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Franklin Co. sheriff touts award from far-right group promoting defiance of state, federal laws

Franklin Co. sheriff touts award from far-right group promoting defiance of state, federal laws

 

Two-term Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols was given the award “Sheriff of the Year” last month by a right-wing group that promotes county sheriffs as the “last hope” in resisting state and federal laws they deem tyrannical.

The award came from the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a group that observers say is trying to make inroads into law enforcement agencies to promote “sheriff supremacy,” the idea that sheriffs’ authority supersedes that of all other state and federal officials on issues such as immigration and gun control

The group’s supporters include former sheriffs David Clarke of Wisconsin and Joe Arpaio of Arizona, who President Donald Trump pardoned in 2017 for disobeying a federal judge’s order to halt immigration sweeps.

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, second from right, poses next to “constitutional sheriff” movement leader Richard Mack, far right, during the Sept. 30 conference “The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope.”

CSPOA founder Richard Mack, a former sheriff in Arizona, is affiliated with the anti-government “patriot” movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 

Mack called Nichols last month to tell him that he was one of two sheriffs chosen for the award. Mack then invited him to speak at Liberty University, a private evangelical university in Virginia, at a conference called, “The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope.”

Nichols, who is running for re-election on Nov. 3, shared Mack’s effusive voicemail message on his campaign Facebook page.

“The Founder of the CSPOA, Richard Mack, called and said you are one of the best Sheriff’s in Franklin County. Nope, that wasn’t it. One of the most important Sheriff’s in Maine, ummm, nope, that wasn’t it either. What was it he said? Oh, ‘You are one of the most important Sheriff’s in America right now, whether you realize that or not, and, uh, we would sure love to have you there,’” Nichols posted on Sept. 15. 

Nichols later shared photos of the award and of himself at the conference on Sept. 30 posing with Mack and other law enforcement officers.

Campaign against the ‘COVID dictator governors’

Nichols drew the attention of national conservative media at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic for saying he would not enforce Governor Janet Mills’ stay-at-home orders.

“This is not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia where you are asked for your papers!” he wrote in a Facebook post on April 1. “We will not be setting up a Police State. PERIOD.”

In the article, “The Rise of The Anti-Lockdown Sheriffs,” The Marshall Project, a journalism organization focused on criminal justice issues, found that at least 60 sheriffs nationwide publicly opposed restrictions issued by their governors — most of them Democrats.

“The stay-at-home orders are just the latest opportunity for sheriffs to get noticed, particularly in states with Democratic governors,” the report reads. “While police chiefs are appointed and thus insulated from politics, sheriffs are elected and many have built their reputations by defying state and federal laws in areas ranging from immigration to gun control.”

Nichols is running for his third term as Franklin County sheriff against Farmington Police Department Sergeant Edward Hastings.

His public opposition to Mills’ pandemic guidelines seems to have been a factor in earning Mack’s praise that he is one of the “most important” sheriffs in the country.

“The people are the rightful masters of Congress, legislators and courts. It is our duty to fight those who would pervert it,” Mack said at the CSPOA conference at Liberty University last month. “There are so many traitors in our midst, for instance, the ‘COVID dictator governors,’ and we must make them irrelevant.”

Mack wrote the foreword to a 2003 book by Randy Weaver, the white supremacist at the center of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff with federal agents in Idaho that sparked the militia movement of the 1990s. Mack participated in the 2014 standoff in Nevada led by rancher Cliven Bundy. He is also on the board of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that gained national attention in 2014 after showing up, heavily-armed, at Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson.

‘The power of the county’

A supporter of Sheriff Scott Nichols, which he calls his “Constitution Crew,” poses with her child wearing his “We The People” campaign t-shirt.

The movement to define the county sheriff as the highest “legitimate” authority in the country is not new. It emanated in the power vacuum left behind by slave owners after the Civil War, The Marshall Project explains. The movement took on new dimensions in the 1970s with the Posse Comitatus, Latin for “power of the county,” a loose movement that arose in rural America that promoted anti-government and anti-Semitic conspiracies. The Posse spawned the sovereign citizen and militia movements.

“The idea that a sheriff could stand as a bulwark of local control against state and federal laws shifted in the 1970s, from opposition to civil rights to the more arcane intellectual sphere of the Christian Identity movement,” The Marshall Project reported. “Minister William Potter Gale [one of the founders of the Posse movement] ‘preached that the Constitution was a divinely inspired document intended to elevate whites above Jews and racial minorities,’ journalist Ashley Powers wrote in The New Yorker.”

Groups like CSPOA, which drive the modern “constitutional sheriff” movement, have dropped much of the explicit racism and anti-Semitism, although anti-immigrant fearmongering is still given significant play.

“Immigrants are not assimilating into our culture as they once did. This results in devastating consequences culturally and economically,” reads CSPOA’s “Statement of Positions.” “The vast majority of immigrants today come here illegally, many committing crimes as they do.”

Much of the public-facing political rhetoric of CSPOA is focused on a vague but ever-looming threat of a federal crackdown on individual liberty and personal property.

Launching his re-election campaign, Nichols echoed this rhetoric, promoting himself as a guardian of his constituents’ liberties.

“The well being of the citizens of Franklin County, as well as the security of their property and their civil liberties, which we all hold so dear, are my greatest ambitions in serving you, the people,” he posted on May 25.

In another post, Nichols echoes CSPOA’s claim that sheriffs need answer only to the Constitution.

“Sheriffs are the only law enforcement official mentioned in the State Constitution and thus considered Constitution elected officers,” he posted on Oct. 4. “Sheriffs do not answer to State or local government. Sheriffs by virtue of their position, are independent. That means they do not have to abide by the political whims of municipal or state organizations — as witnessed in today’s volatile environment of Police agencies ordered not to address violent protests and crimes against citizens and property around the country.”

The original U.S. flag, designed by Betsy Ross with 13 stars in a circle, features prominently on Nichols’ re-election site and campaign merchandise. The Betsy Ross flag has been appropriated by some far right groups.

“Historically, these symbols have been used by white supremacists, both to hearken back to a time when Black people were enslaved, while also painting themselves as the inheritors of the ‘true’ American tradition,” SPLC research analyst Keegan Hankes told Rolling Stone in 2019. 

Nichols’ Facebook page is also filled with photos and videos of his supporters, which he calls his “Constitution Crew.” Several of them are armed, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with his campaign logo and “We The People” on the back.

“We are living in dark times when tyranny reigns and our overlords direct our puppet governess to impose unconstitutional mandates and edicts and decrees upon us, the unworthy peasants,” one supporter wrote about Mills on Nichols’ site.

Nichols did not respond to a request for comment on the award or CSPOA.



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