or protest in the streets in support for freedom will not be included in the definition of creating a belligerent act against some coalition partner?" she asks.
Maketa spent much of his time talking about how he had gotten rid of DUI checkpoints because they were an inconvenience to citizens. He also heaped praise on Littleton for bringing forward the resolution to nullify the National Defense Authorization Act.
But the two left the conference with different impressions. Littleton accepted a position on the group's advisory board later that year, which entails attending perhaps a couple meetings a year and giving the occasional speech, making a few phone calls and helping the board develop resolutions. Maketa, in contrast, says he never went back.
"I got enough problems of my own to go out and judge others," Maketa says. "But my opinion is [Mack is] more focused on the promotion of his organization, which he benefits from, and the products he sells through it, whether it's his books, his CDs, or whatever. I think there is some validity for an organization like that, but I don't think that one has a whole lot of credibility to help those sheriffs who are being interfered with and struggling."
Maketa says that while he can imagine a situation where stepping in to stop federal officials might be appropriate, he's personally always had good relationships with local federal officials. And he felt like Mack was exaggerating, for instance in saying that the ruling in the Brady case had broad implications on federal power, when it was actually narrowly focused.
While Mack continues to grow his group and see his book sales increase, things have gone less well for Maketa, of course, and for Littleton and Maketa's relationship. Interestingly, Littleton was the first commissioner to call for Maketa's resignation after news stories this year linked him to on-the-job affairs with subordinates. Littleton also sent Maketa an email quoting an article from conservative evangelical pastor Rick Warren, titled "Don't Let Pride Be Your Guide."
But Littleton says her displeasure with Maketa hasn't changed her position on the office. She agrees with Mack that the Constitution makes the sheriff the highest law in the land, largely because he's elected and because sheriffs have a long history in the country.
"They do have the authority," she says. "If we just look at what's happening right now, we can't get rid of our sheriff — even if we wanted to, we can't because they're protected. And so they're supposed to be the protector and the defender."
Got a feeling
What many so-called "patriot groups" have in common, Potok says, is a certain alarmism. Or, to put it more frankly, he says, "I think these groups are animated by paranoia on steroids."
And the problem with that, Potok says, is that people believe false claims and act on them. That, he thinks, is especially dangerous when it comes to law enforcement officials.
"I mean, here's the bottom line: CSPOA engages in propagating a series of radical right falsehoods, claims that have absolutely no basis in reality," he says. "To me the most noxious thing about the organization is that it makes a claim that federal authorities do not have jurisdiction in places where they in fact do. So you know, Richard Mack and CSPOA are encouraging sheriffs and law enforcement officials around the United States to defy the lawful authority of the federal government, and they are wrong. I don't accuse Mack or CSPOA of being racist or anti-Semitic, but the fact is that this notion of county supremacy originates in violently racist and anti-Semitic groups."
Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, says that there are times when a sheriff has jurisdiction. His organization, for instance, recently sent a letter to Colorado sheriffs informing them that they are not legally required to uphold federal immigration detainers, and in fact could be legally liable for doing so. But the federal government does have jurisdiction in many areas, he says, and a right to act on it.
"I can tell you that the views of [the Constitutional Sheriffs] have never been endorsed by the United States Supreme Court," he says, "and their views would require the wholesale reworking of years of constitutional law."
Potok says that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 149 patriot or militia groups in 2008, when President Obama was elected. By 2012, he says, there were 1,360 such groups. A lot of the growth, Potok says, has been exaggerated by the fast pace of changes in the country. Whites are expected to lose their majority within 30 years. Same-sex marriage is on the rise. Back in the 1960s, everyone was getting their news from the same papers and TV channels. Now, he notes, many turn to opinion journalism, talk radio and the blogosphere.
"Today, we live in a world where the left and the right do not even live in the same universe of facts," he says. "You watch FOX News, you might as well be living on Mars. I mean, it describes a planet which does not even exist in this solar system."
And all of that has increased the panic that people feel about their government, he says.
"The country's going through a lot of changes and there's a lot of anger and feeling about that," he says. "At the same time, of course, we have a really bad economy, which simply raises the heat on all sides."
But if there's aggravation, paranoia and even aggression behind patriot movements, those inside it also reveal a far more innocent motive: fear of a rapidly changing world and what those massive changes might mean to family and friends, and a deep longing for a period just a few decades ago that now appears, perhaps inaccurately, in Kodachrome tones.
In a thoughtful moment, Littleton says of her Lighthouse Program (see "Here's Peggy,") that she hopes it "will really bring Americans back to where I think we need to be, focused on relationships and not stuff. Focused on people. Following the great command given to us all to love one another."