HELENA – For Rex Nichols, the right person to guard against unrestrained federal power encroaching on the rural northwestern Montana county he calls home is a figure straight out of the old West — the aggressive, no-nonsense sheriff.
The retired police officer and investment adviser intends to make that a reality, joining at least a dozen candidates in other states running for office on an interpretation of the Constitution they say means the sheriff is the highest law enforcer in the land, even above federal agents.
“Frankly if he wants to, the sheriff can probably do more for the Constitution and protecting the people than anyone else,” Nichols said.
The candidates are part of a loosely organized nationwide movement called the Oath Keepers, which is enlisting law enforcement and military personnel to vow to refuse 10 orders they say are unconstitutional, from confiscating guns to warrantless searches.
Critics call the Oath Keepers a dangerous anti-government “patriot” group recruiting on the edges of the militia movement and taking advantage of the anger and fear-mongering in some tea party circles.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is lumping the “particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival” in with the hate groups it tracks. The group issued a report last year saying a new miliita movement is on the rise, and was concerned about the Oath Keepers making inroads into law enforcement.
The Oath Keepers are similar to the tea party crowd in that they often disagree what their movement represents. While bred from the libertarian spirit that courses through the West, the Oath Keepers don’t have a formal structure beyond the vague principles outlined in the 10 orders.
They say the sheriff is at the top primarily because he is the highest elected law enforcement agent in the land, directly responsible to the voters, and argue the Tenth Amendment gives the voters all power not expressly given the federal government under the Constitution.
The movement has gained traction, including in dozen or more sheriff’s races around the West from Orange County, Calif., to the northern border.
“It is time for the sworn protectors of liberty, the Sheriffs of these United States of America, to walk tall and stand up for our Constitution and Bill of Rights,” proclaimed Larimer County, Colo., candidate Carl Bruning in his campaign literature.
The retired Air Force pilot is running against an incumbent, Sheriff James Alderden, who himself is popular with the gun rights supporters for refusing to enforce a Colorado State University gun ban.
But Bruning even goes further by vowing to never enter the names of concealed-carry permit holders into the statewide database.
In Orange County, Calif., Oath Keeper Bill Hunt said California needs strong sheriffs to stand up to the federal government in the modern day wars over water, and to stick up for citizens who have a hard time getting concealed weapons permits.
Hunt, who is running a credible campaign in the large county, said it will only take a strong presence from the sheriff, and possibly lawsuits, not some sort of armed standoff.
“Leadership is meeting with the other agencies in government and letting them know it if they are outside their jurisdiction,” Hunt said.
The Oath Keepers’ founder says recruitment among conservatives at places like gun shows is hot right now because Democrats are in charge. But many of the federal violations against the Constitution he cited, such as military tribunals, began under Republicans and the Bush Administration.
The same Democrats who once were worried about constitutional rights under Bush, Stewart Rhodes said, have all but disappeared even though President Barack Obama is continuing many of the same policies. He hopes to someday recruit among liberal ranks once Republicans are back in control.
Stewart said the biggest threat to American freedom is a “climate of fear” that, at its worst, has allowed the federal government to imprison innocent people, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“It could happen again. It could happen to Muslims. It could happen to Hispanics. It could happen to white guys who are in militias,” he said. “That’s why there are Oath Keepers. You can’t always count on the three branches of government to check each other.”
Some Oath Keeper sheriff candidates say their actual work would be done in smaller and simpler ways: taking a stand against what they call unconstitutional traffic light cameras, random checkpoints where police check drivers for drinking or any other issue, and abuse of police power.
“You have to be reasonable. This is not about starting a revolution,” said Steve Kendley, a Lake County detective running for sheriff of his agency.
While he believes the sheriff is the top law enforcement in the county, he said he does not foresee armed standoffs with federal agents.
“I absolutely believe there is something constitutional sheriffs should do, and that is to communicate and explain to them it wouldn’t be allowed in that county. I don’t foresee anything except intelligent dialogue about it,” he said.
Others promise a tougher stance, and not all Oath Keepers agree exactly what kind of federal action breaches the Constitution.
Some say the imprisonment of military detainees at Guantanamo Bay is wrong, others disagree. And there is disagreement on whether the military interrogations involving water boarding represent unconstitutional torture.
Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, a group that advocates for liberal social issues and also tracks racist extremist groups, also believes Oath Keepers are closer to the ideology of militiant miltia than they will admit.
“We have seen the patriot movement as a whole in Montana in the past year and a half focus a lot of time on the county sheriff,” he said. “The million dollar question is how effective are they going to be? The fact that they have recruited candidates is concerning.”
Nichols, the retired police officer running for sheriff in western Montana’s Lincoln County, said his biggest gripe is with police agencies armed with surplus military gear. He said police abuse of power — from both local and federal agents — needs to stop.
Nichols points to such past federal police actions as 1993’s standoff in Waco, Texas and the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho. Nichols said neither of those “injustices” would happen in his county — because he wouldn’t let the federal agents in.
“I am going to take my deputies and stand in the middle of the road and tell them to get the hell out,” he said. “And if they want a war, they got it.”
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