As longtime head of the Minneapolis police union, John Delmonico has gained a reputation as an often combative defender of police, even ones who have done wrong. He has taken on police chiefs, mayors and gubernatorial candidates — and nearly lost his job over it.

Delmonico now finds himself at the center of a new controversy gaining national attention in which some law enforcement officials accused Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges of flashing a gang sign in a picture with a black canvasser who had a criminal past. In a KSTP-TV news story, Delmonico said that Hodges has to decide whether she supports gangs in the city or the police.

“He doesn’t have to kowtow to anybody,” former City Council Member Walt Dziedzic said. “He kowtows to his membership.”

The mayor’s spokeswoman and the man in the photo, Navell Gordon, have said they were merely pointing at each other, touching off a social media firestorm known as #pointergate. A growing number of critics say the story smacks of racism and on Wednesday it was featured on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

Those who know and have worked with Delmonico are not surprised he finds himself at the center of another City Hall controversy. They say his strained relationship with the mayor stretches back to her days on the City Council when they clashed over union pension benefits.

The rift became even more evident recently, when Hodges sent an open letter to residents saying that the police department had some officers who “abuse the trust” of the public, which could lead to a “downward spiral.”

Hodges made her first public comments on the incident in a blog post Thursday. She said Delmonico’s real motivation seemed to be to discredit her work to raise the standards of police culture and accountability. But he failed.

Besides the public flogging on social media, “I am undaunted in my commitment to making sure that police-community relationships are as strong as they can be,” Hodges wrote. And she’s undaunted “in my plans to increase accountability for consistent bad actors in the police department.”

Not one to back down

Delmonico, 57, declined to be interviewed for this report, but his defenders insisted he was just voicing what other police officers were thinking when they saw the photo.

“Most people are saying to Delmonico, ‘Good job for pointing that out,’ ” Dziedzic said. “I’m glad that somebody isn’t afraid to say that crime is running wild in Minneapolis.”

Police first elected Delmonico union president in 1999. He immediately took to the role of a fearless defender of the city’s rank-and-file officers.

Even before that, Delmonico was not one to back down from a political dogfight.

Shortly after making sergeant, he defiantly appeared in uniform in a TV ad for then gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch, in which he impugned the record of Hatch’s primary opponent, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza.

Delmonico soon found himself the target of an internal investigation, since officers were strictly prohibited from making political endorsements while in uniform. It was only after Dziedzic, himself a former cop, stepped in that Delmonico’s job was saved.

Lately, Delmonico has clashed with the new chief, Janeé Harteau.

Early in her tenure as chief, he strongly opposed her plan to use state law enforcement to investigate incidents when police seriously hurt or kill someone.

When Harteau ordered an independent investigation on the arrest of community activist Al Flowers earlier this year, Delmonico wrote to members calling the decision “illogical and fundamentally flawed.”

Former union head Al Berryman, who has retired to Montana, said he has concluded his hand-picked successor has run out of ideas for the job and is reverting to old tactics.

“I think he’s stayed there now for way too long, with no idea of anything new to get things done,” Berryman said. “I think it’s time he steps down and lets somebody younger run it.”

‘An adversary I respected’

Delmonico, who joined the force in 1988, fits the classic mold of a hard-nosed labor negotiator.

Growing up in northeast Minneapolis, where his parents owned a popular Italian grocery store, he waited until well into his 40s to get his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, from Metropolitan State University. He later returned there to teach, after earning a master’s degree from Concordia University in St. Paul.

He made sergeant in 1994, working out of the juvenile and robbery divisions, and in 2007 he was promoted to lieutenant. He makes about $29,000 a year in his role as union leader, according to the union’s 2012 tax records.

Dziedzic and other supporters said Delmonico could be counted on to “go to bat for cops. Sometimes whether they’re guilty or innocent.”

One notable exception came last year when he decided against intervening in a high-profile case involving several off-duty officers who were fired for using racial slurs and berating local police in Green Bay.

“I’m glad that cameras were in Green Bay because video and audio don’t lie,” he said in a 2013 TV interview, referring to surveillance footage that captured the altercation.

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback said Delmonico’s role makes him a politician similar to the mayor or a council member. Delmonico backed Rybak when he first ran for mayor in 2001, but their relationship soured shortly after Rybak reached office.

Former Police Chief Tim Dolan said he frequently clashed with Delmonico.

“He wasn’t always nice to me publicly, but I think that very much was part of his job,” said Dolan, who has known Delmonico since their hockey-playing days at DeLaSalle High School. “I basically would look at him as an adversary, but an adversary that I respected.”