REPUBLIC — On the dusty, unpaved road leading to Loren Culp’s house, a no trespassing sign calls out a warning to “all public officials or agents thereof.”
Quoting the U.S. Constitution, the sign declares any officer or person who attempts to enter the property without a warrant “will be treated as any other intruder would” when attempting to “extort, injure, oppress, threaten, harass, intimidate …”
In case that isn’t clear enough, visitors may consider the message in the road’s name, which Culp picked himself: Goa Way.
The prickly pun fits with the platform of the small-town police chief running as the Republican challenger to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee. A proud conservative who rose to prominence for refusing to enforce a voter-passed gun control initiative, Culp says government should be small and mostly butt out of people’s lives.
That means few or no restrictions on firearms Culp doesn’t support a ban on bump stock devices, which allow rifles to fire like machine guns. He’d end mandatory mask orders and shutdowns of businesses meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I am not anti-government. I am anti big government. They need to stay in their lane and mind their business,” Culp said.
As the GOP standard-bearer in Washington this fall, Culp, 59, is in some ways an unlikely contender to govern a state of 7.6 million people or manage a state government with a $53 billion budget and more than 68,000 employees.
He dropped out of high school, has never before run for public office and polices a town with 1,100 people and no traffic light. Even his title of police chief is somewhat misleading as he is also the only police officer in Republic.
If successful, Culp, whose campaign has raised $1.8 million to Inslee’s $6.4 million, would break some long-running historical streaks.
He’d be the first governor from Eastern Washington since Cheney Mayor Clarence Martin, a Spokane County Democrat, was elected in 1932 amid the Great Depression. And he’d be the first Republican governor since John Spellman left office in 1985.
IN REPUBLIC, PRIDE AND HOPE
In Republic, a former mining town in the Kettle Mountain foothills with a short main drag sporting an Old West theme, Culp is already something of a celebrity. He beat several GOP rivals in the Aug. 4 primary with a campaign built on rallies across the state flouting COVID-19 restrictions, as well as popular Facebook videos, and yard signs thousands upon thousands of yard signs.
As Culp strolled by Republic City Hall on a sunny September day, just before the wildfire smoke moved in, local resident Pam Morris rushed across the street from the porch of a house displaying a large flag promoting the Second Amendment.
“Oh I am praying, praying, praying. I want him to be governor. I want him to stop the riots,” Morris said, referring to conflagrations in cities like Seattle and Portland.
Just up the street, at the Republic Barber Shop, owner Kevin Bell said he’s heard Culp signs are dominating the state even in Democratic areas outside of Seattle. “I’ll be cutting hair in December in Olympia, don’t you think?” he said with a grin.
CLIMB TO GOP NOMINATION
Born in Everett in 1961, Culp grew up in Jefferson County in the Chimacum area but moved with his parents to Republic after his father, who had worked for the State Patrol and as a deputy county sheriff, bought a local hardware store. Culp attended Republic High School, dropping out during his junior year and getting a GED.
Culp said he was bored with school. He had been working in construction and wanted “to learn things that would help me in life.”
He married his high school girlfriend, Barb, when both were 17, at a church in town. A photo Culp posted on Facebook shows the young couple in the 1970s, with Barb wearing a T-shirt for the rock band KISS and Culp in a Budweiser shirt. They remain married, more than 40 years later, and have two sons and seven grandchildren.
At age 19 in 1980, seeing construction in a downturn, Culp joined the U.S. Army for four years, undergoing basic training in Missouri before being stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He spent one year in South Korea.
After leaving the military, Culp went into the construction business, moving to the Olympia area and starting out with his own small company, mainly building foundations for houses.
By 2010, at age 49, Culp was ready to make a career and lifestyle change, and fulfill a dream of becoming a police officer. He had bought a plot of undeveloped land outside Republic about five years earlier for $38,500, property records show.
In a letter applying for a police officer job, Culp wrote then-police Chief Bret Roberts, emphasizing “I REALLY want this job.” He wrote he did not intend the position “as a stepping stone to a big city, high paying job” and planned to remain in Republic for the rest of his life.
Culp got the job. In the ensuing years, he was trained as a narcotics and K-9 officer, patrolling with a German shepherd named Karma. He later was promoted to sergeant and then police chief a few years ago.
Culp said Republic police have taken a “zero tolerance” stance on illegal drugs such as heroin, busting people for residual amounts, while also targeting drug-dealing operations.
In 2014 he worked with federal and local law enforcement agents to bust what he described as a “bunker” set up by one major local dealer. Court records show the task force recovered 325 grams of methamphetamine and 14 firearms on the property of the man, who was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
By last year, the Republic police force, which once had three officers, had shrunk to just Culp. The cuts were forced by declining tax collections due to closures of nearby gold mines and lumber mills, according to Republic Mayor Elbert Koontz.
