Wild Bill’s, a cavernous nightclub in the Atlanta suburbs, is usually packed with country-and-western fans on a Saturday night. But the buzzing throng of hundreds on June 24 didn’t come to see Keith Urban or LeAnn Rimes. Georgia’s GOP Capitol Political Action Committee was hosting “Primary Issues,” a concert, barbecue and Republican fundraiser headlined by a different kind of star: celebrity vigilante Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC).
A 43-year-old former gunfight-show actor with an Ichabod Crane physique and a self-image the size of Texas, Simcox is chiefly responsible for touching off the Minuteman movement, a grassroots prairie fire fueled by thinly veiled racism and nativist paranoia. More than anyone, Simcox has promoted the concept that vigilantism is patriotic. His pitch is that armed “citizen border patrols” must do “the job the government refuses to do”–defend America from brown-skinned “invaders.”
The message is both simplistic and chilling. It’s also a runaway hit. Since the original Minuteman Project in April 2005–a monthlong operation in Arizona that generated massive media hype–more than fifty Minuteman groups have formed around the country. At least 60,000 people (Simcox claims more than 130,000) have sent donations to MCDC that, according to Simcox, exceed $1.6 million. He further boasts that his 7,451 volunteer cazamigrantes, or “migrant hunters,” have “personally delivered 13,000 illegal aliens to the Border Patrol.”
Simcox’s success has been more the product of timing and opportunity than charisma or organizational skills. His haughty leadership style has earned him the nickname “The Little Prince.” But as the Republican Party has fractured over immigration, Simcox has become a hero of the “Build a Wall, Deport ’em All” faction of the GOP. Earlier this year he shed his camouflage fatigues for a suit and tie as a featured panelist at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, the nation’s largest gathering of conservative political activists. An increasing portion of his time is spent at fundraisers and forums far from the border he once swore to defend “by any means necessary.”
Once dismissed by establishment conservatives as a fringe wacko, Simcox has gained broad right-wing appeal. But in doing so he has alienated many of his original, hard-core followers, whose increasingly vocal allegations of corruption are threatening to rupture the “action wing” of the anti-immigration movement. The first-generation Minutemen pledged their money, their time and their guns to the old Simcox, a cigar-chomping, shaggy-haired, undiluted extremist who ranted about Aztlan conspiracy theories, issued bizarre reports of Chinese troops on the border and said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re trashing their neighborhoods, refusing to assimilate, standing on street corners, jeering at little girls walking on their way to school.” The new Simcox, groomed and scripted by neoconservative political consultants, is a frequent guest on Fox News, where he expresses sympathy for impoverished Mexicans in the same breath that he advocates “enforcement-first” immigration policies.
Simcox’s makeover has coincided with the rapid transformation of the MCDC from a ragtag extremist band to a mass-marketing conglomerate run by Diener Consultants, one of the largest fundraising and political-strategy operations on the right. Along with suspicions about Simcox’s personal profiting from Minuteman donations, this mainstreaming of the MCDC has turned several formerly staunch allies against their leader. Paranoid by nature, some in the movement believe that a corporate globalist conspiracy is afoot to co-opt the Minuteman movement, starting with its forefather. “Simcox left the border and went on the cocktail speaking circuit,” says longtime anti-immigration activist and former MCDC field team leader Joe McCutchen. “We knew that if April 2005 was a roaring success our enemies would be descending with vigor to cash in and diffuse [sic] our efforts. That is exactly what happened,”
Wild Bill’s is more Budweiser than cocktails, but the scene was typical of the Republican establishment’s broadening embrace of Simcox and the Minuteman movement. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who is up for re-election, worked the room alongside a horde of lesser GOP candidates for state and local office, including Ralph Reed. The odor of pulled pork spread a mighty tang as members of Georgians for Immigration Reduction hawked T-shirts bearing the image of a snarling bald eagle above the slogan “Ill-Eagles Fowl Up My Country!” The crowd warmed up for Simcox by listening to the Right Brothers, a country-rock duo billed as “the Sean Hannity show put to music.” One donned a black sombrero with gold tassels and dedicated a song called “The Illegals” to Chris Simcox. The not-so-catchy chorus: “Tell me why do we allow the illegals? After all they’re illegal. So why do we allow the illegals to keep on coming in?”
As the music faded, Simcox strolled on stage to raucous cheers. America’s top vigilante spoke slowly and with a hint of condescension–almost as if addressing a room full of 5-year-olds. “When you put people in lawn chairs on the border an amazing thing happens,” Simcox said. “No one comes across!” As he spoke, giant screens behind him displayed ghostly night-vision images of immigrants marching through the desert, water jugs piled beneath a mesquite tree and the decomposing corpses of desert-crossers.
Five years ago Simcox was a failed actor, living in Los Angeles, running a private tutoring business. He appeared to suffer a mental breakdown in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, refusing to communicate with anyone unless they first recited the preamble to the US Constitution and leaving a series of bizarre messages on his ex-wife’s answering machine about stockpiling weapons. “I’m going on a great adventure,” Simcox told his son three weeks after the attacks.
