It’s not the first time that Republicans in Washington state have chosen a far-right gadfly as their nominee for the governorship, but Tuesday’s primary in which Loren Culp—a small-town cop who has never previously run for elective office—handily outpaced a large field to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee marks the first time the party has selected a bona fide extremist from a faction mostly connected to militias, armed takeovers, and terrorism.
After all, Culp—who first gained notoriety for refusing to enforce a gun-control initiative approved by 60% of voters—not only is a hero to the far-right gun-rights and property-rights crowds, he is a leading figure in an extremist organization which claims, among other things, that county sheriffs, not the Supreme Court, are the arbiters of what’s constitutional, and which has been associated with armed standoffs and defiance of legal authorities, usually under the guise of the “Patriot”/militia movement.
In 1996, Washington Republicans nominated a far-right gadfly named Ellen Craswell—an anti-gay, anti-tax evangelical Christian—for the governorship who then went on to lose badly in the general election, garnering only about 42% of the vote. And while Craswell later in life migrated to the extremist Constitution Party, she was not affiliated with the “Patriot” movement during her candidacy for governor.
Culp, however, has unapologetically embraced the association with the radical right—primarily, a far-right “constitutionalist” organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, that primarily recruits law-enforcement officers into a belief system that includes the notion that the county sheriff is the highest law officer in the land whose edicts supersede state and federal laws and the officers who enforce them. (“Constitutionalists” also believe that the federal government is not permitted to own public lands, and that federal taxes are not permitted under the law.)
Culp 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.
“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 which also was profoundly racist and anti-Semitic).
During a recent appearance at a pro-police rally in Albany, New York, earlier this week, Mack claimed to journalist Zach Roberts that CSPOA’s approach to law enforcement would have prevented the arrest of Rosa Parks at an Alabama bus stop in 1955—because any police officer would have been able to judge for himself that the law demanding her incarceration was unconstitutional.
Pressed on this point, Mack (while insisting that the United States is “not a democracy” but “a constitutional republic”) claimed that sheriffs and police officers—by virtue of having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution—were the true arbiters of what the law permits, and may choose not to uphold laws they deem outside it, regardless of any court rulings, even at the highest federal levels:
Why do you think that I have an obligation to go along with any unconstitutional act or anything that violates liberty? It's not my definition. It’s right there, it's plain and easy. I know what “shall not be infringed” means. I know what that means. Because my legislature bestows no obligation on me to go along. Just the opposite. I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, and you, like everybody else, think I don't have to. That's the problem. We don't follow the Constitution anymore. Let's try that for a year. But it's your definition. It's not my definition.
… Why is the sheriff so powerful? Look at your history of the sheriff. Also, look, he is the only elected law enforcement officer anywhere in the country. He's the only one. He gets his power directly from the people. He reports only to them. There is only boss. He has no other boss except the people. And he promised them that he would uphold and defend their constitutional rights. And so you're saying, no, he doesn't have to. If the legislature tells him not to, if they pass a law. You think all laws are good if they pass?
In his county … the governor’s not his boss. He doesn’t report to the governor. He doesn’t report to the president. When they are wrong, what do we do?
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.
Loren Culp has a number of other issues in his background as a police chief, including his botched handling of a child sex-abuse case in Republic in 2013. According to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the city and the police department, Culp and two other officers bungled an investigation after a 17-year-old girl reported her ongoing molestation by a male relative since she was 5 years old; Benton County detectives later arrested the man, who pleaded guilty to child rape, molestation, and incest charges.
Culp, who wrote in a 2014 report on the case that he believed the girl’s claims were “made up,” responded to press queries that the guilty plea didn’t prove the man’s guilt: “He had a son, so he didn’t want to spend 30 years in prison. He took the plea deal. Not everyone who takes a plea deal is actually guilty,” Culp said.
Gun-control laws are not the only area where Culp has embraced a far-right position popular with the “Patriot” movement: In recent months, he’s been outspoken in opposing Inslee’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, which he has also deemed “unconstitutional.” On the night of the election, he hosted a large campaign event in Leavenworth at which masks were scarce and social distancing mostly nonexistent, in a crowd numbering in the hundreds—in open defiance of the governor’s orders banning gatherings of more than five people.
“We are free Americans,” Culp told a KING-TV reporter. “It’s a personal choice. If people want to wear a mask, they can wear a mask. Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington Constitution give us the right. It says, ‘No citizen shall be disturbed in their private affairs.”