Will Trump's Arpaio Pardon Help Swing Arizona to the Democrats?

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Donald Trump issued his first pardon last Friday, to Joe Arpaio, expunging the former Maricopa County sheriff’s federal conviction on criminal contempt charges relating to illegal racial profiling. It would not be surprising, considering Trump’s polarizing rhetoric on August 22 at a Phoenix rally, if many Arizonans consider the Arpaio pardon “a slap in the face,” as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton called it. The pardon has only made it harder for moderate Republicans to halt or even slow Arizona’s accelerating blueward political shift—a shift that exploded last year when Latino voters, angered by both Arpaio’s racist policies and passage of an anti-immigrant law, joined with labor and community advocates to challenge the encrusted status quo through activist coalitions.

The once immensely popular Arpaio has become Kryptonite to Republicans in his own state. Challenger Paul Penzone beat him 56 percent to 44 percent in the sheriff’s race last November, denying Arpaio a seventh term. In that election Trump won Arizona by a measly 3.5 percent, in comparison with the 12 percent margin of victory enjoyed by Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2012. An August High Ground poll found that 55 percent of Arizonans disapprove of Trump’s job performance.

"For a president that claims to be a rule of law president, he's done the opposite. He ignored what this court behind us has said and he pardoned a criminal," said Carlos Garcia, the director of Puente, a grassroots migrant justice organization, after the pardon’s announcement. Puente, along with immigrant-rights activists and organizers representing Progress Now Arizona, Promise Arizona and the Center for Neighborhood Leadership, had gathered outside the Phoenix courthouse for a news conference, flanked by giant inflatable Trump and Arpaio balloons—the latter “dressed” in prison stripes, like the ones Arpaio infamously made his own inmates wear.

08_30_arpaioarizona_01 Local immigrants rights organizations gather to protest in Phoenix, Arizona, August 25, after former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio was pardoned by President Trump. Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters

On Tuesday,  a group of lawyers  met on the lawn of the same courthouse to protest the pardon, the Phoenix New Times reported. Former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods, a Republican, said that the pardon did not reflect conservative values. “There is no more powerful act of government than to deprive someone of their liberty. When people do that based upon the color of someone’s skin, there isn’t a bigger outrage that could be in this country.” Others present objected to Trump’s apparent disdain for the authority of the court system. “When you see people breaking the law and getting away with it, it hurts the whole legal system,” said criminal defense attorney Benjamin Taylor.

Trump Dragging Down the GOP?

Arpaio’s 24-year reign cost county taxpayers in excess of $140 million in legal settlements and fees alone. His brazenly illegal racial profilingabuses of power and brutality to inmates are the stuff of dystopic fiction. Last July, his refusal to abide by a court order to implement reforms finally caught up with the sheriff, whose habit of referring to himself in the third person irresistibly recalls the style of the man who pardoned him. (To quote Arpaio: “This sheriff has been elected six times... He must be doing something right. So the people must like this sheriff.”)

I asked Arizona House representative Athena Salman (D-26): Are Trump supporters emboldened by these recent events? Has polarization increased on the Republican side?

“[GOP] Governor [Doug] Ducey in the last weeks has taken this opportunity to take stances that alienate people of color,” she replied, referring to the governor’s support of the Arpaio pardon, and his support of Arpaio in general. In a public statement, Ducey said Arpaio “deserves credit for helping to reduce crime in Maricopa County over his long career in law enforcement and public office,” called him a friend, and said that now the 85-year-old can “enjoy his retirement.”

But the governor’s political tightrope walk—after Charlottesville, he declined to attend Trump’s Phoenix rally—and careful rhetoric can also be seen as a sign of heightened tensions within the GOP. Both of Arizona’s senators spoke out against the pardon, as did House Speaker Paul Ryan, though in terms as tepid as Ducey’s support of it. “I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course,” Jeff Flake tweeted; John McCain said that the pardon “undermined” Trump’s claim “for the respect for the rule of law.” Speaker Paul Ryan “disagreed with the decision.”

08_30_flake_02 Senator Jeff Flake talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 27. Flake, a Republican, has been critical of Trumpism, but outrage over the president's pardon of former Arizona Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio threatens to drag down the local GOP. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

These deepening fractures bode ill for the GOP in coming elections, especially if the president’s popularity continues to decline alongside that of extremists like Arpaio. The danger is already visible in the polling of Republican moderate Flake, whom Trump made a point of disparaging in Phoenix. Last month, Morning Consult released a poll showing Flake with a net approval rating of -8, the worst in the nation. This reflects both his unpopularity with Trump supporters, whom he’s alienated by distancing himself from the president, and his unpopularity with independents, Democrats and moderate Republicans who may see Trump as tarnishing the whole of the GOP.

“Flake is carving out a very interesting strategy locally,” Rachel Sulkes, an organizer at the labor-supported CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy) told me. “He’s voting with his party 97 percent of the time, but has since put out this book [The Conscience of a Conservative] where he seems to be running on this strategy of, ‘Let me unhook my wagon from Trump.’ Early challengers have come who smell [Flake’s] blood in the water.”

One of these is the Trump-affiliated Kelli Ward, who’s being championed as a primary challenger against Flake by Breitbart and other far-right outlets. And there’s another potential hard-right challenger who recently hinted at a possible run against Flake—none other than Joe Arpaio.

Ducey will be facing the electorate in 2018 along with Flake. Phoenix Mayor Stanton, a Democrat, is rumored to be preparing a challenge to incumbent Secretary of State Michele Reagan. “There will be big changes on the City Council as people jockey to replace [Stanton], Sulkes told me, adding, “We could potentially make a run at flipping the state Senate, or at least splitting it.”

Shifting electorate

These developments arise in the context of an Arizona Democratic electorate already energized by long-sought gains. In 2012, Democratic grassroots and labor activists joined in the “Adios Arpaio” campaign that registered tens of thousands of new voters, holding a rally at the sheriff’s office where participants brought packing boxes to help him “move out.” Their efforts continued into the 2016 One Arizona campaign that grew out of resistance to the state’s unpopular SB 1070 immigration law. One Arizona registered 150,000 Latinx voters  in the 2016 cycle. Demographic shifts many decades in the making are increasingly coming into play.

08_30_arpaioarizona_03 Courtnay Hough protests in Phoenix, Arizona, August 25, after former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio was pardoned by President Trump. Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters

Thus the lukewarm response of Arizona Republican leaders to the Arpaio pardon stands in stark contrast to the unmixed fury of Arizona’s newly invigorated Democrats and of its immigrant and Latinx communities, with dozens of leaders declaring themselves and their communities ready to resist.

Salman will be participating in a drive to register new Muslim voters this Friday, and talking with low-propensity voters on Saturday. She told me that there are immediate actions planned around helping more immigrants become voting citizens, and around resisting the potential  repeal of DACA.

“People are deeply hurt, especially in the Latino community, inside and outside of my district,” says Salman. “People of color from different nationalities are fired up to fight. They don’t just want to sit around.”

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic living in Los Angeles.

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