With his sights on the future, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio teased a return to public office just days after President Trump pardoned him for a criminal contempt of court conviction.
“I could run for mayor. I could run for legislator. I could run for Senate," the former Maricopa County sheriff told the Washington Examiner.
Arpaio, who has teased a run for governor in the past but never followed through, said a lot of people have asked him to challenge Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a vocal Trump critic. While he’s not sure if he’ll officially place him name on a ballot, the former Maricopa County sheriff said he was seriously considering it.
“When I left the sheriff’s office after 24 years I told my wife, ‘I’m done with politics’ — but I had a change of heart,” Arpaio told BuzzFeed News. “I’m ready to get back in action. I want to help the president and I want to support good Republicans.”
Trump pardoned Arpaio after he was convicted of contempt of court for defying a federal judge's order to stop detaining people based on suspicion of their immigration status when there was no evidence that they had broken a state law.
If he does run, Arpaio would have to contend with a long legacy as “America’s toughest sheriff."
Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, said Arpaio would have a difficult time getting the primary votes for Flake’s senate seat because candidate Kelli Ward has won over Trump supporters.
“Arpaio would be fighting for the same votes as her, and Flake has a very strong conservative base he can hold onto,” Volgy told BuzzFeed News. “His chance of becoming a US senator are slim to none.”
Because of the conviction, Arpaio has gone from a law and order candidate to being perceived as a bigot and racist, Volgy said, pointing out that he lost his reelection campaign in November to Paul Penzone — who wasn’t a household name like the former sheriff.
Penzone was aided with $2 million that Democratic donor George Soros infused into the election.
“For him to lose that race really meant the past was the past,” Volgy said. “He would certainly run as a law and order candidate, but when you break the law it’s really hard to do because the very thrust of his campaign would get overturned by his conviction, even if he was pardoned.”
Still, Arpaio said he has enough support across the nation, pointing to the nearly $10 million he raised from backers for the last election. Most of them live outside of Arizona.
Jerry Sheridan, his former chief deputy and longtime ally, said Arpaio has enough support to win any election — regardless of the pardon.
“The pardon brings him back into the media spotlight which is always good for anybody that wants to run for any seat,” Sheridan told BuzzFeed News. “He has so much support beyond Maricopa County, in fact more so, because of the negative media barrage that we got the last few years here.”
The negative coverage was fueled by a 2007 class action lawsuit filed against Arpaio that resulted in a federal judge finding that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office racially profiled and conducted unlawful traffic stops of Latinos. Arpaio’s contempt conviction came after the judge found the department didn’t stop the practices after the former sheriff was ordered to.
The conviction was a deep blow to Arpaio, Sheridan said, because Arpaio dedicated his entire adult life to law enforcement.
“He was devastated. It’s the first time he’s ever been accused of doing anything unethical intentionally,” Sheridan said. “But the pardon has given him confidence because of all the people contacting him across the country congratulating him.”
Penzone, who said he is in the middle of shutting down Arpaio's infamous Tent City Jail, said Arpaio doesn't have much of a political future now. But, he added, it would ultimately be up to the voters.
"He showed no respect for the rule of law and at no point showed contrition for his actions," Penzone told BuzzFeed News. "99.9% of the population are not fortuitous enough to have a relationship with the president that could lead to a pardon."
Grant Woods, a Republican who served as attorney general for Arizona for most of the '90s, doesn’t take much stock in Arpaio considering a run for office.
“It’s just one of his many stunts, he starts saying he’s going to run for office then he milks that for as long as he can before he finally makes a grand announcement that he’s not going to do it,” Woods told BuzzFeed News. “If he runs for some other office other than sheriff, he might be able to get folks in the primary but he would get creamed in the general. But that’s up to him. It’s a free country.”
In 2002, Arpaio announced he was thinking about running for governor of Arizona, but later said he would rather stay on as sheriff. He would continue to repeat the possibility over the years.
“I just want to go out into the sunset as a law enforcement officer,” Arpaio told the Associated Press.
Arpaio shares many of the megalomaniac traits that the president has, Woods said, adding he was Arizona’s version of Trump.
“Having said that, if the analogy holds Trump did run and he won, but if it was Arpaio I wouldn’t count on it,” Woods said. “He would be wise to count his lucky stars that he was saved from a jail sentence and move on, but if he wants to fight there is an army of people in Arizona who will defeat him.”
Army or not, Arpaio maintains he still hasn’t made his mind up about running for office.
“I’m not going to go away regardless of certain media and activists and some Republicans that don’t like this sheriff,” Arpaio said. “That’s not going to bother me.”