Former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio has announced he intends to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake. Public and private polling suggest Arpaio would be competitive against Arizona Rep. Martha McSally and former state Sen. Kelli Ward in the Republican primary. But GOP primary voters should be wary of choosing Arpaio, if they have learned anything from Roy Moore’s embarrassing loss in the Alabama Senate campaign.
Like Moore, Arpaio is an underperformer. “America’s toughest sheriff” lost his last campaign in Maricopa County by nearly 10 percent, even as Donald Trump won the state by 3.5 percent. Arpaio managed only 531,674 votes, while Trump racked up 747,361 in the same county.
And like Moore, Arpaio has little respect for the law. Trump recently pardoned Arpaio after he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court. Arpaio had engaged in racially discriminatory immigration sweeps in which he was detaining Latinos without reasonable belief they were in this country illegally, and without the legal authority to police such civil status violations.
Arpaio certainly has fans who believe he was just stepping up to do the job the Obama administration refused to do. But there are at least two problems with this defense.
First, President Obama used a similar justification to pursue immigration policies Congress refused to enact. Officials cannot act outside their authority simply because they think there is a power vacuum. It seems unlikely that Arpaio’s supporters think it would be justified for a liberal sheriff to claim the powers of the EPA or the IRS because Democrats thought the Trump administration was not doing enough. Second, during the years when the Obama administration authorized Arpaio to enforce immigration law, he was bad at it, and it made him a worse sheriff overall.
Violent Crime Soared While Arpaio Swept
Clint Bolick, now an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, and formerly with conservative legal powerhouses like the Landmark Center for Civil Rights and the Institute for Justice, issued a report for the Goldwater Institute in 2008 on Arpaio’s record.
The report found that Arpaio’s high-profile immigration sweeps were less effective than other tactics in identifying illegal immigrants. Maricopa County identified approximately 16,000 illegal immigrants simply by checking the immigration status of its ordinary arrestees, as opposed to only 200 who were arrested in the sweeps.
Meanwhile, Arpaio’s allocation of resources to immigration enforcement coincided with soaring violent crime rates, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions in Arizona. Under Arpaio, the Maricopa Country Sheriff’s Office excessively claimed that cases were “exceptionally” cleared; in 2006, the number of exceptions were three times the number of cases closed by an arrest. From 2005-07, more than 400 sex crimes were inadequately investigated (or not investigated), many involving child molestation. Ironically, many were children of illegal immigrants.
Bolick’s report also found that as Arpaio obsessed over immigration, overall arrest rates plunged, response times to citizens’ calls for help lagged, and service on outstanding warrants for other cases became backlogged. Crime rates in the areas of the immigration sweeps were largely unchanged.
Furthermore, the financial strain created by Arpaio’s immigration efforts resulted in the closure of three satellite booking facilities, requiring suspects all across the county to be booked in Phoenix. The closures potentially added hours to the booking time for those arrested outside the city. The result was an increase in suspects merely being cited for an offense and released; if such suspects failed to appear in court, a warrant would be issued (and likely go unserved).
This was Arpaio’s record before he decided to become a vigilante, the course of action that ultimately led to his conviction for criminal contempt of court.
Arpaio Was an Expert on Political Persecution
Arpaio tends to dismiss his conviction as the product of a politically-motivated prosecution. Like Moore, Arpaio seems to have adopted the progressive tactic of claiming victim status for political benefit.
In reality, federal district court Judge G. Murray Snow, a Bush appointee, requested that the Justice Department investigate the case after finding a mountain of evidence that Arpaio and other defendants not only ignored his orders barring the unauthorized and discriminatory immigration sweeps, but also engaged in elaborate schemes to cover up their illegal activity. In context, the prosecutors understood the import of the judge’s referral completely.
Moreover, if anyone knows about trying to use law enforcement power for political ends, it’s Arpaio, who once bragged to Fox News that his political popularity stemmed from his (illegal) immigration enforcement policies. He also bragged of the millions of dollars in political donations he received as a result.
While Arpaio raked in the bucks, the taxpayers often found themselves on the hook for his abuses. For example, in 2013, Maricopa County agreed to pay a former county supervisor $3.5 million to drop his case accusing Arpaio and others of pursuing spurious criminal cases against him.
The County also paid a $3.75 million settlement to executives of the Phoenix New Times. These journalists sued Arpaio’s office after they were arrested in 2007 for reporting on a subpoena demanding the internet addresses and domain names of people who had visited the newspaper’s website.
Furthermore, as the law began to close in around him, Arpaio testified under oath that his attorneys had hired a private investigator to target Judge Snow’s wife and the Department of Justice.
The tens of millions in settlement payments for the racial profiling, persecution of political enemies, and suspicious jail deaths under Arpaio’s tenure were a significant factor in his loss of the sheriff’s office to a Democrat in 2016.
Don’t Call it a Comeback … Yet
Nevertheless, it appears that Arpaio is poised to benefit from the same sort of political dysfunction that made Roy Moore the GOP nominee for the Senate in 2017.
In a three-way race with an establishment-favored candidate trying to appeal to Trump voters (McSally) and an anti-establishment candidate hobbled by the endorsement of the newly-unpersoned Steve Bannon (Ward), it is conceivable that Arpaio could win the nomination as a cult favorite and lose the general election in a state that’s trending less red than Alabama.
Arizona Republicans may have to ask themselves whether nominating an octogenarian who thinks illegal immigrants are a bigger priority than murderers and rapists, and who has a track record of abusing his power is worth possibly losing another Senate seat in a year when the electoral map greatly favors the GOP. The liberal tears that would surely follow an Arpaio nomination would be tasty, but would they really be worth it?