According to the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), a gay Republican group, this new ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) attacking Arizona Republican congressional candidate Sheriff Paul Babeu is homophobic:
The ad doesn’t mention that Babeu is gay, but instead focuses on a scandal regarding a youth treatment boarding school, known for its torturous abuses of the kids staying there, that he used to oversee. As far as LCR is concerned, Babeu is absolved of any connection to the school, but there is ample evidence tying him to the school’s abusive practices. The group even seems willing to deploy anti-gay stereotypes in an attempt to defend his reputation.
A Storied History
Controversy has consistently followed Babeu through the last decade of his political career. After being elected sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona, in 2008, he rose to prominence after appearing in a 2010 ad supporting Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) 10-point border security plan. This was despite the fact that Pinal County is some 115 miles north of the border. Babeu was also a fierce defender of SB 1070, Arizona’s restrictive anti-immigration law.
In 2012, Babeu ran for Congress for the first time, but a very different scandal demolished his campaign. A man by the name of Jose Orozco, a Mexican immigrant, went public that he and Babeu had been in a romantic relationship, and that Babeu had threatened to deport him if he went public about it — though Orozco’s visa had not actually expired. Babeu denied making the threats, but did eventually acknowledge the relationship (and messy break-up) that he’d had with Orozco, coming out as gay and resigning as co-chair of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Arizona. After an investigation, no charges were filed against either of the jilted lovers.
Despite the controversy, Babeu did not immediately abandon his congressional run. Just a week after being outed, however, was when the public first learned about the atrocities committed at the DeSisto School in Massachusetts under his watch.
Babeu served as headmaster and then executive director of the DeSisto School, a private boarding school for troubled youth, from 1999 to 2001. An exhaustive investigation by ABC15’s Dave Biscobing in 2012 found that the school punished kids by depriving them of food, taking all of their clothes except for a sheet, forcing them to sit in solitude for weeks at a time, restraining students, failing to maintain their medication, and conducting regular strip searches. During his tenure, the state began to investigate whether the school was properly licensed as well as allegations of child abuse.
ABC15 also learned that Babeu had had a relationship with a 17-year-old male student. Not only did many students and staff from that time confirm that the relationship was common knowledge, but Babeu’s own sister told ABC15 about learning about it from Babeu himself.
At the time, a spokesman for Babeu released a statement denying his connection to the abuses and ignoring the allegations. It boasted how he “was recognized for helping restore financial stability” at DeSisto, but insisted, “He was never the target of any investigation or lawsuit.” Days after ABC15’s original segment aired, Babeu said on camera, “That is absolutely false, blatantly false… You don’t even know what you’re talking about.” His lawyers also threatened to sue the station, calling for a retraction because Babeu was not “involved in, responsible for, and/or aware of” the abuses.
A few months later, Babeu dropped his congressional bid and instead sought — and won — re-election as Pinal County Sheriff.
Babeu is now once again running for Congress, and this past January, his connection to the abuses at DeSisto blew up in a new way. ABC15 obtained a home movie from one of the sheriff’s family members showing him in 1999 — still new to his position — openly discussing many of the torturous tactics used at the school — and lauding them.
“They need to feel hopeless,” he says in the video. “They need to feel depression and they have to bottom out.” He uses specific terms documented in the Massachusetts state investigation, like “cornering,” when students were forced to sit in isolation for days or weeks at a time, or “hand held,” when students were forced to permanently hold hands, even when showering or going to the bathroom. “It does work!” he boasts. “They could be cornered for weeks, and they have to sit in the corner. They have a chair and they’re in the corner and they have to face the corner.”
Though Babeu called the methods “amazing,” the state investigation found, for example, that one child, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD, and impulse control disorder, was “cornered” for weeks on end. As a result, he “became depressed, his mood-stabilizing medication fell below therapeutic levels, and he began to defecate and urinate on himself. This student was taken from the ‘corner’ to the hospital for treatment of pneumonia and was then returned from the emergency room to the ‘corner,’ rather than to his bed.” It’s unclear if that specific incident took place under Babeu’s watch, but it was certainly the result of a discipline tactic he was aware of.
His knowledge of the school’s practices were extensive. “These kids they get sent to what’s called ‘The Farm,’ where they actually do manual labor.” The state investigation found that on “The Farm,” kids were often deprived of food and water, receiving no education as they were forced to do manual labor for sometimes more than a year.
When ABC15 aired the new report in January, Babeu issued a statement again denying any connection to the abuse:
This 16-year-old video of a family Christmas gathering shows nothing new. As the administrative head of the school, I had no responsibility over student discipline and at no time was I interviewed by investigators on these issues.
