There once was an era when he bestrode his domain in kingly fashion, soaking up the spotlight and meting out his brand of justice to those he deemed unworthy of constitutional protection. At the peak of his 24-year reign, the self-billed “toughest sheriff in America” operated with impunity in the immigrant neighborhoods of Maricopa County, Arizona, racially profiling its denizens; conducting random raids and traffic stops; consigning those he jailed to abhorrent conditions in his self-described “concentration camp,” forcing them to wear pink underwear, work on chain gangs, eat rotten food, and suffer inadequate medical attention; and when a federal judge ordered him to cease harassing people of color, he thumbed his nose.
At the peak of Joe Arpaio’s power—he won his first reelection unopposed in 1996; he won his second reelection in a landslide in 2000—he was Ozymandias, the “King of Kings” in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem who boasted, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But even the powerful are prone to the ravages of time, and so it was, last night, in the Senate Republican primary in Arizona, that the future caught up with Arpaio and consigned him to the kind of jail he dreaded most: irrelevance.
Surely there were many reasons why he was crushed in the three-way contest. Perhaps roughly 80 percent of the state’s Republican voters spurned him because of his age—86—or, more likely, perhaps they correctly perceived that he’d cost the GOP a Senate seat in November, losing badly in a face-off with the moderate Democratic candidate (and congresswoman) Kyrsten Sinema. Clearly they’d prefer not to lose an open Senate seat in Arizona for the first time since 1976. And, most importantly, they appear to have recognized that Arizona is changing, that Arpaio’s antics don’t play well anymore with an electorate that’s becoming increasingly diverse.
There had long been abundant warning signs that Arpaio’s star was dimming. In the state’s most populous county, which includes Phoenix, he’d won reelection as sheriff by successively smaller percentages in 2004, 2008, and 2012—the latter barely breaking 50 percent. And in 2016, the voters, who are predominantly white in Maricopa County, finally threw him out. Only 43 percent deemed it wise to reelect a law enforcer who’d just been slapped by a federal judge with a charge of criminal contempt. Arpaio had been racially profiling Latino drivers since at least 2011, he had defied court orders to stop, and the ongoing case had already cost county taxpayers more than $70 million.
But like so many politicians who are loath to leave the stage, politicians discarded by the electorate but still drunk on vanity, Arpaio, in his forced retirement, nurtured the idea of taking his act statewide. Hence the decision to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake. Arizona was Donald Trump territory, after all—Trump won the state by an underwhelming 3 percent—and Arpaio, in his hostility toward undocumented immigrants, was Trump long before Trump. Plus, he was simpatico with Trump. Back in the days when Trump was lying about Barack Obama’s birth, Arpaio sent a posse to Hawaii in a bid to prove Trump right. And late one night in August 2017, shortly before Arpaio was slated to be sentenced for criminal contempt, Trump wielded his pardoning power and gifted him a get-out-of-jail-free card for his “admirable service to our nation.”
The pardon didn’t save him. He said the other day, “I never had a hero in my life until several months ago when I woke up after 75 years, and I found my hero. You know who that person is? Donald Trump.” But that didn’t save him. Indeed, Trump didn’t even endorse him. In the waning days of his Senate campaign, his bus was virtually empty and his campaign manager was driving it. The Arizona Republican lobbyist Stan Barnes told the Associated Press, “No one really understands why he’s in the race … This is the kind of thing that an 86-year-old egomaniac would do because no one can control him.” And the egomania was obvious in his remarks, boasting last weekend—to a rally of a dozen people—that “I’m known around the world,” and telling a reporter from Reuters that if he were elected to the Senate, “I’ll go to the toilet and I’ll have every TV camera in the universe—they all know me.”
But Arpaio’s time has come and gone. If there was ever a hard-line consensus, even in conservative Maricopa County, the statewide attitude toward immigration has become more nuanced. According to a July poll sponsored by Politico, even though 66 percent of Arizonans support “removing or deporting undocumented immigrants,” 74 percent in a separate question support “a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements.” And in the wake of recent voter-registration campaigns, roughly two-thirds of Arizonans on the rolls are Democrats and independents.
Joseph Garcia, who directs the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University, told me that the state’s reputation took a major hit from its 2010 law—S.B. 1070, nicknamed the “show me your papers” law—targeting undocumented immigrants. The law was basically rendered impotent by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found most of its provisions to be unconstitutional, and by a series of settlements with civil-rights groups. But before that happened, the state suffered economic boycotts, and, in Garcia’s words, there is now “a reluctance by Arizona leaders to relive those days … By and large Arizona is living in a post–S.B. 1070 world, and business development and economic growth are the key drivers of state legislation.”
So Arizona Republicans will march to November with the Senate nominee Martha McSally—a congresswoman who is Trump-lite, having declined to support him in 2016—and Arpaio will go to history’s dustbin, to the way of all rulers who outlive their moment, much like Ozymandias, whose statue was inexorably sinking in the desert:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
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