MILWAUKEE — The tough-talking sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke, resigned without explanation Thursday, capping a tumultuous year for the divisive, provocative lawman whose unabashed support for President Donald Trump and in-your-face personality earned him a national following among some conservatives.
Clarke submitted his resignation in a one-sentence letter to the county clerk that gave no reason for his departure more than a year before his term is up. In a brief statement a couple of hours later, Clarke also didn’t explain.
“I have chosen to retire to pursue other opportunities,” the statement said. “I will have news about my next steps in the very near future.”
The national spotlight shone on Clarke during the Republican National Convention last year, when the cowboy-hat-wearing sheriff took the stage as one of the few African-Americans to speak in support of Trump’s candidacy.
But while Clarke gained the admiration of conservative backers of Trump, he faced lawsuits back home and criticism over the operations at the county jail he oversaw, where four inmates died last year. One of the inmates died of dehydration because jail staff shut off water to his cell as punishment.
Clarke’s many liberal foes welcomed his departure.
“After years of abuse at his hands, the people of Milwaukee can sleep soundly tonight,” state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee and a frequent Clarke critic, said in a statement.
Voces de la Frontera, an advocacy group for immigrants and low-wage workers, had sharply criticized Clarke for seeking authority for his deputies to perform the functions of immigration agents. The group called his departure “a victory for the people of Milwaukee County and the state of Wisconsin” and claimed credit for driving him out of office.
Clarke’s most recent Twitter post from Thursday afternoon showed him posing with law enforcement officers at the National Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville.
The firebrand sheriff made himself a darling of the political right through his brash social media presence, his staunch support for Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and his support for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods.
He has been vocal about gun rights and critical of what he called the “hateful ideology” of the Black Lives Matters movement, saying at times, “Stop trying to fix the police. Fix the ghetto.”
Clarke announced in May that he had taken a job at the Department of Homeland Security, but the agency never confirmed it. He later said he withdrew his name. He recently published a memoir, “Cop Under Fire.” On Sunday, Trump sent a tweet promoting the book.
Clark has been sheriff of Milwaukee County since 2002 and spent more than two decades before that with the city’s police department.
Some Wisconsin conservatives had encouraged Clarke in recent months to challenge U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, but he repeatedly rejected their overtures.
But while he remained popular with some, he faced repeated calls for his resignation from state and local officials who criticized him for spending too much time away from Milwaukee, earning more than $105,000 last year in speaking fees — almost as much as his sheriff’s salary — at more than three dozen events across the country. He was also a frequent guest on Fox News programs.
This year, two former inmates who were pregnant during their time at the sheriff’s jail filed lawsuits alleging they were shackled while giving birth. And the family of the man who died of dehydration, Terrill Thomas, also filed federal lawsuits.
At the same time, Milwaukee prosecutors are considering criminal charges against some members of Clarke’s jail staff for Thomas’ death. A lengthy inquest in that case revealed that Clarke’s staff routinely shut off water to inmates’ cells as a form of punishment.
Prosecutors are not considering charges against Clarke because they said he wasn’t directly involved in the events that led to Thomas’ death.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker would be responsible for appointing someone to serve the remainder of Clarke’s term, which runs through 2018. Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said once he receives official notification of his resignation, the process of finding a replacement will begin.
Evenson did not immediately respond to an email seeking reaction from the governor to Clarke’s decision to resign.
One of Clarke’s biggest foes in local government, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, called the sheriff’s resignation “an opportunity.”
Around the time news broke of Clarke’s resignation, Abele tweeted a gif without comment of former President Barack Obama clapping. But Abele was more restrained while speaking with reporters outside his office.
“We have an opportunity, more than we usually do, to make some big steps forward,” he said.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin.