The seep of far-right extremism into mainstream Republican politics continues apace in the Pacific Northwest—where the Oregon GOP has already nominated a QAnon conspiracy theorist for the state’s U.S. Senate race—as the likelihood looms that a rural police chief who is deeply connected to a radical “constitutionalist” organization and prone to parroting its rhetoric could win the Washington GOP’s gubernatorial primary in August.
Loren Culp, the police chief of the northeastern Washington town of Republic, was the top choice of Republican voters in a recent Elway Poll (that was, however, marred by dubious practices that could affect its accuracy), leading all candidates with 14%; his nearest competitor polled 6%. Culp also happens to be the most recent law enforcement officer to win celebratory honors from the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), having been named in 2019 as its “Police Chief of the Decade.”
Culp’s position as a frontrunner in the race is far from definite. In previous polls he had placed behind initiative gadfly Tim Eyman, but all the candidates polled less than 10%. In a head-to-head poll by Survey USA, Culp was among four candidates—including Eyman, Phil Fortunato, and Joshua Freed—who each were favored by around 30% of poll respondents against incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee, who was the choice of over 55% in all the matchups.
Elway's poll found Culp leading the Republican pack in next month's top two primary with 14% of the vote, but the survey may not be reliable. Elway says that another Republican, physician Raul Garcia, was "added late" to the survey, but in a bizarre move, rather than ditch the question or start over—as it should have—the firm tried to weave him into the final results based on a small subsample of respondents. Beyond that, 24% of voters say they're undecided, meaning that even if the results do in fact resemble reality, the role of the Republican who will join Inslee in the November general election is very much up for grabs.
Culp, an Army veteran, owned a concrete company in the Olympia area for over 20 years before moving across the state to Republic to take a job as a police officer in 2010, and was appointed chief in 2016. He first gained statewide attention in 2018 by announcing that he intended to refuse to enforce a new state gun control law—dubbed Initiative 1639, which mainly imposed new restrictions on semi-automatic guns—even though it had been approved by 60% of voters statewide.
The chief also persuaded the Republic City Council to consider an ordinance declaring the town a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” declaring that “all federal and State acts, laws, orders, rules or regulations regarding firearms, firearm accessories, and ammunition are a violation of the 2nd Amendment,” and then adding that any such laws are “hereby declared to be invalid in the City of Republic.” The council, however, wound up simply postponing the vote.
“I’m just standing up for people’s rights,” he told the Seattle Times. “I had people asking if the Police Department was going to start arresting teenagers, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, carrying and using a semi-automatic .22 rifle. I told them, ‘I’m not going to infringe on someone’s constitutional rights.’”
The stance made Culp a national hero among gun rights extremists, particularly the CSPOA. The organization—primarily overseen by a former Arizona sheriff named Richard Mack, who made a similar name for himself in the 1990s by defying federal gun control laws—hailed the Republic chief’s actions as heroic.
At CSPOA’s October 2019 annual conference in Mesa, Arizona, Mack conferred the honor of “Police Chief of the Decade” on Culp for “his unprecedented stance for liberty and the example he has set for all peace officers throughout the United States of America in defense of the people the right to keep and bear arms.”
“Our state and our nation are at a crossroads,” Culp told the audience. “The question facing voters in Washington is do we want to continue to support leaders who continually find new ways to assault our liberties and freedoms, or do we want to elect leaders who actually support and defend the Constitution while making real progress in combatting our state’s most pressing issues?”
Mack has a long history of promoting the theory that county sheriffs, not federal law enforcement, represent the supreme law of the land. This radically decentralized vision of government was first promoted by the old far-right Posse Comitatus movement, which proffered governance in which federal authorities had little to no role.
“And so this really is a badge vs. the badge situation, and I believe that the biggest badge in the county is the county sheriff,” Mack told Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs in an interview. “The county sheriff is the only elected law enforcement officer in the county. He reports directly to the people, he’s not a bureaucrat, he doesn’t answer to other bureaucrats. … If we’re going to take America back, then we must do so one county at a time, sheriff by sheriff.”
