Is Joe Arpaio the Next Roy Moore?
PHOENIX—“Somebody wants me out of the race,” Joe Arpaio said. He was in the lobby of the Church for the Nations, a sprawling 13-acre campus where several hundred Republicans—from precinct captains all the way up to Governor Doug Ducey—gathered last weekend for Arizona’s annual party convention. Outside, candidates blanketed tables with campaign literature. Inside, Arpaio was in a sour mood.
During a 24-year career that not long ago seemed to be over, Arpaio was the tough guy Sheriff of Maricopa County. He dressed his inmates in pink underwear and housed them in outdoor barracks known as Tent City. He became the face of the anti-immigration movement, gaining national prominence (“America’s Worst Sheriff,” in the headline of a New York Times editorial) for workplace raids that thrilled conservative activists and enraged civil rights attorneys. Then Arpaio lost his reelection bid for sheriff in 2016. Last year, he was convicted of criminal contempt of court for not complying with a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos during raids and traffic stops.
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Arpaio, who is 85, never served his jail time. Instead he was pardoned by President Donald Trump, with whom he has developed a mutual adoration society. On Twitter, the president called Arpaido “an American patriot” who “kept Arizona safe!” It looked like a sendoff at the end of an illustrious if divisive political career. “I told my wife I was done with politics,” Arpaio told me.
Then, just a few weeks ago, Arpaio announced he would run for Jeff Flake’s open Senate seat, much to the chagrin of some members of his own party. Plenty of Arizona Republicans—operatives, activists and state party officials—fear a past-his-prime Arpaio will alienate Democrats and independents and moderate Republicans, even if he loses the primary. Already this month, he’s discussed his Senate bid with an anti-Semitic outlet founded by a Holocaust denier, and stoked a discredited conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate on CNN. When he was sheriff, he referred to his jail as a “concentration camp,” and through the years his office paid out tens of millions of dollars in wrongful death settlements, including for inmates who were strapped to restraint chairs and brutalized by guards.
“It’s a stain on the party,” said Tyler Montague, a Mesa banker who heads the Public Integrity Alliance, a 501(c)(4) that mostly backs Republican candidates. “It brings the whole party down to clownville.” Should Arpaio manage to win the primary, these same party activists suspect he would get crushed in November.
Paul Marchant, a local party chairman, is one of these Republicans. The week before the state convention, he helped circulate a resolution that called on Arpaio to withdraw from the race.
“This is the guy,” an Arpaio supporter in the Church for the Nations lobby informed the ex-sheriff, who now stood face to face with Marchant, a middle-aged man with a salt and pepper goatee.
“You?!” Arpaio looked at Marchant. “You want me to retire?”
“Yes!” Marchant said. “We have two great candidates," a reference to Kelli Ward, a Tea Party favorite, and Martha McSally, a member of Congress and Mitch McConnell’s preferred candidate.
Arpaio looked wounded. “Age discrimination,” he said.
“We love you, Joe,” Marchant said. “I walked streets for you.”
“You made it look like the GOP is after me!” Arpaio bellowed.
“Someone should have told Brett Favre to retire,” Marchant pleaded by way of sports analogy. And then he asked the question that’s been hanging over Arpaio since the day he announced. “Why run, sheriff?”
What, exactly, is Arpaio is doing in this race? And who—aside from Arpaio himself—wants him in Washington? Some wonder if he’s searching for vindication after his conviction, or if he just needs a way to sate his ego. “If someone would just give him a radio show, he never would have run,” one Arizona Republican operative told me.
Marchant never brought his resolution to the convention floor, which he fervently tried to explain to Arpaio and his supporters. After some heated words in the church lobby—“You’re a disgrace,” one Arpaio backer said to him—Marchant huffed back inside the sanctuary, worrying that he helped Arpaio’s campaign more than he hurt it. “You’re going to fundraise millions off this,” he shouted.