Simcox’s great adventure led him to Tombstone, Arizona, where he landed a part in a gunfight show and purchased the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a local paper he recast as a weekly anti-immigration screed. In 2002 he founded the Tombstone Militia, described in his paper as “a committee of vigilantes,” which consisted of Simcox and a handful of gun-toting locals. While on patrol in January 2003, Simcox was arrested for illegally carrying a firearm in a national park along the border. Also in his possession were a police scanner and a toy figure of Wyatt Earp riding a horse.
Simcox leapt from local notoriety to national prominence in April 2005, when he teamed with Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant in Orange County, California, to launch the Minuteman Project. The cannonball media splash that followed attracted the attention of Diener Consultants. The Chicago-based political consulting and fundraising operation is run by Phillip Sheldon, son of Traditional Values Coalition founder Lou Sheldon, long one of the nation’s most vociferous antigay crusaders. Diener is one cog in Phillip Sheldon’s revenue-generating machine, which also includes Response Unlimited, a direct-mail firm promoted as “the nation’s best and most comprehensive source of mailing lists for conservative and Christian mailers and telemarketers”–and perhaps best known for ghoulishly purchasing a list of donors to Terri Schiavo’s legal fund from her parents several days before her death.
“The modus operandi with Sheldon’s operations is consistently the same,” writes David Neiwert, the investigator and author behind the leading radical-right watchdog blog, Orcinus. “He panders to far-right interests, obtains their membership lists, and then funnels them to other, mostly mainstream right-wing interests. His client list is a virtual Who’s Who of the American right, including the Republican National Committee.” Sheldon’s other business interests include Rightmarch.com PAC–promoted as the right-wing nemesis of MoveOn.org–which shares an address in Reston, Virginia, with the newly formed Minuteman CDC Political Action Committee.
With Simcox’s blessing, Diener quickly moved several employees into key administrative positions within the MCDC and began a slick media and fundraising campaign. Fundraising appeals became aggressive and frequent. A spiffed-up Simcox turned into a cable-news fixture, while full-color ads promoting MCDC and requesting donations began to appear in the conservative Washington Times.
The mailing lists Response Unlimited currently offers for sale include the former subscribers to The Spotlight, a now-defunct, virulently anti-Semitic magazine published by Holocaust denier Willis Carto. There is also, priced at $120 per thousand names, a list of 67,000 donors to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Among the thirty-five organizations that have rented the MCDC list so far are former “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore’s failed gubernatorial campaign in Alabama, a group called Stop Puerto Rico Statehood and Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance. “What this all means,” says Neiwert, “is that when someone contributes to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, their name and contact information is then given to a whole host of right-wing groups, depending on who’s buying.”
It also means that the formerly grassroots, boots-on-the-border MCDC is now entrenched in the neoconservative Republican establishment. The MCDC’s home page now identifies it as “a project of the Declaration Alliance,” founded in 1996 by Alan Keyes to oppose abortion and gay rights. The Alliance’s president is former Keyes staffer Mary Parker Lewis, also a former “confidential assistant” to William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and co-founder of the Project for the New American Century. Connie Hair, another former Keyes staffer, now handles MCDC’s media relations as well as those of Diener Consultants.
A growing cadre of hard-core Minuteman supporters are sounding the alarm over MCDC’s partnership with Sheldon. What most disturbs the true believers is the association with neoconservatives like Kristol–the very people anti-immigration extremists blame for covertly supporting illegal immigration as a source of cheap labor. “That a Minuteman Project leader has allowed a marketing group, headed by someone with such close ties to the neo-con movement…to take over and direct the Minuteman activity is troubling, at the very least,” wrote Pennsylvania Minutemen leader John Ryan in a widely distributed June 7 online statement. “I will have nothing to do with an organization that serves as a tool, unwittingly or not, of these globalist slave masters.”
Mike Gaddy, former leader of the New Mexico Minutemen, was one of the first in the movement to suspect Simcox of being a naked emperor. Gaddy, who worked side by side with Simcox during the original Minuteman Project in April 2005, says the intense media coverage flooded the offices of the Tombstone Tumbleweed with donations. Two months later, at a meeting of Minuteman leaders, Gaddy “brought up the question of how the monies were being accounted for,” he recalls. “That went over like asking Simcox was he still beating his wife. All of us were then told that the project had been turned over to the Diener group.” Gaddy quit in disgust, and many have followed suit.
Despite the discord, Diener continues to lift MCDC to new heights. By inundating the media with images of Simcox and his volunteers scouring the Sonora desert with binoculars, the consulting firm has made MCDC the premier brand on the suddenly lucrative anti-immigration market. Simcox now drives a shiny new SUV and has moved his operation from the dusty streets of Tombstone to far more upscale digs in Scottsdale. “I suspect that he signed on with the Diener marketing firm because they are moneymakers,” said Liz DeMarco, a former MCDC member and founder of the e-group Americans for Mass Deportation. “He has been, shall we say, handsomely reimbursed for various invoices submitted to Diener, and has an ‘expense account.’ I do not know if he has a salary, but suspect that he must.” (Both Simcox and officials at Diener Consultants declined to answer questions for this story.)
