If you're new to Milwaukee, chances are you might be asking yourself a pertinent question recently:
What's up with this Sheriff Clarke fellow?
In the space of a few months, Sheriff David A. Clarke has made headlines due to his increasing sensational statements and remarks concerning gun control, 911 emergency response times and his budget battles with his political enemies in town.
He's done national interviews after releasing an ad that suggested citizens shouldn't depend on traditional law enforcement but instead arm themselves to protect themselves from criminals.
He's dismissive of the politicians in town he doesn't like, including Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, going as far to use insulting language that accuses them of being "soft on crime liberals" and even suggesting Abele suffers from "penis envy" in a recent note to a right wing talk show host.
Increasing, Clarke sounds like a sheriff in the midst of an emotional break-down but for those of us familiar with his act, there's always a method to the man's madness.
A primer for those who might not really understand David Clarke:
Clarke was appointed by a Republican governor in 2002 to become Milwaukee County Sheriff but has run as a Democrat for all of his tenure in office. Milwaukee County Sheriff is an elected position; the last sheriff was Richard Artison, who was the first African-American to hold the position and was a man revered by many voters for being fair and reasonable.
Some believe Clarke benefited from having Artison break racial ground with voters but from his first days, Clarke has rejected anything that suggests he considers his 'blackness' anything more than a circumstance of birth.
He rails against 'black leaders' he thinks are ineffective and has no working relationship with most African-American politicians in town, or many Democrats in general. It was only last year that Clarke began to identify himself as a "black conservative" although most suspected that was his orientation all along.
He continues to run as a Democrat; his next election comes next year.
Clarke sends many of his right wing conservative messages about law enforcement and society through Milwaukee talk radio, where he is embraced by white hosts who don't have much of an African-American listenership, mainly because of their often dismissive stance toward African-Americans like President Obama or any black person in Milwaukee they think is part of a Democratic political machine.
Clarke's latest tirade against gun control landed him on shows like Piers Morgan on CNN, FOX News and other outlets. As he made his rounds, many saw it as Clarke's personal attempt to get back at Barrett and Abele for their own crime enforcement initiatives that transfer money from the sheriff's department to the city's police department.
Looking past his Second Amendment bluster, many believe Clarke was actually trying to pressure city leaders who don't think the sheriff's department is the most effective law enforcement organization in the county, a claim Clarke has made numerous times.
In fact, Clarke's 911 ad - paid for by taxpayers because Clarke defined it as a 'public service announcement' - was more like an attention-grabbing plea designed to raise Clarke's national profile during a time when gun control is a big issue for the media and politicians everywhere.
Frankly, it's peculiar to hear Clarke use guns as part of his bully platform to scare residents since most emergency crime alerts are answered by city police, not the sheriff's department.
The fact is that you're most likely to encounter a Milwaukee County Deputy if you're speeding or driving drunk on the freeway; you don't call the sheriff if you've been car-jacked or have thugs threatening your home.
The vast majority of 911 calls are answered by Milwaukee cops so it makes you wonder just what Clarke's ad was about.
The people who think he's positioning himself for a run for higher office concede there aren't a lot of spots that would suit him. I imagine Clarke would love to appear in his own version of "Mr. Clarke goes to Washington" someday, but it's hard to imagine him in the Senate or House having to play well with others.
Clarke wanted to run for mayor back in 2003; he stumbled badly in the candidate forums after assuming most voters would fall for the same law and order stance he used to get re-elected sheriff in Milwaukee County. In hindsight, perhaps we should all eternally grateful.
Can you imagine the combatative Clarke as mayor?
My hunch is Clarke loves being in the limelight for his controversial stances, particularly when it brings network and cable news cameras to town to enhance his already bloated ego. I don't even think he's embarrassed by his juvenile swipe at Abele's manhood; Clarke has plenty of enablers in town who are likely telling him to keep it up.
Clarke shouldn't be underestimated by his opponents. He's not an unattractive candidate and he does have a wider base of support from voters, including African-Americans in the central city than some of his opponents suspect..
For those who see Clarke as a phony and a bully, it's easy to wonder how he's survived so long with his childish behavior.
But if you're a gun advocate who dislikes most Democrats and are looking for a bold politician who speaks his mind regardless of the consequences, Clarke might just be the man for you.
Just don't call him if your home is being invaded; despite his tough talk, it's not really his job.
Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.
Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.