Nevada Democrats Try Playbook That Beat Arpaio to Beat Another Sheriff Joe 

Out of the gate at his official announcement to run for governor of Nevada, Sheriff Joe Lombardo hit all the right notes for a Republican navigating the post-Trump era and looking to run in 2022.

"Critical race theory"—Democratic lawmakers known as "The Squad" looking to defund the police—"zero tolerance" on illegal immigration. He touched all three bases on his way to home plate, where he decried the "socialist" attitudes of Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak.

It was an approach that Nevada Democrats saw as racist or at least racially-coded language, one which reminded them of a reviled figure Democrats and activists fought hard to defeat in a neighboring state—another Sheriff Joe—Joe Arpaio in Arizona.

Grassroots group Mi Familia Vota, which has a presence in Latino communities in key swing states, called Lombardo an "extremist" politician.

"This Sheriff Joe wannabe will lose just like the other one because Nevada will not support a racist, anti-immigrant candidate for governor," Cecia Alvarado, Mi Familia Vota's Nevada state director, told Newsweek.

She added that the community will often not report crimes against them for fear of deportation because they don't feel safe.

"He had an opportunity to work with the community as the sheriff," she said, "but he has created a law enforcement apparatus that scares our community."

Arpaio was beaten partly because Republicans tired of his act, but also because independents and voters were convinced he was out of step with his state. Lombardo's views are less formed in the eyes of Nevadans, though, and he will be looking to independents and Republicans in a state that President Joe Biden carried by only 33,596 votes.

Lombardo began as a beat cop for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 1988, rising through the ranks to eventually lead the department. While the position of sheriff is an elected one, it is nonpartisan, and Lombardo has generally been viewed as a centrist whose political promise lies in the fact that he is a Republican who has won in Democratic vote-rich Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

But Democrats and activists who spoke with Newsweek said the fact that he is now name-checking Trump policies like "zero tolerance" on immigration and other rightwing talking points in the Republican primary is a concerning precursor to what would happen if he won.

Lombardo, they argue, will say anything to win.

"At least Arpaio was up front about where he stood on issues," said Laura Martin, a well-respected Las Vegas activist and executive director of PLAN Action. "Lombardo's very two-faced, you can't trust him."

Martin's views stem from a meeting with Lombardo she attended with other Black Lives Matter activists in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the country, including demonstrations in Las Vegas, which concerned the sheriff.

Martin said Lombardo and his lobbyists reached out for a meeting in an effort to stop the protests, and at the meeting he said something the group wanted to hear.

He agreed at the time with the underlying premise behind the "defund the police" slogan, that "some money needed to be reinvested into community programs and to social workers for mental health programs," Martin said.

Now, however, Lombardo's first ad out of the gate featured a picture of Representative Ilhan Omar wearing a hijab as its thumbnail image visible to everyone who shares it, with the words "Squad members promote defund the police" superimposed on it.

The voiceover on the video said, "When liberal politicians turned their backs on victims, released violent criminals, and tried to defund the police, Joe put more cops on our streets and made sure dangerous criminals who crossed our border to terrorize our community were deported."

Veteran Las Vegas-based Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez told Newsweek that the ad and announcement are evidence that Lombardo is willing to say whatever he has to to win.

"When he had to be a moderate, he was a moderate. Now in a conservative Republican primary, he's a conservative Republican," Ramirez said. "If he has to be an Arpaio, he's going to be an Arpaio, but an Arpaio has never won statewide in Nevada."

Lombardo has assembled a formidable campaign staff. He received the endorsement of former Lt. Governor Mark Hutchison, who had entertained a run, but will instead serve as campaign chair, where his significant fundraising skills will be invaluable.

The campaign is being led by Ryan Erwin, a person whom Jon Ralston, the dean of political journalists in Nevada, described as one of the most well-respected, thoughtful and straight-shooting consultants in the state.

Erwin made it clear that combatting efforts to defund the police will be an important campaign stance for Lombardo.

"The fact that Steve Sisolak and his political allies are attacking Joe Lombardo for opposing any effort to defund the police is a prime example of just how isolated and out of touch this governor is," he said. "While Portland, Seattle, Baltimore and other cities gave into rioters, looters and anarchists, Joe Lombardo stood up for Nevadans."

Regarding immigration, the campaign stressed that "zero-tolerance" is a term meant to include anyone who commits violent crimes, regardless of citizenship status.

"Let's be clear. Joe Lombardo has a zero tolerance policy for violent criminals, legal or illegal," Erwin said. "Joe believes citizens that commit violent crimes should be behind bars, and those here illegally that commit violent crimes should be deported. Period."

Lombardo has to win a likely stacked primary race if he hopes to take on Sisolak, whose face was shown in the announcement ad with a quote from the progressive magazine The New Republic emblazoned over him that christened Nevada "the state that liberal dreams are made of."

The crowded field of potential Republican challengers includes former Senator Dean Heller, Representative Mark Amodei, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee (a former Democrat), and Reno lawyer Joey Gilbert, a former boxer who was seen on video on the U.S. Capitol steps during the January 6 insurrection.

For now, though, Democrats have begun the governor's race hyper-focused on Lombardo, serving as perhaps a preview of the next year.

Ramirez called Lombardo's approach to his announcement week a "red flag" and a "warning" for voters.

"Do we really know who Joe Lombardo is?" he asked.

sisolak and joe lombardo
Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak (L) talks to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo during a news conference at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters held to brief members of the media on a mass shooting on October 4, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now Sisolak is governor and Lombardo looks to challenge him if he can win the primary. Ethan Miller/Getty Images