The investigative report by the U.S. Department of Justice may have ignited Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s critics, but his political allies said their support for the sheriff remains unwavering.
Several lawmakers said they weren’t even familiar with the report’s findings, which included racially discriminatory practices on the part of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, unlawful arrests and retaliation against the sheriff’s political enemies.
Nevertheless, Arpaio’s most staunch allies insisted that the investigation was part of a political witch hunt rather than any true wrongdoing.
As immigration hawk Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, put it: “I don’t believe the report, and I stand by Sheriff Arpaio.”
Although he hadn’t read the report, Kavanagh said that he has known Arpaio for many years and respects him, whereas the Department of Justice, under the Obama Administration, is “political and inept” and “deceptive.”
Other GOP politicians took the same position. Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman Rob Haney accused the DOJ of being “tyrannical” and accused the federal government of retaliating against political enemies — the same charge the DOJ leveled against Arpaio.
“Arpaio has opposed the administration and so they’ve been attacking him for the last two, three or four years. It doesn’t surprise me,” Haney said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if DOJ prosecuted Arpaio.
Others, like Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, argued that the federal government had no room to criticize the state, which he said was being better run than the country.
“Why don’t you boys take care of Washington, D.C.?” Shooter said, noting that the federal government is running a deficit while Arizona is doing much better financially.
Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Carefree, also acknowledged he was not familiar with the findings of the DOJ investigation. If the findings were true, he said, he would “be critical” of that. But in the meantime, he said he still supported Arpaio and would continue to use his endorsement.
Like Burnell Smith, Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he would continue to seek the sheriff’s endorsement, and that nothing short of a “massive amount “of evidence proving severe wrongdoing on Arpaio’s part — and the sheriff’s own admission to such allegations — would shake his faith in him.
Haney said he anticipated that most Republican politicians felt the same way. Critics had been saying that Arpaio’s star power was diminishing for more than a decade, he said, but it hadn’t.
“He is a national hero in the same way (former Sen. Russell) Pearce is a national hero to the conservatives,” Haney said. “I’m sure that they’d still be going to him for endorsements.”
Others said they would reserve judgment until they had taken a closer look at the report.
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said his opinion would depend on how the Sheriff’s Office responded.
“If the DOJ sits down with the sheriff and they look at what can be corrected, I’d say that’s a positive development,” he said.
Another Republican that Arpaio had endorsed, Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, also said he hadn’t been following the investigation very closely. However, he did say he would have to consider what was in the report and its basis before he continued using the sheriff’s endorsement.
“You really have to read through the lines to understand what is factual and what is politically motivated,” he said.
When asked whether Arpaio’s influence would suffer as a result of the DOJ investigation, Forese said he didn’t know. “I honestly don’t think about Sheriff Joe that much.”
Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said that the DOJ’s accusations — and the recent allegations that the Sheriff’s Office had failed to investigate hundreds of sexual abuse cases, most of which were against illegal immigrants — were “concerning” and that she was “very shocked” by the report.
“I hope to God it’s not true,” she said, but said that she didn’t want to comment in more detail until she knew more.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, who represents south Phoenix, said Republicans who hastily defended Arpaio have made a critical error and that turning this into a partisan issue is the wrong way to think about the Justice Department’s report.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Gallardo said. “This is about public safety.”
Gallardo lamented what he said is political gamesmanship about what should be commonsense policing accountability. He went on to say that he doesn’t care what party a sheriff belongs to, the discriminatory practices outlined cannot be defended and proper policing shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a longtime critic of Arpaio, said the report speaks for itself.
“Read the report,” Wilcox said, adding that she hopes every lawmaker, regardless of party, will respond to the content of the investigation, not Arpaio’s partisan affiliation. “If you want to be part of the racial biases shown here, so be it.”
The report states that the Justice Department would prefer to work with the Sheriff’s Office to address the constitutional violations, but if the office would not cooperate, it was prepared to file suit.