“I’ve got my supporters—not the politicians, but the people,” Arpaio told me last week as he sat in his office, which is next to a nail salon in a suburban strip mall. “I’ve seen the way they go after the president—just like they did to me—and I’m going to Washington to support him.” Behind his desk stood two bobble heads, side by side—one of Arpaio and one of Trump. A gallery of framed photographs on the wall nearby included several photographs of Arpaio and the president. The inscription on one from Trump: “I Love You Joe.”
Below that photograph is the framed pardon, and next to it was a shot of Arpaio speaking to the 2016 Republican National Convention. He wasn’t scheduled to deliver remarks from the stage, but after a meeting in Trump’s suite, the nominee insisted that Arpaio address the crowd. “I didn’t follow the script they gave me,” Arpaio says. (The caption printed and placed below the photograph mislabels the event as the “RMC.”)
McSally and Ward have campaigned as devout Trump supporters, too, and both have much longer careers ahead of them. Arpaio would be the oldest elected freshman senator in history. He would be 92 at the end of his first term. (Even so, he is only a year older than Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat running for reelection this fall).
Beyond his age, Arpaio lost his Maricopa County sheriff’s race in 2016 by double digits to a Democrat, in a Republican stronghold that accounts for around 60 percent of the votes cast in the state. And yet one recent poll put Arpaio neck and neck with McSally, and ahead of Ward. He has national fundraising prowess, off-the-charts name recognition and an innate understanding of the Republican base. He’s tight with Trump. His campaign message—I’m a martyr of the Obama administration’s Justice Department—threatens to resonate deeply with Republican primary voters. If the White House continues discussing amnesty for Dreamers, “the right will look for rallying points,” a source familiar with Donald Trump’s thinking told me. “And one will be Sheriff Joe.”
The hope inside the McSally campaign and among her establishment backers is that Arpaio paves the way for her to win in the August primary by splitting the Tea Party vote with Ward. Be careful what you wish for, Marchant suggested. “There are McSally people cheering this on, but it’s dangerous,” Marchant said. “There’s a real sense he could win the primary and ‘Roy Moore’ us.”
That could make Arpaio’s Senate run a painfully selfish decision at a time when demographic changes in Arizona have made the state increasingly competitive. But just like the coda of Favre’s career suggests—he took the Minnesota Vikings to the brink of a Super Bowl only to blow it with a foolish interception—there is no graceful way to push out a legend.
Ask Arpaio why he wants to run for the United States Senate, and he touts his 60 years of law enforcement experience. He was a beat cop in Washington, D.C., and he worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Turkey and Mexico City as well as the United States. Then came more than two decades as sheriff. “I’m a big law enforcement guy—on the border and fighting drug traffic,” he says. “I have the experience.”
Otherwise, Arpaio doesn’t demonstrate much interest in policy—trade or the deficit or health care—aside from the broad strokes of the Trump agenda. “I agree with him—keep the factories here, keep the jobs here,” he said. He told me he does not support citizenship for Dreamers, and he isn’t convinced the President does, either. “I want to see the blood signature,” he said. “He has a way of changing his opinion, right?” As for what he might say to appeal to Democrats, Arpaio told me he had an excellent record of fighting animal cruelty.
He has plenty to say about his conviction. He wanted a jury trial, he says, and didn’t get one. “No one even knows what a contempt of court charge is!” On his election defeat, he correctly notes that George Soros spent $2 million to beat him. Still, he says he feels no urge for vindication. “I don’t like to think about that word: legacy,” he told me. “My legacy is the day I die, they forget how to spell your name.”
Since losing the sheriff’s race, Arpaio has sent out pleas asking for donations to his legal defense fund to help pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills he accrued. Some wonder if the Senate campaign is just a vehicle to raise money for his debts. “Is he going to leverage somebody—‘give me money to get me out of the race?’—I don’t know,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican consultant who advised former Governor Jan Brewer. Arpaio laughed at the idea. “I hate to use the word stupid—but it’s stupid,” he said. “Everybody knows you can’t use campaign money to pay legal bills.” (He is correct; that would be against the law. But, as another local Republican operative noted to me, if the party establishment campaigns against him in the Senate race—or if he wins the nomination—Arpaio would have an easier time raising money directly for his legal fund. In March, Arpaio is scheduled to appear at a for-profit “Driving Liberals Crazy” rally in Nashville.)
