As the final days of campaigning wind down in Iowa, Rick Perry is betting that an Arizona politician who’s currently the target of civil and criminal investigations will be one of his last hopes to win over caucus goers.
The Texas governor brought Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the road in Iowa with him on Tuesday for two days of campaigning before next week’s caucuses. Trailing deep in polls, Perry is hoping the Arizona sheriff’s reputation for being tough on immigration and doing battle with the Obama administration will help him win over skeptical GOP voters.
The embrace of Arpaio, however, comes at an odd time. The sheriff has seen some of the most withering criticism of his career in recent weeks as news spread that his office botched the investigations of more than 400 sex crimes in their jurisdiction. Arpaio also remains the target of a criminal investigation by the FBI, examining whether he used his law enforcement powers to settle political scores. And most recently, on Dec. 15, the Justice Department accused the sheriff of running an agency that routinely violates the constitutional rights of Latinos.
Since picking up the sheriff’s endorsement last month, Perry has not talked publicly about the FBI’s criminal investigation or the botched sex crimes. His campaign sidestepped a question about those issues on Tuesday, instead repeating the governor’s respect for the sheriff and dismay in the Justice Department’s recent civil rights allegations.
“The Justice Department’s action smacks of politics, as do so many of the Obama Administration’s misguided actions and excuses,” campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan wrote in an email to TPM. “Governor Perry knows Sheriff Arpaio as a dedicated law enforcement professional fighting to keep his neighbors safe in the wake of federal failures to secure the border and deal with border crime.”
Arpaio’s chief political strategist, Chad Willems, said the sheriff was glad to continue supporting Perry. He said the sheriff disagrees with part of Perry’s stance on immigration, including his support of educating illegal immigrant children, but likes his message overall.
“He likes his straight talk,” said Willems, who is running the sheriff’s 2012 bid for a sixth term in office. “He just thinks he’d make a great president.”
Arpaio’s trip to Iowa also comes a week after a Latino military veteran died following an altercation with officers in one of his jails. Two law enforcement agencies are now investigating the death, which the sheriff’s critics said is more proof of discrimination against Latinos.
Willems said the sheriff isn’t worried problems like these would weigh on the Perry campaign. Asked whether it was appropriate for Arpaio to leave town in the midst of the investigation into the military veteran’s death, Willems said the sheriff was fulfilling a commitment to the governor.
“He’s a phone call away,” Willems said. “I think that Arpaio’s detractors are going to harp on just every little thing he ever does and they’re going to want to put him under a microscope.”
“That’s politics,” he added.
The thing that brought the most heat down on Arpaio in recent weeks was the federal civil rights investigation, which began more than three years ago under the administration of George W. Bush, the last Texas governor to become president. The Justice Department gave Arpaio a Jan. 4 deadline to agree to make specific changes to his agency or else he’ll be slapped with a lawsuit and possible federal takeover of his office.
Simmering below the surface of all this is the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI, which became public in January 2010 after Maricopa County officials said they had testified before a federal grand jury in Phoenix.
The focus of the grand jury’s questions, those officials said at the time, were the allegations that the sheriff was abusing his power. At one point, the sheriff said he was investigating at least 14 officials in county government, many of whom had criticized him publicly or made decisions with which he disagreed. Despite that, the grand jury has not yet returned any charges against him.
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this report.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com