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'They don't want him back': Inside Joe Arpaio's long shot comeback attempt

The former sheriff is running to get his old job back, but he faces bleak odds.
Image: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Fountain Hills, Ariz., on Aug. 26, 2019. Arpaio stands next to his presidential pardon from President Donald Trump.
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Fountain Hills, Ariz., on Aug. 26, 2019. Arpaio stands next to his presidential pardon from President Donald Trump.Ross D. Franklin / AP file

FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. — In a memorabilia-packed office that could serve as a museum to his career, Joe Arpaio plots about how he might, at the age of 87, get back his old job as the sheriff of metro Phoenix.

The man who became a national lightning rod for immigration, loved by some and loathed by others, spends his days at an office in a strip mall in the affluent suburb of Fountain Hills. He talks to reporters, takes calls from supporters on his flip phone and pecks out self-promotional blurbs on a Smith Corona typewriter that an assistant later transcribes and posts on social media.

He rejects suggestions that he's running to stroke his ego, quench a thirst for publicity or lessen any boredom since getting booted from office. A criminal conviction — contempt of court for disobeying a judge's 2011 order in a racial profiling case to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants — remains stuck in his craw, though he insists he's not out to clear his name.

Instead, he says he wants to do whatever he can to support President Donald Trump, whose pardon of the lawman hangs prominently on a wall next to Arpaio's desk.

He also vows to bring back the things that garnered notoriety during his 24 years as Maricopa County's top law enforcer: immigration crackdowns, a complex of jail tents and other now-discarded trademarks that courts have deemed illegal or his successor has done away with.

"I just have a desire to get back into the fight and do what I can do to finish my career," Arpaio said, his phone buzzing throughout the interview. "It's hard to explain it. It's hard to explain it honestly to you. Hard."

His odds at winning next year's election are long.

Democrat Paul Penzone, a retired Phoenix police sergeant, trounced the Republican Arpaio by nearly 13 points in 2016. Arpaio's first political comeback attempt ended badly when he placed third in the 2018 GOP Senate primary, losing in Maricopa County and his adopted hometown of Fountain Hills.

Much like Trump, who also has made an immigration crackdown a centerpiece of his 2020 re-election bid, Arpaio is known for saying things that other politicians wouldn't — or couldn't get away with.

But defiance and loose management led to a pileup of political baggage: $147 million in taxpayer-funded legal bills, a failure to investigate more than 400 sex-crimes complaints made to his office, a 2013 racial profiling verdict that discredited his immigration patrols and his own conviction.

"He'll have a little base within the Republican Party, but I suspect there is reticence (over his candidacy) that might pull him down," said pollster Mike O'Neil, a longtime Arizona pollster who has followed Arpaio's career.

People who have known Arpaio for decades offer varying reasons for his run.

"Whenever Joe calls me, he says, 'Tom, this is the sheriff,' said Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey, a retired chief U.S. marshal and a longtime Arpaio friend. "He doesn't see himself as Joe. That's his identity: Being the sheriff," Morrissey said.

Jerry Sheridan, Arpaio's former second-in-command who will face his old boss in the GOP primary for sheriff, said he was disappointed when Arpaio backed out of a promise to support his campaign.

"I think what he fails to realize is that his time is over because the people, after 24 years, have made it clear they don't want him back," said Sheridan.

Arpaio acknowledged early conversations about Sheridan's candidacy but sums up with this: "People have a right to change their minds and run for office."

Arpaio isn't running because he needs money.

He has two pensions, one from his earlier 27-year tenure as a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent and another from his second career as sheriff, and he and his wife of 61 years, Ava, own a home valued at $400,000 and nearly $2.5 million in commercial real estate.

Ava Arpaio says she and her two children support his run for office. She says he has no hobbies and was never going to have a conventional retirement.

"He loves his work and would like to get back into it," Ava said.

Arpaio says he remains mentally sharp and in good health, though he takes medication for high blood pressure. Without the body guards who picked him up for work for years in a government-owned vehicle, Arpaio now drives a Cadillac to his personal office.

Since losing in 2016, Arpaio has kept occupied by making social media posts about his beefs with other politicians, traveling across the country to speak to Republican groups and endorsing a colorful list of candidates.

He endorsed an India-born candidate who ran on the slogan "only a real Indian can defeat the fake Indian" in the race won by Sen. Elizabeth Warren; a losing Senate candidate in Missouri who made a social media post that railed against "nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils"; and Dennis Hof, the Nevada pimp-turned-politician whose birthday bash was attended by Arpaio, porn star Ron Jeremy and tax-cut activist Grover Norquist, just hours before Hof died of a heart attack.

Arpaio says the candidates seeking his endorsement want to talk about his background, illegal immigration, his jail tents and criminal contempt case.

"I naturally talk about Trump," Arpaio said.

His reversal of fortune became evident a month after his August 2017 pardon when he made an embarrassing appearance on comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's prank show.

Cohen, portraying a Finnish TV host who channeled his questions through a tiny toy doughnut, got Arpaio to argue the benefits of gun ownership with the toy and tricked the lawman into answering questions dripping with sexual innuendo.

Arpaio, once a master at garnering publicity, acknowledges that he might not have appeared on the show if he still had the public relations staff while he was sheriff.

"I got played," he said.

In a recent Arizona Republic podcast, Arpaio said he would go to bars to court Hispanic voters. But in an interview days later with The Associated Press, Arpaio insisted that he never said he'd go to bars to appeal to Latinos.

He refers to people in the United States without authorization as "illegals" despite knowing that many people consider it dehumanizing and made a tweet this summer that promoted his work on "a tough black beat" in his 20s as a police officer in a predominantly black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Arpaio says he has a soft spot for people from other countries and that his parents immigrated to the United States from Italy. He also says his daughter-in-law is Hispanic, one of his grandchildren is black and another grandchild is of Mexican descent.

Lydia Guzman, a Latino civil rights advocate and longtime Arpaio critic, sharply denounced Arpaio for the comment about talking to Hispanics at bars.

"He might as well have said, 'I'm looking for the Hispanic vote and I'm going to the welfare lines for that,' said Guzman. "That statement was only there to offend."

As he yearns to return to his heyday, Arpaio remains doggedly unrepentant about how he ran the agency, his immigration crackdowns and actions that led to his contempt conviction.

Even if he were to apologize, he says critics would still hate him. As for the calls to be more sensitive in talking about race, Arpaio sees a cynical motivation at play.

"I don't go along with this (political) correctness crap all the time to get votes," Arpaio said.