So far, those nagging questions about the sincerity of Simcox’s dedication to the cause–and how much he’s profiting from his formerly gritty movement–have done little to derail the momentum of the Minuteman phenomenon. But DeMarco and others believe that in their eagerness to capitalize on the wild popularity of armed citizen patrols, Simcox and Diener might have fatally overstepped with their latest fundraising effort. The critics are already calling it “Fencegate.”
With characteristic bravura, Chris Simcox chose an appearance on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes to launch his latest campaign–by issuing an ultimatum to President Bush. “Declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard and military reserves,” he commanded the President on April 19, 2006, “or by Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to break ground and we’re going to start helping landowners to build a double layer security fence along their properties.”
Fencegate was born. Although Bush did pledge 6,000 National Guard troops to the border on May 15, Simcox continued promoting his plan to turn miles of private land along the border into a North American version of the Gaza Strip. MCDC’s fundraising materials offer impressive diagrams of an “Israeli-style security fence,” depicting a six-foot trench and coils of concertina wire backed by a fifteen-foot steel mesh fence. On the other side of the fence, donors are promised, there will be a “60- to 70-foot” graded road, then another fifteen-foot fence and more concertina wire. Video cameras, the fundraising materials claim, will also be installed, for monitoring purposes.
The concept was such a hit among Minuteman supporters that by May 9, spokeswoman Connie Hair was already reporting $175,000 in donations. On May 27 Simcox presided over a groundbreaking ceremony on a private ranch near Palominas. One hundred and fifty volunteers poured cement and set posts for news cameras, cheered on by Don Goldwater, the Republican anti-immigration hardliner who’s challenging Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano in November, and Iowa Republican Steve King, one of the fiercest nativists in Congress. Keyes solemnly addressed the crowd from beneath the brim of a large black cowboy hat. “What we’re doing here is not just building a fence,” Keyes opined. “We are rebuilding a character. We are redefining a people.”
The next day, MCDC announced that fence contributions had jumped to $380,000 in a little more than a month’s time. Buoyed by the response, Simcox recently announced his ultimate fundraising goal for a “70-mile Minuteman border fence” in Arizona: $55 million.
Thus far, the pace of fundraising is far outstripping the pace of wall-building. By late July the project had managed to erect a few miles of barbed wire attached to metal posts. One former Minuteman volunteer said the fence wouldn’t stop a tricycle. Not surprisingly, whispers of dissent within the MCDC are growing louder. “Chris Simcox is collecting massive amounts of money and not routing it out to the Minuteman projects,” says Carl Smith, co-founder of the Texas Minutemen. “Volunteers on the border aren’t seeing the benefit of donations. Our only question is, Why are folks that mean well and want to contribute still sending money–lots of money–to Chris Simcox when there have been many indications of improper distribution of donations submitted to MCDC? Improper as in, they get as far as Chris Simcox and promptly vanish.”
Gauging the validity of these money-pocketing charges is virtually impossible, because MCDC is not registered as a non-profit organization and thus not under the usual requirements of transparency and accountability. Last month Simcox told the Washington Times that MCDC had hired an outside auditor who would deliver a public report by November 15.
Unless he is sidelined by scandal, or Fencegate turns into a high-profile fiasco that discredits him in the wider world of anti-immigration politics, Simcox will no doubt continue to step up the tempo of his symbiotic dance with mainstream conservatives and the anti-immigration wing of the GOP. He’ll keep trading street cred for money, attention and political clout–and riding the current wave of nativist sentiment as far as it will carry him.
For all his newfound polish, Simcox hasn’t entirely lost his connection with the radical fringes of the movement he’s helped to mainstream. His old outlandishness still flashes forth on occasion, as it did on July 6 when Simcox addressed the Mississippi Leadership Forum, a conservative civic organization in Jackson. For a few earnest minutes Simcox strayed from his script and the wild-eyed, pistol-packing founder of the Tombstone Militia briefly resurfaced. “The [border] is controlled by Colombian, Mexican and Russian cartels,” he told the Mississippians. “These people are well armed and extremely well supplied. They have shoulder-fired rockets. But they will not come through the area that we patrol!”
Yet these days, what really fires up Simcox is something other than nativist paranoia. Delivering his spiel at Wild Bill’s on that Saturday night in June, Simcox looked and sounded almost bored by his own message–until he started extemporizing about Arizona Senator John McCain, that is, and how McCain’s immigration reform plan amounts to a “shamnesty.”
“We need to keep that man away from the White House!” Simcox boomed. The Georgia Republicans cheered and hooted. And when Simcox got carried away enough to declare, “I may just run for his seat in the Senate,” their adulation became a roar.