WASHINGTON — Joe Arpaio would like you to know that Joe Arpaio is not going away.
The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who gained national notoriety for his tough anti-immigration policies and as an early endorser of Donald Trump, lost his election on the same day that Trump won his. That defeat was followed by a guilty verdict on contempt-of-court charges, the culmination of a lengthy investigation by the Obama administration into unconstitutional practices by Arpaio and his deputies.
Arpaio was pardoned by Trump in 2017 and last year mounted a run for the U.S. Senate. That faltered badly, thus providing what Michelle Cottle of the New York Times called “a fitting end to the public life of a truly sadistic man.”
Well, not exactly.
Arpaio recently said he intends to again seek the office he held for 24 years, hoping to wrest it from the man who defeated him, Paul Penzone. “I plan on winning,” Arpaio told Yahoo News in a recent phone conversation. “I am going to win."
That is precisely what some in Arizona fear. “Joe Arpaio's decision to run for sheriff is a disaster for Republicans,” wrote an Arizona Republic columnist. Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, gave money to Penzone, a Democrat.
None of this deters Arpaio. “There's a lot of unfinished work to get done,” he said, though it is not clear how Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer, has failed to keep Maricopans safe. Some toughness must be missing. And toughness is what Arpaio always wanted to project, as when he called his Tent City jail a “concentration camp.” It was a point of pride.
Arpaio, at least, is confident he’ll win. “I'm not saying it’s in the bag,” the former sheriff said, speaking with the assurance of a frontrunner, a six-time incumbent, a presidential kingmaker. He knows what people say about him — he makes too many denunciations of the media not to.
“I’m not going back to be vindictive,” Arpaio said. He has punished enemies before. Maybe age has mellowed him. Probably it has not.
Arpaio is now 87 years old, making Trump, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — average age of nearly 76 — look like young men. And though his voice has grown shaky, it is still full of the same guile and disputation that made him a hero to the right and a villain to much of the rest of the country.
Arpaio says he has a secret: “I drink Italian olive oil,” declared the son of Italian immigrants, who was raised in Massachusetts. The more you talk to Arpaio, the more you hear the locutions of Six Corners, the neighborhood in Springfield, Mass., where he grew up. It is also home to Mulberry Street, made famous by Dr. Seuss.
But there isn’t much Seussian whimsy to Arpaio’s worldview. Things are grim in his world, the “American carnage” envisioned by Trump in his inaugural address long underway. His are the worries and fears of the Northeastern white working class, grafted onto the stark borderland landscape of Arizona.
He and Trump were both born on June 14, as Arpaio proudly points out. “President Trump is my hero,” he says, “and I am not ashamed to say it.”
Even before Trump was elected, Arpaio demonstrated that immigration policies that seemed excessively harsh to many — like his infamous tent cities, where detainees baked in relentless heat, as well as immigration raids — would play well to what he calls a “silent majority” of voters supposedly uneasy with the nation’s all-too-open borders.
“What Mr. Trump envisions, Sheriff Arpaio embodies,” the New York Times editorial board wrote a month before the 2016 election.
The two also shared a singular obsession, their Moby-Dick a presumably faked birth certificate that showed Barack Obama to be a product of some nation other than the United States. Arpaio had been an early supporter of Trump’s “birtherism” conspiracy theory, going so far as to send Maricopa County officials to Hawaii in 2012 to “investigate” the matter.
Trump dropped the issue, however reluctantly, during the presidential campaign. Arpaio did not, and has not to this day.
“Why don’t you come down and look at all the evidence I have?” he said, hinting at some trove that not even Alex Jones has managed to unearth. “Let’s see the real birth certificate.”
Obama did produce his real birth certificate, many years ago, but that seems beside the point.
“I’m not a conspiracy guy. I’m not stupid,” Arpaio said with a somewhat touching hint of self-awareness. He then launched into an explanation about how he is a victim of the Clinton political machine, an explanation that includes the dossier of compromising Trump information compiled by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and the law firm Perkins Coie, which paid for part of Steele’s work.
“You begin to wonder about corruption and swamps,” Arpaio said, explaining that he is a victim of Perkins Coie too. And also of George Soros, whom he accuses of funding Penzone’s campaign. In fact, Soros gave Penzone $2 million, but Arpaio neglects to mention that he had $12 million at the time, or that Penzone beat him by 10 points. This was no thinnest-of-margins loss that could have credibly kept Arpaio thinking Maricopa County longed for his return.
In case that was at all ambiguous, he finished last in 2018’s three-person Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
And yet Trump and Arpaio recently met at a hotel in Phoenix, and though Arpaio wouldn’t say what the meeting was about, he announced his desire to run for Maricopa sheriff once more shortly after that meeting. The White House would not say whether Trump will endorse him.
As for Arpaio, he remains a true believer, his faith unshaken by anything that has transpired over the last two years. “That wall should be up there to the moon,” he said of Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. At the same time, he seems to show some hesitation about Trump’s policy of separating children from their families. “It’s sad to separate families,” he conceded. The concession is small, but significant coming from the self-proclaimed America’s toughest sheriff. Not that he blames Trump for those images of children in cages. “Why isn’t Congress doing something?” he wondered.
And lest you call him a racist, Arpaio wants you to know that he has “grandkids with certain racial backgrounds, OK?” He means that they are Hispanic. And even Arpaio, the man who put prisoners in pink underwear, longs for a time of greater civility. “I got more done with blueberry pie and whiskey than with the big stick,” he said of working with Mexican authorities in the 1970s.
But in this age of deep political division, of accusation and recrimination, no amount of whiskey is going to convince Arpaio’s opponents that he has anything but malicious motives. But he is not done yet, drinking his olive oil, yearning to return to the desert, where he could once do as he pleased.
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