He was Donald Trump before Trump – his political godfather. The racial profiling, the authoritarian streak, the robust defense of easily refutable lies – all are part of the repertoire of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.
On Tuesday, the man who was emblematic – at least in the Southwest – of Trump’s attempt to hold back the demographic tide of the new America was resoundingly defeated. It was a vote for decency, for common sense, and no small amount of revenge from many of the victims of his strong-arm policies.
After six terms as the chief lawman of the most populous county in Arizona, Arpaio was defeated by a former Phoenix police officer, Paul Penzone, a Democrat.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Penzone said. You could say that time, and federal law, finally caught up with the 84-year-old sheriff. He’s been under court order to stop targeting Latinos. Last month, federal prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt for allegedly defying that court order.
None of that seemed to bother Arpaio’s white supporters. But enough of them were disgusted with his war on immigrants and others that Arpaio was finally tossed. Even as Trump basks in his stunning triumph, the vote in Republican Arizona offers a look at what could happen to his forces down the road.
Arpaio was the sheriff who set up checkpoints and raids to nab people who looked or sounded Hispanic. Many were citizens. He kept prisoners in a tent city at hellish high temperatures, gave them pink underwear, and laughed at their discomfort.
A passionate, grassroots campaign led by a group called Bazta Arpaio – Enough Arpaio – helped to oust him. They registered many first-time voters, staged music festivals and plastered “Vote Against Hate” signs all over the sprawling desert megalopolis of Maricopa County. One memorable parade featured a giant inflatable replica of the sheriff – handcuffed, in jail pinstripes.
Like Trump, Arpaio relied on the hothouse of cable news studios to flourish. Early on, he seized on the birther fantasy, sending people to Hawaii in search of phantom evidence that President Barack Obama was not an American-born citizen. Even after the president released his long-form birth certificate, Arpaio insinuated that the document was most liked “a fraud.”
Many of his constituents wondered what that particular investigation had to do with enforcing the law in Arizona. Arpaio’s high-handed histrionics and court battles cost taxpayers almost $50 million, while the sheriff’s office was neglecting things like child sex crimes.
After nearly a quarter century in office, he could no longer hold back the future.