Following release of the video, Babeu’s campaign dodged questions from ABC15 about the DeSisto School and even blocked ABC15’s Biscobing from reporting on a public press conference Babeu was giving at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA), one of the lead lawyers who investigated DeSisto for the state of Massachusetts back in the early 2000s, has also come forward about her interactions with Babeu at the time. “I do remember meeting him,” she told ABC15 in February. “The sheriff knew exactly what was going on.” Clark confirmed that Babeu was not deposed as part of the investigation, but also said that he did everything he could to block their efforts. “He had a high rule there, and when he was there, he really stonewalled our investigations at every turn.” The school violated court orders and withheld records, leading to sanctions under Babeu’s leadership. He left his job a mere month before the state’s extensive report came out.
Clark called DeSisto “just a cesspool of really horrendous practices towards children” and “by far the most horrendous case that I dealt with.” She described the practices as “ritualistic child abuse and sort of a Lord of the Flies situation, where some of the children were almost groomed into positions where they were in charge of disciplining other children.” She couldn’t believe that Babeu would think he was fit for Congress after allowing such practices.
Babeu responded with more denials. He did not recall meeting with Clark as she remembered meeting with him, again insisting he was not a “principal in any state investigation.” He accused Clark and the DCCC of targeting him with “baseless personal attacks.”
On his campaign webpage, Babeu still boasts his work at DeSisto and his effectiveness there in “personnel management and fiscal abilities.” Curiously, his bio now only says that he was “Headmaster” at the school, but as recently as March, it still said “Headmaster & Executive Director.”
Enter The Log Cabin Republicans
The DCCC’s new ad attacking Babeu is made up entirely of clips from ABC15’s ongoing investigation. It then simply asks, “We can’t trust him with our kids. How can we trust him in Congress?” This, LCR claims, is an attack on Babeu’s sexuality. In a statement calling the claims about Babeu’s connection to DeSisto “debunked,” Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo objected to the ad:
Attack ads don’t get more homophobic than this. Not only is this commercial factually inaccurate, but it shows just how low the DCCC is willing to go to stop a gay Republican from being elected to Congress. Democrats love to say they support the LGBT community — unless you’re a gay Republican, in which case floating the specter of gays as child predators and deviants is fair game. Log Cabin Republicans demands that the DCCC apologize to Sheriff Babeu, apologize to the LGBT community, and cancel all pending airtime reserved for this thoroughly despicable advertisement.
In response to additional inquiry from ThinkProgress, Angelo again claimed Babeu cannot in any way be held accountable for what was found in the school, particularly because his name did not even appear in the state’s investigation. “Sheriff Babeu did not oversee the school; he was exclusively in charge of operations, and was not involved in student life,” Angelo said. “Being a Headmaster/Executive Director is a far cry from presiding over an entire institution.” Angelo did not clarify who he believed would preside over the institution if not the headmaster/executive director.
ThinkProgress followed up to point out that Babeu clearly knew about many of the abuses and surely had to the power to change or influence the practices of the institution if he felt they should be changed. Indeed, multiple students have told ABC15 that he was involved in daily meetings at the school regarding discipline. Angelo quipped back, “Going down this wormhole only serves to give credibility to a sensationalized non-story. Sheriff Babeu wasn’t just exonerated; he was never charged with any wrongdoing in the first place. Perpetuating this story is irresponsible journalism.”
The only thing exonerating Babeu is his own word, which isn’t reliable. Despite his claim of having no awareness or connection to the abuse, the 1999 video clearly shows him bragging about the torture techniques DeSisto was employing. Furthermore, he has never addressed the allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student at the school.
But the DCCC ad doesn’t even mention that allegation; it only references the abusive disciplinary techniques that the DeSisto School applied with Babeu’s knowledge and consent. It was only the Log Cabin Republicans that connected the ad and the abuses at the school to Babeu’s sexuality and “the specter of gays as child predators and deviants.”
It is thus LCR, not the DCCC, that is perpetuating these archaic stereotypes about gay people in an attempt to defend a gay Republican they desperately want to see elected. Given the lingering question of Babeu’s relationship with a student, regardless of the fact that he was of consenting age, this tactic may have backfired by shining new light on the allegation.
This isn’t particularly surprising for the organization, which repeatedly prioritizes electing Republicans over advancing LGBT equality. The group’s first ad of 2016, for example, attacked Hillary Clinton for 12-year-old comments on marriage equality while completely ignoring Donald Trump’s various current anti-LGBT positions. The group also endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, despite the candidate’s complete opposition to LGBT equality.
Babeu won his primary race last week following a strong lead in polls over the summer. This week, Trump surrogate Ben Carson, whose own anti-LGBT reputation precedes him, endorsed Babeu, calling him “a man of incredible character who knows how to secure our border and keep Arizonans safe.”