PHOENIX ― When two young volunteers knocking on doors in this city’s Coronado neighborhood asked if the middle-aged man who greeted them knew who Joe Arpaio was, the answer was swift.
“Yeah, I live in Arizona, don’t I?” he responded with a laugh. “And now, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen, everyone else does, too.”
Arpaio, the infamous former Maricopa County sheriff whom President Donald Trump pardoned after his conviction for ignoring a federal court order to stop violating the civil rights of Latino citizens, casts a long shadow in Arizona. While the 86-year-old is widely expected to finish third in the GOP Senate primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake on Tuesday ― the most noteworthy moment of his campaign was arguably the aforementioned Sacha Baron Cohen prank ― he’s arguably done more to shape the state’s conversation around immigration policy than any other politician.
Arpaio’s direct impact was massive ― Maricopa County is the state’s largest, with a population bigger than the state of Oregon. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and publicity-chasing tactics made him one of best-known politicians in the state for decades, and his crusade against illegal immigration has led Republicans and many Democrats in the state to decide that becoming a border hawk is the way to political victory. His invective helped create the political environment that led to the 2010 passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, which encouraged racial profiling and was largely struck down by the Supreme Court.
Donald Trump and the conservative movement think railing about MS-13 and the border wall is a winner for them. It’s up to us change that dynamic, or they will keep doing that. Faiz Shakir, ACLU national political director
That’s where the American Civil Liberties Union and the two young volunteers come in. For the first time in the group’s 98-year history, the ACLU is getting involved in a federal election, informing voters about Arpaio’s record on immigration rights ― and throwing in a discussion of Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, the two Republicans running against him, for good measure. (As a nonprofit, the ACLU isn’t officially endorsing or opposing any candidates.)
“His influence on the policies and policing practices of Arizona was tremendous and was detrimental [to] people’s civil liberties,” said Tony Cani, the political director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU, ticking off Arpaio’s long list of wrongdoing, from establishing tent cities for prisoners to racial profiling to targeting his political opponents.
“He’s one of the most extreme examples of a law enforcement official operating well outside the Constitution and abusing his power,” added Alessandra Soler, the state ACLU chapter’s executive director.
The group has spent $600,000 on television ads and canvassing in the state capital of Phoenix and in Tucson, the liberal-leaning university town two hours south. The goal isn’t necessarily to defeat Arpaio ― ACLU officials acknowledged his defeat was a near-certainty regardless ― but to activate voters who will be less focused on building the wall and more focused on protecting immigrants’ civil liberties.
“It’s still an incumbent responsibility on us to raise the issue of immigration rights,” said Faiz Shakir, a former staffer for former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who became the ACLU’s first-ever national political director last year. “Donald Trump and the conservative movement think railing about MS-13 and the border wall is a winner for them. It’s up to us change that dynamic, or they will keep doing that.”
The group’s television ads, which aired in both English and Spanish, link the other two Republican candidates to Arpaio’s long history of violating civil rights. Canvassers are passing out literature that assigns McSally and Ward the same positions as Arpaio on family separation, the border wall and “show me your papers” laws. (McSally, the favorite of the GOP establishment, has a healthy lead in public polls ahead of Tuesday’s primaries.)
“For years, Joe Arpaio broke the law to humiliate and terrorize Latinos and immigrants,” a female announcer says in the 30-second ad. “Martha McSally and Kelli Ward have joined Arpaio’s anti-immigrant bandwagon. When immigrant families are attacked, the rights of all are threatened.”
The ACLU’s involvement in the Arizona race is also the newest display of the civil rights organization’s willingness to get involved in elections. It’s played a major role in raising awareness of criminal justice reform issues ahead of both the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s race in North Carolina and the primary challenge to St. Louis’ district attorney. Both races ended with progressives ousting incumbent Democrats. The group also took out a full-page newspaper ad to praise libertarian-leaning GOP Rep. Justin Amash ahead of his primary in Michigan.
The Arizona contest is the third statewide race the ACLU has engaged in, following a Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin this spring and the GOP gubernatorial primary in Kansas featuring Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a notorious voting rights opponent. There, the GOP polled conservative voters and found they were concerned about Kobach’s embrace of the Crosscheck program and could be persuaded that his lawsuits aiming to restrict voting rights were a waste of taxpayer dollars. The ACLU sent out a mailer highlighting the issues, but Kobach narrowly triumphed anyway.
Shakir said the group will continue to monitor the contest as Kobach faces Democrat Laura Kelley and independent Greg Orman in the general election.
How could we possibly ignore candidates like Arpaio and Kobach, both of whom we’ve fought in the court of the law? These candidates are arguing their terrible civil rights records warrant a promotion. Faiz Shakir
Shakir acknowledged there were some concerns about the ACLU’s newfound willingness to engage in the sometimes dirty business of electoral politics, but argued the group had a moral duty to get involved.
“How could we possibly ignore candidates like Arpaio and Kobach, both of whom we’ve fought in the court of the law?” he asked. “These candidates are arguing their terrible civil rights records warrant a promotion.”
The ACLU’s willingness to engage politically is a product of its growth in the aftermath of the 2016 election. “People came running in through the doors of the ACLU after the election of Donald Trump,” Shakir said. The group’s membership quadrupled, and Shakir and other ACLU officials saw an opportunity to put those new members to work pushing elected officials.
In Arizona, they saw early success in pushing the city of Phoenix to stop cooperating with federal immigration officials. As the state chapter’s membership grew from 5,000 to 22,000, they wanted to give new members a chance to volunteer.
Arpaio’s campaign didn’t respond to HuffPost’s a request for comment. Earlier this month, he said the ACLU was attacking him because he was the best candidate to challenge Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the likely Democratic candidate in the Senate contest. (With Republicans holding a 51-49 advantage in the Senate, a Sinema victory is essential to Democrats’ hopes of winning back the upper chamber.)
The ACLU’s canvassing program targeted about 60,000 voters in Tucson and Phoenix it believed would ally with them but who weren’t already members of the ACLU. The organization expects to knock on about 50,000 doors by the time the canvassing program ends.
Most of the door-knocks HuffPost witnessed were similar to each other ― the targeted voter knew Arpaio was and was aware of his anti-immigration rhetoric. Several people gave out their phone numbers so the ACLU could call or text them later.
But Shakir made it clear the organization wouldn’t necessarily walk away from the race if Arpaio loses on Tuesday ― and that it wouldn’t necessarily focus on the GOP nominee. Sinema, a progressive-turned-moderate who votes with Trump around 60 percent of the time, is an opponent of sanctuary cities and supported efforts to limit the number of Syrian refugees in the United States.
“There’s some concern there. You can not represent the state of Arizona without understanding that fighting for immigrant rights and for immigration protections is a core part of your job,” Shakir said. “If we get the sense that Kyrsten Sinema is going to hawk to the right and embrace right-leaning policies, then that would draw our attention.”