Chad Bianco will be among friends Thursday night, Nov. 9.
The Riverside County sheriff is set to receive the Upland-based Claremont Institute’s 2023 American Sheriff Award at a $450-a-ticket dinner at a Huntington Beach hotel. Presenting him the award will be Jeff Sessions, who served as a U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration.
The honor, who’s giving it and what it says about Bianco’s politics concerns the sheriff’s critics, including the Southern California News Group editorial board, who see the award as another link between the head of Riverside County’s largest law enforcement agency and far-right politics.
“There’s something menacing about the head of a large police agency publicly aligning himself with an organization that supported overturning the 2020 election, wanted to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power for the first time in U.S. history, and that still proudly employs one of the key actors in that conspiracy,” Radley Balko, a criminal justice journalist who wrote a scathing online critique of Thursday’s dinner, said via email.
Vonya Quarles, executive director of the Riverside-based Starting Over Inc., which advocates for criminal justice reform, also criticized the award.
“Bianco is being lifted up, and everyone enjoys a lift, but to be lifted up by such an organization speaks volumes to anyone who is justice-minded, and the sounds are excruciating,” Quarles said via email.
Bianco and the institute did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email to The Guardian, a British media outlet that wrote about the dinner, David Bahr, an institute spokesperson said: “Sheriff Bianco’s fidelity to the Constitution and his desire to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life, is something we think worth celebrating.”
On its website, the institute lauded Bianco as someone who “believes in service above self, and hopes that his priorities of God, family, and service will provide meaningful guidance and direction as the Sheriff’s Office engages in an unprecedented change of culture to positively influence and engage our community.”
Since becoming sheriff in 2019, Bianco, who was re-elected to his nonpartisan office with 61% of the vote in 2022, has become a hero to California conservatives in a deep blue state. He endeared himself to his fellow Republicans with his refusal in 2020 to enforce Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 mandates imposed to stop the spread of the virus.
A skeptic of the pandemic’s severity, Bianco continued to win plaudits in conservative circles with a plain-spoken style and tough-on-crime message. He described Black Lives Matter protests as “riots” and said progressive criminal justice reform “allowed for the murder” of one of his deputies in late 2022.
Bianco also has admitted to past membership in the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia whose leadership was convicted of plotting the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot that sought to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election win.
The sheriff has said he was a dues-paying member for a year in 2014, but “I (didn’t) even remember it.” While saying rioters who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were “completely wrong,” Bianco also has defended the Oath Keepers and said the FBI “strayed from non-biased law enforcement a long time ago.”
Bianco has said he learned of the Oath Keepers from the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, with which he was affiliated at the time. Extremist watchdogs say the association is an anti-government extremist group that believes sheriffs’ powers supersede the federal government’s authority.
In June, Bianco faced a backlash from immigrants’ rights advocates by becoming one of two California sheriffs who signed on to GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ border security coalition. The sheriff, who visited the U.S/Mexico border, did so despite immigration and border security being the federal government’s responsibility.
Locally, Bianco is one of the region’s most prominent elected Republicans whose endorsement is coveted by GOP candidates. It’s not uncommon for him to speak at political fundraisers, including one for the conservatives who eventually won a majority on Temecula’s school board.
Founded in 1979, the Claremont Institute — which is not affiliated with the Claremont Colleges — is a conservative think tank with the motto “Recovering the American Idea.”
“The mission of the Claremont Institute is to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life,” read a mission statement on the institute’s website. An early cheerleader of Donald Trump, the institute’s past fellows include popular conservative commentators such as Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Charlie Kirk.
In recent years, the institute has been accused of vilifying liberals, rejecting democracy and embracing right-wing authoritarianism.
Former Chapman University law school dean John Eastman is an institute senior fellow. Eastman, who is under indictment in Georgia and accused of trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election, tried to get then-Vice President Mike Pence and the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn state election results that gave Biden the presidency.
Bianco’s award comes as the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department faces scrutiny for a string of inmate deaths in its jails and arrests of correction deputies on suspicion of drug trafficking and sexually extorting women on home detention. A civil rights investigation of the department by California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office continues.
It’s “no accident” the institute is honoring Bianco, said Quarles, of Starting Over.
“He has paid the entrance fee with the lives of community members, officers, and people unfortunate enough to be inside one of his jails,” she said.
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