The Pierce County Republican Party has a motto: “Be Bold. Be Courageous. Be Republican.”
The party’s outspoken choice for keynote speaker at this year’s Lincoln Day Dinner certainly hits the first mark — just not always gracefully.
On March 17, controversial former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. will headline the Pierce County Republican Party’s annual fundraiser.
Why on earth?
Clarke is no stranger to controversy. The former sheriff is exceptionally loud, especially on Twitter, giving him something in common with the current commander in chief. In fact, Clarke has served as an able and unabashed, cowboy-hat-wearing Trump surrogate on cable news shows for several years now. It’s a part he plays well.
Clarke maintains a pro-law enforcement stance so rigid and unwavering that he’s claimed police brutality ended in the 1960s. He has derided the Black Lives Matter movement, likening it to an anarchist hate group and predicting it will one day join forces with ISIS. He’s suggested that the “lying lib media,” as he’s so eloquently put it, needs to “taste its own blood.”
Most recently, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Clarke tweeted that the students there advocating for gun-control measures were “so well organized” that the movement “has George Soros’ fingerprints all over it.”
Clarke frequently utilizes ALL CAPS in making such absurd claims on Twitter. I’m leaving out the prickly former sheriff’s capitalization preferences in quoting his tweets here, but hopefully you get the point.
So what exactly is the point in bringing Clarke here?
Maybe it’s to fill seats.
The appearance by Clarke, who’s currently making the speaking rounds across the country, including appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, might sell a few more tickets and help the local GOP pay its bills.
But if the point is to help the local Republican’s brand? Well, that’s a tougher sell.
After all, Pierce County is home to any number of well-respected, thoughtful Republican leaders. County Executive Bruce Dammeier — who says he’ll be out of town for this year’s Lincoln Day Dinner and wasn’t involved in the decision to bring the former sheriff to town — doesn’t strike me as a Clarke type. Nor does County Council Chairman Doug Richardson, for that matter.
The list goes on — from Mike Lonergan to Melanie Stambaugh. It’s difficult to imagine any connection with Clarke — even in passing or by association — will make anyone with ties to the Pierce County Republican Party look particularly good.
Other people were considered for this year’s event at the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, including Jay Sekulow from the American Center for Law and Justice and Mike Rowe from the Discovery Channel show, “Dirty Jobs.” Last year, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was the keynote speaker.
Marty McClendon, chairman of the Pierce County Republican Party, last week defended the decision to invite Clarke. McClendon downplayed some of Clarke’s more recent, inflammatory tweets, saying that overall Clarke has “a good message” and “some of the other stuff, we didn’t get too deep into it.” Specifically, McClendon cited the message in Clarke’s recent book, “Cop Under Fire,” as a key factor in deciding to extend an invitation to the former sheriff.
The scheduling also worked.
Typically, the event draws between 200 and 300 people, McClendon said. This year, the party chair indicated that they’re “well on our way to hitting that number or better.”
“There wasn’t a lot of conversation about what (Clarke) said or what he hasn’t said,” McClendon explained. “He’s clearly pro-Donald Trump and clearly pro-Republican Party. Our whole thing is to be bold and be courageous.
“Bottom line: he has a message of restoring family and restoring community.”
Again, Clarke is clearly bold. But whether he’s the best — or even a sensible — choice to headline the Pierce County Republican’s biggest fundraiser of the year remains open to serious debate. If the party wanted a pro-law enforcement voice, certainly there were more reasonable choices. If this was about delivering a message of family and community, the same holds true.
“I don’t think we were that concerned (about the reaction), because of the book, and because of what we’re trying to do — bring the party together and energize it for the 2018 election,” McClendon said.
Bringing the party together is all well and good. That’s what an event like the Lincoln Day Dinner should do.
At the same time, with Clarke coming to town, it seems worth scrutinizing exactly whom the Pierce County Republicans are choosing to rally around.