On the campaign trail, former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice sometimes boasts of the support he's getting from Richard Mack, head of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
In a county where office-holders traditionally tack to the political center, the endorsement is an odd one to bring up.
Also an ex-sheriff, Mack has been a darling of antigovernment activists since he refused to enforce background checks on gun-buyers in his rural Arizona county in the 1990s. His allies and admirers are a veritable who's who of America's right-wing fringe — birthers, tax protesters, militia enthusiasts.
Rice cuts an unlikely figure in this crowd. During his 16 years at the helm of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office before stepping down in 2004, and during a brief stint in the Florida House afterward, he was known as a moderate "Pinellas Republican" with a practical bent.
But as he tries to win back his old job, the courtly 67-year-old is raising eyebrows with his ties to organizations and people in the so-called Patriot movement, a constellation of antigovernment groups.
Patriot ideology is of older vintage than the tea party activism it helped inspire. Its adherents feed off the conspiratorial view of politics that spawned the militia movements of the 1990s. Many believe the federal government is plotting to disarm and imprison innocent American citizens, paving the way for a tyrannical global regime, sometimes called the New World Order.
Rice himself is now flirting with ideas well outside mainstream political discourse. He says he doesn't know whether President Barack Obama is really a U.S. citizen, and he is open to discussing far-right fears that a United Nations environmental compact known as Agenda 21 is a secret plot to establish "one-world government."
Most striking, he decided to sign the pledge of the Oath Keepers, a controversial group of military and law enforcement personnel who declare they will never obey certain orders they consider unconstitutional.
The Oath Keepers say they are merely reaffirming their duty to protect U.S. citizens from all enemies — including their own government. But critics say the group is driven by the belief the Obama administration intends to commit a totalitarian coup.
Among other promises, the pledge Rice signed declares he will never "assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people" or help federal agents "blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps."
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Rice's opponent in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, has refused to sign the Oath Keepers pledge or have anything to do with Mack's Constitutional Sheriffs association, which coaches local law enforcement officials on how to defy the federal government.
"We're not going to have sheriff's deputies on the Howard Frankland Bridge engaged in a firefight with the U.S. government and locking down Pinellas County because they're coming to get our guns," Gualtieri said. "That's craziness to me."
• • •
Rice said he has no special devotion to the radical causes whose supporters he has courted. It's just one more part of the electorate he has gotten to know while campaigning, he said.
He defended his decision to sign the Oath Keepers' pledge, saying it is "not an extremist document" but merely states the obvious: a county sheriff shouldn't force people to follow laws that undermine the Constitution.
"If the sheriff thinks a law is unconstitutional, they shouldn't enforce it," Rice said. "I point to the Jim Crow laws. I grew up in the South, and I can't believe that we had laws based on people's race."
There's more to the story, said Mark Potok, who tracks extremist groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He said the "orders" that Oath Keepers pledge not to follow show the core tenets of Patriot conspiracy thinking.
"The Oath Keepers is an organization that poses as a benign group of people dedicated to protecting the country, but is in fact a group of people tied up in totally baseless conspiracy theories," Potok said. "When you look at those orders, what you see is a classical paranoid conspiracy theory about the evil government coming to get us."
Carol Rubadou, vice president of Florida Oath Keepers, said the 10 orders Oath Keepers swear they won't obey are each based on fears of government overreaching that have a historical basis. Asked about concentration camps, she pointed to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Mack said a sheriff, as an elected law enforcement leader, is ideally placed as the people's protector from unjust laws. Veneration of the county sheriff was another feature of 1990s militia ideology, but he insists he does not advocate violence.
Mack said he got to know Rice while doing speaking gigs at tea party events in Florida.
"Yeah, he knows how to run a sheriff's office," he said of Rice. "But I also think he has the courage to protect liberty."
• • •
Rice said he doesn't subscribe to the more extreme views of Mack or the Oath Keepers. "As far as the extent of their ideology and all that, I don't know that I would buy into all of it," he said.
Still, he remains open to some provocative ideas, such as the "birther" conspiracy theory that Obama's Hawaii birth certificate is forged and he is not a U.S. citizen.
"I don't know if he is or not," Rice said when asked if the president is a citizen of this country.
Does he think Obama's birth certificate is real?
"I don't know," Rice said. "I mean, I suppose it is. He's the president. It's a non-issue now."
One organization Rice has addressed on the campaign trail is the Save America Foundation, a Clearwater-based outfit that counts among its goals the dismantling of Agenda 21.
Signed in 1992, Agenda 21 is also known as the United Nations' Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. It was a voluntary accord among 178 governments aiming to cooperate in dealing with the environmental impact of a growing world population.
Some activists on the right have argued that it is actually a secret plot to undermine nations' sovereignty and redistribute wealth. In an interview this week, Rice said his knowledge of Agenda 21 is limited, but he is not willing to dismiss concerns that it might be leading to a worldwide government.
"I listen to what's said about it," he said. "I don't know if the one-world government thing is true or not. I haven't followed it. I know that some people say it is. But it doesn't really have anything to do with me."
• • •
It's unclear whether Rice's overtures to the far right mark the path of a true believer or are just canny politicking at a time when right-wing factions of the GOP are exercising more muscle at the polls.
Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Republican, said it's not unexpected that candidates today would be paying more attention to extreme voices.
"I don't think they can ignore them," Hibbard said. "I don't think they have to exclusively cater to them, but they are a part of the party, and it's been a more and more active part."
Gualtieri said Rice is "pandering" to the radical right by signaling his openness to conspiracy theories.
"It's political games," Gualtieri said. "He's telling people what he thinks they want to hear."
Adrian Wyllie, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Florida, likewise said he suspects Rice is just paying lip service to the ideals espoused by Mack and others. He said Rice isn't as fervent about protecting civil liberties as he would like when it comes to policy matters like eliminating DUI checkpoints.
"He has a lot of support within the liberty movement," Wyllie said. However, "when you dig deeper into the issue with him and try to get him to answer a question under a specific scenario, the answer seems to be less and less appealing for the liberty movement."
Yet Rice's moves appear to be paying some dividends.
Andrew Nappi is Florida director for the Tenth Amendment Center, a national organization that advocates restricting federal power. When he saw Rice with Mack at an Oath Keepers event in Clearwater, he said, "I became aware Everett was so much on board" with suspicions about the U.S. government.
His opinion of Rice now? "Very favorable," he said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.