Updated: February 18, 2012, 5:01 PM
While saying for the first time publicly that he is gay, rising Republican star Sheriff Paul Babeu used a dramatic news conference on Saturday in Arizona to angrily deny allegations that had been leveled against him by an ex-boyfriend in a newspaper report a day earlier.
“I’m here to say that all these allegations that were in one of these newspapers are absolutely, completely false,” the sheriff said while while surrounded by a number of his deputies and fellow elected officials. “Except for the issues that refer to me as being gay. Because that’s the truth. I am gay.”
The well-known border hawk and Congressional candidate was hit late Friday with accusations from a Mexican immigrant who said he dated the sheriff for years and was threatened with deportation if he ever told anyone about their romance.
The accusations were first reported by the Phoenix New Times newspaper and came complete with text messages reported to be from the sheriff and compromising photos of him.
At the news conference, Babeu, who is single with no children, confirmed he had a romantic relationship with the man, who has so far only been identified as “Jose.” However he denied Jose’s claims that threats had followed their breakup.
“At no time did I or anyone who represents me ever threaten deportation. Ever,” Babeu said, adding that he had no reason to believe Jose was in the country illegally. “Everything that I understand is that he’s in legal status here.”
The sheriff emphasized that he doesn’t have the authority to deport anyone and that he would never use the power of his office to intervene in a personal matter.
However, Babeu also accused his former lover of hacking into his campaign website and social media accounts and posting messages without his consent, actions that Babeu referred to as criminal. Beyond just a romantic relationship, the man had been a volunteer on the sheriff’s campaign, maintaining its website and social media accounts. That was also supposed to end when the relationship went sour, but Babeu said Jose kept accessing the accounts.
“There were legitimate crimes that were committed,” Babeu said. However, he added he had no plans to take legal actions against Jose.
Earlier Saturday, the accusations had already taken a toll on Babeu. The scandal broke just a little more than a week before the state’s Republican presidential primary, a race in which the sheriff was already playing a role as frontrunner MItt Romney’s state campaign co-chair. A short time before Babeu’s news conference, the Romney campaign announced that Babeu was resigning from his role.
As for his other activities, however, Babeu said he had no plans to suspend his campaign for Congress or resign his office as sheriff. He said he would close out his term as sheriff later this year “with a bang” and fight to represent the state’s 4th Congressional District. He is facing two tough opponents in the Republican primary, freshman Rep. Paul Gosar and state Sen. Ron Gould.
Babeu was first elected as sheriff of Pinal County, a vast area south of Phoenix, in late 2008 by unseating a longtime Democrat.
He broke onto the national stage in 2010 when he appeared alongside Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in a now-famous television ad, calling on the federal government to complete “the danged fence” for the US-Mexico border.
Since then, he has been a frequent guest on Fox News, talking about an array of immigration-related topics, including the ongoing Fast and Furious scandal. In a relatively short time, he has become a major political force in Arizona and was considered a frontrunner in the race for Congress.
Surrounded by a number of his deputies and local elected officials on Saturday, Babeu focused for most of his time on the fact that his sexual orientation had been made public. It was a matter he managed to keep private throughout most of his life, including about 20 years in the US military.
“It’s my private life and my personal life. I’ve never worn it on my sleeve,” he said. “But now it’s not so private any longer. It’s an awful position for me to be in.”
Those who stood behind him also took turns at the microphone to speak on his behalf. Most echoed the sentiment of Babeu’s chief deputy, Steve Henry, who said the fact that Babeu was gay had no bearing on the job he does in an official capacity.
“We’ve got a lot of problems in Pinal County, in the state of Arizona and the country that we live in,” Henry said. “And we’ve been reduced to talking about this?”
Babeu mostly dodged questions about a series of compromising photographs that were made public by the New Times, admitting that they were his but saying “there still needs to be some bounds for privacy.”
He also said that his enemies had “shopped around” stories about his sexual orientation for years, but that no one in the media had taken the bait until now. He described the more serious accusations by his former lover as “the vehicle” by which the story was finally able to get out.
“This is 20-plus years that I’ve had numerous people that would threaten this to me, to expose me, go to my chain of command even in the military and have done so,” he said. “It’s almost as if there’s a relief today, to be able to not be threatened.”
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this report.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com