Mostly, Arpaio likes to talk about Trump. He was lying in bed recently, he told me, when he awoke with an inspiring thought. His whole life he has never had a hero, but in Trump he found his first. The two men share a kind of hive mind, he says. When he welcomed Trump to Arizona in the summer of 2015 and introduced him in a speech, the campaign gave him no guidance about what to say. They wouldn’t need to. “He loved it,” Arpaio told me. “Without even talking about it, we feel the same way.”
Arpaio likes to brag that the two men share a birthday, and he credits Trump with calling his wife during the campaign while she battled cancer. They like the same music, too. “I was on the president’s plane and I told him my favorite song was ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra,” he said. “And at the inauguration, his dance with the first lady was ‘My Way.’ It’s a connection.”
The feeling is mutual, the source familiar with Trump’s thinking told me. “Trump has followed him for years,” the source said. “Like Lou Dobbs on economics, he’s got a special place in his heart for Sheriff Joe.” The source went on: “Trump’s default position is to send the illegal immigrants home, so Sheriff Joe speaks to him.” In November, Arpaio sought to cash in on his support for Trump by lobbying to be head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, despite the fact he was under federal investigation. He was rebuffed, but transition officials marveled at the brazenness of the request. (Arpaio says he never formally applied for the job.)
There are Arizona Republicans who lament Arpaio’s self-centeredness. He never groomed a successor in the sheriff’s office. Now a Democrat holds the job. And back in 2002, he appeared in a campaign ad for Janet Napolitano, who would later become the secretary of homeland security for President Obama, for governor before she eked out a close win. “It was pure ego,” Coughlin said. “He didn’t want another Republican to be eclipsing him.”
As for his age, Arpaio insisted he wouldn’t run away from it. He plans to tell voters that he won’t have to spend a minute raising money because he will serve only one term. (This is perhaps another reason the party machinery wouldn’t want him in office). But he still has what you might call senior moments. He repeatedly called McSally McNally, for example. And it’s hard to look around his office and not think about his age. He uses a flip phone. On his desk sits a typewriter that he uses to track his press mentions. His wife, Ava, Googles his name to find news articles, and then he types up lists of the outlets and the story topics.
He pulled a sheet of paper out of a desk drawer to show me. “It’s how I know who’s saying what,” he said. “I’ve got NPR, the Real Beast”—he meant the Daily Beast—“Washington Post.”
When I later suggested that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, would be an interesting opponent in the general election, he asked why. I mentioned that she had a liberal background and would be the first openly bisexual senator. “Bisexual? Is that when they like both?” Arpaio asked.
He shook his head and said, “She’s not more interesting than me.”
Barb Heller was the first Arpaio supporter at the party meeting. A little after 7 a.m. she laid out a “Sheriff Joe” banner on a folding table and set out clipboards with petitions. Arpaio needs to collect 6,000 signatures by the end of May to get on the ballot for the August primary. Heller has spent the past few weeks repurposing signs from Arpaio’s run for sheriff, using a stencil to paint “U.S. Senate” over the word “Sheriff.” She told me, “I can’t quite find the right red to match it.”
Heller wore a silver necklace with a decorative pair of handcuffs dangling as a pendant. Years ago, she complained to Arpaio, she says, about illegal immigrants who jumped into her truck when she shopped at Home Depot. “He was the only one who listened,” she said. “Every time he gets into something controversial, it’s because we’re begging him. He takes heat because he goes after illegals, but he’s representing us. Jeff Flake doesn’t do that.”
Arpaio arrived by 8 a.m. When he appears on cable news, he can look stilted, but in person he is disarming and charming. Talking with a group of senior women, he asked one if she was a millennial. She blushed. “You’ve got her vote,” her husband said. When Arpaio posed with a black activist, she yelled, “This is proof he’s not prejudiced!” He later posed for a picture with Stephen Lemons, a former journalist with the Phoenix New Times who spent years haranguing Arpaio. Lemons feigned a boxing stance and Arpaio gave a thumbs-up. “Once I get in a room with my worst enemy, I’m pretty good,” Arpaio told me. “That’s a trait that Trump and I have.”