Not one of these arguments has ever been upheld in any court of law in the United States. Moreover, as the Center for Public Integrity explored in depth in a 2014 study of the CSPOA, the organization’s worldview is dangerously aligned with views held by domestic terrorists and violent white supremacists:
What’s unique about his group is not that it opposes gun controls but that its ambition is to encourage law enforcement officers to defy laws they decide themselves are illegal. On occasion, some of his group’s sheriffs have found themselves in curious agreement with members of the sovereign citizens’ movement, which was also founded on claimed rights of legal defiance and is said by the FBI to pose one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats.
Indeed, the sovereign citizens movement that preaches the same beliefs vis-a-vis the role of government has, over the past 20 years, also posed the most lethal threat to law enforcement officers in the country. The FBI in 2010 designated the movement a significant source of domestic terrorism.
“It’s terrifying to me,” Justin Nix, a University of Louisville criminology professor who specializes in police fairness and legitimacy, told The Washington Post. “It’s not up to the police to decide what the law is going to be. They’re sworn to uphold the law. It’s not up to them to pick and choose.”
A 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the CSPOA’s reach was fairly widespread nationally, though hard numbers are difficult to come by. The CSPOA claims to have “about 5,000 members,” and in 2014 issued a letter condemning the Obama administration’s gun rights policies cosigned by 485 sheriffs. It also claims to have “trained” about 400 sheriffs.
The report noted the damage caused by the CSPOA is both direct and indirect:
The spread of this ideology has consequences. The number of threats and assaults against the [Bureau of Land Management] rose from 15 incidents in 2014 to 28 in 2015, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The number of incidents targeting the U.S. Forest Service rose from 97 in 2014 to 155 last year.
The CSPOA and its law enforcement philosophy have played major roles in the two armed confrontations over public land led by the Bundy family—in 2014 at Bunkerville, Nevada, where Cliven Bundy and an army of “Patriots” forced federal agents to back away from enforcing environmental laws on his ranch, and in 2016 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Bundy and his son Ammon tout a version of “constitutionalist” ideas identical to Mack’s.
Mack himself was a familiar figure at the Bunkerville scene, showing up on the dais with various speakers and guests and offering interviews to the media. Mack eagerly regaled a Fox News reporter with the “Patriot” strategy at the armed standoff: “We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they’re going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers,” he said.
Culp’s campaign did not respond to email and phone queries from Daily Kos regarding his views on law enforcement, the Constitution, and the CSPOA.
However, on the campaign trail, Culp has parroted typical “constitutionalist” nonsense, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A recent interview with KTTH-AM’s Todd Herman was sprinkled with the usual code phrases and aphorisms, with a constant refrain vowing to defend the Constitution.
“We’re over 50,000 people [on Facebook], and it’s because of my message of individual freedom and liberty and getting our government back within the confines of the rule of law, which is the Constitution of the state of Washington,” Culp said. “That’s the rule book for our government, and for 35 years we’d had Democrat control of the state. And they’re not following the rule book.”
I talk about when the rule of law is followed and our government works within the confines of the rule book, which is the Constitution, it doesn’t matter what color of skin you have. It doesn’t matter your income, your sex, your orientation, it doesn’t matter anything. Everyone is protected equally under the law when it is applied. … I will be that governor that applies the Constitution, the rule of law and keeps our government within its confines. And so everyone is treated equally.
That’s what this country was founded on. That’s what Washington state was founded. Article one, section seven, says that no citizens shall be disturbed of their private affairs. And article one, section one, says that the power is inherent in the people and government is there to protect citizens’ rights. It’s a beautiful document. We just need people in government office to follow it. And I will.
What Culp and Herman didn’t explain to their audience, however, is that his version of what the Constitution says directly contradicts what every American court has ever ruled that it says. And that the people who promote his version of the Constitution have a long history of violence and domestic terrorism that often makes law enforcement officers themselves their very first targets.