Culp’s policing record has come under scrutiny, with some Republican primary opponents pointing to a lawsuit accusing him of botching a child sexual-abuse investigation.
The lawsuit, filed in 2017, alleges Culp and two other law enforcement officers failed to properly investigate and report allegations in 2013 from a 17-year-old girl who said a male relative had been sexually molesting her since she was 5.
The lawsuit states Culp and a Ferry County deputy did not believe the victim and even sought to intimidate her with the threat of a false-claims charge.
Rebuffed in Republic, the victim brought her allegations to the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, which quickly found supporting witnesses and arrested the relative, Roy A. Moore Jr., in 2014. He pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree child molestation and was sentenced to a minimum of 67 months in prison.
Culp has denied any wrongdoing, saying he was not the lead investigator on the case. He also has insisted Moore’s guilty plea does not mean that he actually committed the crimes.
Culp’s police work is hailed by plenty of residents of Republic, and he was awarded a “key to the city” a few years ago.
While Culp was chatting with Seattle Times journalists over coffee at a town diner, an employee, Jennifer Hooper Rivera, approached, greeting Culp and telling him she’d completed part of her rehabilitation through a local drug court.
“This guy pulled me over. And I was on drugs. I had drugs, I was using drugs and I went to jail,” she said. “I was digging a big hole for myself. And this guy pretty much saved my life.”
LINKS TO CONTROVERSIAL GROUPS
As police chief and as a gubernatorial candidate, Culp has maintained associations with some controversial far-right organizations.
His campaign paid $7,000 in June to Peter Diaz, founder of a group called American Wolf, which has sent armed civilians to act as self-appointed, pro-law enforcement “peacekeepers” at protests against racism and policing. The payment was initially listed in Public Disclosure Commission reports as for “charity” but was revised to say it was for a fundraising event Diaz helped organize.
For defying voters on Initiative 1639, the 2018 voter-approved gun law, Culp was named “Police Chief of the Decade” last year by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and flew to Arizona to accept the award.
The CSPOA contends that county sheriffs have unfettered authority exceeding even the U.S. Supreme Court to decide which laws are unconstitutional in their jurisdictions.
Writing in Politico Magazine in 2017, Robert Tsai, a professor of law at American University who has studied the group, described the constitutional sheriffs movement as a fringe ideology with roots in the far-right, anti-Semitic “posse comitatus” movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
CULP ON THE ISSUES
In person, Culp comes across as straightforward, with little of a politician’s guile. He gives few signs he will reshape or soft-sell his positions to appeal to the moderate-to-liberal voters in the populous Puget Sound region, who determine statewide elections.
Culp has not shied away even when his comments have drawn condemnation, such as his repeated comparisons of his refusal to enforce Initiative 1639, the gun control measure passed by Washington voters, with civil rights leader Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white man.
In an interview, Culp referred to the U.S. and Washington state constitutions, saying a plain reading backs his view that restrictions on gun ownership, such as those enacted by I-1639, are unconstitutional. The measure which raised the age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 and imposed other new restrictions passed with 59% of the vote statewide.
When asked why courts have upheld the initiative as constitutional, Culp argues that lawyers and judges don’t know the U.S. Constitution because it is not routinely taught in law schools.
That’s not true, said Elizabeth Porter and Andy Siegel, associate deans at the University of Washington and Seattle University law schools, respectively. Their law schools, like others, teach the nation’s founding document as part of required constitutional law courses, which examine the text plus centuries of case law.
Culp’s stance against gun restrictions goes further than the Trump administration, which generally backs Second Amendment causes but acted to ban bump stocks after a man used them to fire indiscriminately into a crowd at a country music concert in Las Vegas in 2017, killing 58 people.
“I don’t see where the government gets the power to ban any attachment to my car, or an attachment to my rifle,” Culp said.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the bump stock ban in March.
And as a law enforcement officer, Culp has expressed little sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement. He condemned the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck. But Culp denies systemic racism is a problem in American policing, and argues that good officers are being unfairly tarnished.
On the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which left the Black man paralyzed and sparked a new round of national protests, Culp said he would have acted as the white officer did in shooting Blake seven times in the back on Aug. 23 as he made a move into his vehicle, where his children were seated.
“I would have shot that person. He’s not obeying what I told him. He’s got a warrant. He’s a violent person. And he’s going into a vehicle. I don’t know what’s in that vehicle,” Culp said, referring to reports by police that a knife was found in Blake’s car.
Culp says he never had to shoot anyone during his law-enforcement career, though he has drawn his gun.
“The easiest way not to get shot by the police, is first of all, don’t commit a crime. And then when you’re interacting with the police, do what they asked you to do,” he said.