Arpaio is not the only candidate running toward Trump, whose approval rating among Republicans in Arizona is in the 70s. McSally, a former fighter pilot, used her campaign kickoff announcement to suggest, in very Trumpian terms, that the party needed to “grow a pair of ovaries.” Ward, who previously embraced (but has now renounced) the support of Steve Bannon, displayed a cardboard cutout of the president next to her table at Saturday’s meeting.
Ward’s polling numbers pushed Flake from the race last year, and she boasts endorsements from many in the pro-Trump crowd, like conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, and Reps. Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher. But Arpaio immediately began siphoning away her support. In a brief interview, Ward peppered her speech with words like fresh and able—an unsubtle jab at Arpaio’s age. Of the president, she told me, “He needs conservative reinforcements to be able to do the job, not people who are pretending to actually be him.”
With Arpaio and Ward splitting the Tea Party vote right now, McSally has emerged as the race’s favorite. A recent poll of likely voters has McSally at 31 percent, followed by Arpaio at 22, and Ward at 19. “It’s the silver lining,” Montague, the Public Integrity Alliance president, told me. “Maybe, in the end, Arpaio actually helps get the party’s most viable candidate to the general.” Still, a theoretical Trump endorsement catapulted Arpaio to 35 percent in the same poll, though Arpaio doesn’t see a presidential endorsement coming. “I think it’s smart for him to wait it out,” he says.
McSally still has to beat Arpaio and his well-regarded political operation, which several Arizona operatives told me posed a bigger threat than Ward’s. And she must do it without veering so far to the right that it costs her in November. At the convention, she roused the crowd with a fiery speech that included a story about persuading Trump to invest in A-10 Warthog fighter jets. But she has holes in both her conservative and Trump-loyalist résumés: She has only a 43 percent Liberty score from Mark Levin’s Conservative Review, and she called Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape “disgusting” in a tweet that ended, “Joking about sexual assault is unacceptable. I’m appalled.”
Arpaio’s campaign has a chance to be the one that best embodies the mood of Trump’s Republican Party. He raised nearly $10 million for his last two Sheriff’s races, and he will fundraise nationally again. “Arpaio can bleed that victim card into the Russia stuff and everything going on with the president,” Coughlin said. “There’s no virtue in it, but it rings the cash register. They can play to the very base of the Republican Party that is angry about everything and the Deep State taking their rights away. And that makes it harder for the other candidates to gain traction.”
There is one unspoken variable in the race: the health of Senator John McCain. If he were to leave the Senate because of his battle with brain cancer before May 30, his departure would likely set off a special election this year, creating two open Senate seats in Arizona—or “an absolute mosh pit,” according to one Republican I spoke to. Governor Ducey would appoint McCain’s replacement, and what I gathered in off the record scuttlebutt is that McSally probably wouldn’t be the choice, to prevent a primary between only Ward and Arpaio. Ducey could select a prominent businessman, or former Sen. Jon Kyl, or even himself. Although a candidate who was deemed too moderate would surely be challenged by conservatives in the other Senate primary.
By the end of the convention, Arpaio alternated between reveling in the photos he posed for with supporters and consternation that he wasn’t invited on stage to speak. Ward was asked to lead the pledge of allegiance. “I know the pledge, too,” Arpaio said.
Late that afternoon, a friend motioned for him to come inside the main sanctuary. Arpaio was ushered to the front row as a man dressed in a Minuteman costume approached the microphone. He thanked Arpaio for “his existence” and all he had done over his career. Maybe half the room stood and gave Arpaio a somewhat half-hearted ovation.
After it was over, Arpaio asked me whether I would be writing more about his race after this article. I told him I didn’t know.
“Call me during the campaign, OK?” he asked.
via POLITICO Magazine
February 2, 2018 at 03:19AM