Late August 2017 was supposed to be a festive time for Joe Arpaio. The former sheriff of Maricopa had just received Donald Trump’s first pardon after the president after being found guilty of criminal contempt of court.
The pardon meant Arpaio was spared a criminal conviction for a federal offense that could have included up to six months in prison. At a family dinner at a local restaurant the night he received it, he was barely able to touch his tongue with mussels and squid ̵
But Trump’s pardon could not redeem the political brand of Arpaio, then 85, once known as “America’s toughest sheriff,” nor would it help the president’s own long-term popularity in Arizona. Arizona voters quickly changed. The state’s extreme immigration laws and Arpaio’s enforcement style – which in both cases federal courts had found some aspects unconstitutional – had inspired an energetic, grassroots resistance movement that reshaped state policy.
Instead of having his reputation re-established with the Trump pardon, Arpaio was met with a violent setback. “I have two new titles now,” Arpaio told us weeks after he was pardoned. ” The disgraced sheriff, ‘is everywhere,’ disgraced sheriff. ‘ And the other is ‘racist’. … I lost my ‘America’s Hardest Sheriff’ title. ”
Elected as sheriff in Maricopa county – which includes Phoenix and Arizona’s most populous counties – in 1992, Arpaio was once one of the state’s most popular politicians.
He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Ciro Arpaio, an Italian citizen, immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, a time when many Americans viewed Italian immigrants as criminally prone, disease-spreading, job-stealing, shifting, severely skinned intruders.
As a child, Arpaio said, he accepted the immigrant taunts and pretended to ignore them. That was what you did then, he said.
The immigrant’s son grew up to be an unapologetic immigration enforcer, delivering the harsh policies that a growing base of Republican voters in Arizona supported. His deputies helped turn tens of thousands of immigrants over to Ice for deportation. They gathered day laborers, raided businesses to break unauthorized immigrant workers working on fake papers, and swarmed neighborhoods where they arrested undocumented drivers and passengers found after stopping cars for minor traffic violations.
His tactics had helped create a climate of vitriol against Mexican immigrants in Maricopa County, not unlike the anti-immigrant hatred he had experienced firsthand. Arpaio launched an immigration hotline in 2007 “for citizens to report illegal aliens.” The sheriff’s office records show that the movement triggered a stream of tips.
County residents wanted Arpaio to examine their immigrant neighbors and check out a local McDonald’s where staff suspiciously spoke Spanish. An anonymous hotline caller expressed a desire to “shoot” a Mexican-born activist who was one of Arpaio’s vocal critics, “if I could get away with it.”
Arizona’s bitter immigration wars and Arpaio’s role in them helped his political brand – for a time. He had been re-elected for a fifth term, his last, in 2012, when he was 80. But his immigration position led to his political downfall the following election cycle.
By 2016, a Latino-led grassroots movement that had spent the previous decade protesting the sheriff’s immigration enforcement tactics, gathering evidence of lawsuits, empowering immigrant communities to know their rights and registering new voters, had focused their energy on their biggest election mobilization drive yet. Young people who had come of age for fear of Arpaio’s deputies could deport their immigrant family members, had become eligible to vote, and registered others.
At the same time, moderate Republicans, annoyed by Arpaio’s growing attorneys’ fees and controversy, had supported his Democratic challenger. Even when Maricopa county voters helped Trump win the presidency, they rejected their longtime sheriff.
Meanwhile, Arpaio faced legal setbacks. Over the years, Arpaio had ignored a federal judge’s order preventing his law enforcement agency from detaining undocumented immigrants who had not been suspected or charged with crimes – and handed them over for deportation.
In 2016, the Obama administration’s Justice Department had announced plans to prosecute Arpaio for criminal contempt of court.
Trump’s pardon in 2017 provided relief and hope for a political rebirth. “He is loved in Arizona,” Trump told reporters of Arpaio days after the pardon. “Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was treated very unfairly by the Obama administration, especially just before an election – an election he would have won. ”
It did not take long, however, before legal scholars, newspaper editorial boards, and historians reprimanded the reprimand and stamped the pardon for abuse of power, an unmanageable offense, unconstitutional, a dog move to white supremacy in Trump’s base, cronyism, or any other combination of these.
“Trump’s pardon raises Arpaio once again to the pantheon for those who see institutional racism as something that made America great,” reads an editorial in the Arizona Republic.
The same piece called a federal judge’s guilty verdict against Arpaio “a dose of hard-won justice for an overly flamboyant sheriff who showed little respect for the constitution when he came up with national news as an immigration hardliner – and let real crimes go unexplored.”
News outlets visited several years of negative coverage about Arpaio, including a federal lawsuit filed a decade earlier in which Latino motorists in Maricopa County had shown that Arpaio’s immigration tactics had violated their civil rights and resulted in racial profiling.
In September 2017, it seemed that the controversy had left Arpaio surprised, angry and confused.
“I’m not a racist,” he told us. “You know it. Everyone knows it.”
When Arpaio now checked his email, he said, he found a message calling him “Sicko. Sadist. Distressed malicious criminal, ”and expressed cruel, violent desires. Another letter used anti-Italian nonsense to speak to him as a “Fat, Greaseball Dago Piece of Shit” and referred to the author’s desire to one day “piss on your WOP grave”.
In January 2018, Arpaio announced he would run for an open U.S. Senate seat this year. But he had lost his once loyal Republican base. He came in third out of three candidates in the GOP primary.
Although Arpaio was excluded from the 2018 election, his legacy continued to galvanize activists and voters. From 2014 to 2018, voter turnout in Arizona jumped from 32% to 49%. Over the course of the four years, a few Latino activists who had organized against Arpaio and Arizona’s wave of extreme immigration laws won seats as Democrats in Arizona State House and beat away from the Republican majority. The Latino vote helped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeat Republican Martha McSally for the Senate seat Arpaio had wanted.
Some of the organizers on the ground credited the sharp rise in Latino turnout in part for voters seeing Arpaio’s defeat two years earlier.
Alejandra Gomez, a Mexican-American activist with Living United for Change in Arizona who helped mobilize voters in 2016 and 2018, said seeing Arpaio lose and a voting initiative to raise the minimum wage pass had helped convince some first-time voters of the following election cycle that voting can make a difference.
“Every step in the way we have said we will fight for our society. At that time – we actually delivered, “Gomez said.
The same momentum that Gomez predicted at the time would spread over to the next presidential cycle in 2020.
“We demonstrated that it is possible to defeat someone like Arpaio, so it is also possible to defeat someone like Trump,” she said.
Yet Arpaio’s political ambitions were not over. In 2020, he ran for his old job as sheriff in the Republican election. He crossed the county in a campaign bus plastered with a photo of him with Trump and the slogan “Make Maricopa County safe again.” The race was close, but again he lost.
Meanwhile, the grassroots organizers, who had learned how to inspire voters in their fight against Arpaio, channeled their energy to mobilize voters of color.
Arizona voters by a narrow margin elected only a second time since 1952 a Democrat as president and helped cement Joe Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat. Democrat Mark Kelly won his race for a U.S. Senate seat.
Maria Castro, a 27-year-old Mexican-American activist who first began registering new Latino voters in Maricopa County as a high schooler in 2011, noted that the people whose doors she knocked on in 2020 were unusually eager to vote.
“This time, people were like, ‘Yeah, we’m ready to get rid of Trump,’ ‘Castro told us. “I think Arpaio’s defeat made it tangible that we can defeat villains who haunt our dreams.”
Arpaio, now 88, may have lost his last three races, but he hopes the same does not apply to the man he calls his hero, Trump. “I got the beat, just got around and ran again,” Arpaio told us. “So I want to see him run again.”
Jude Joffe-Block and Terry Greene Sterling are the authors of DRIVING WHILE BROWN: Sheriff Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance, a new book that tells the story of Arpaio’s rise and fall as sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county and the determined Latino opposition that fought his constitutional policing. Driving While Brown is published by the University of California Press and is available on April 20th.