PHOENIX – Just days after having his criminal conviction effectively nullified with a pardon, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is weighing another bid for public office – perhaps against Jeff Flake.
The 85-year-old Arpaio acknowledged last week that his inclination after being defeated last year and found guilty of criminal contempt was to simply retire into the background.
But Arpaio told Capitol Media Services he is entertaining various requests that he reenter political life. And the former sheriff said he said if he did, he might take on the incumbent U.S. senator who is seeking reelection next year.
Arpaio said any decision is not based on the fact that both Flake and John McCain, the state’s other senator, were very critical of Friday’s decision by President Trump to pardon him. But he did unload on both, saying they should have spoken to him about the underlying issue before making their statements.
“I’m their constituent,’’ he said. “You would think they would check with me if there was abuse of the justice of the courts.’’
But he specifically singled out Flake for saying that Trump should “honor the judicial process and let it take its course.’’
Arpaio said that would have meant waiting until he was sentenced on misdemeanor charges that he ignored a federal judge’s orders not to use his deputies to go after those suspected of being in the country illegally. That could have meant up to six months in jail.
Potentially more significant, the normal practice of the U.S. Department of Justice is to wait five years before considering such requests.
“It’s too late then,’’ he said.
Instead, Arpaio said, any decision to run would be solely to support Trump and his agenda in Washington.
“The main thing I would want to do is help the president,’’ he said.
Arpaio’s renewed interest in politics comes as his attorneys are asking the judge who convicted him of contempt to dismiss the conviction.
In a new filing, the former sheriff’s lawyers acknowledge that the pardon puts an end to any criminal prosecution or chance of jail. But they said that the conviction still remains on his record. And that, they said, has potential harms.
“His conviction may be considered at sentencing in any subsequent criminal proceeding and may result in heavier penalties,’’ his lawyers wrote, citing another case where someone had been pardoned. That conviction, they told the judge, also could be introduced to impeach the sheriff’s credibility.
Anyway, they said, it is “only fair’’ for the court to vacate the verdict – and all ruling in this case –because Arpaio will never have a chance to appeal the conviction.
But in a separate statement, attorney Jack Wilenchik said the sheriff took the pardon rather than appeal because it could take years to resolve. And with Arpaio’s age, he said, “there is no guarantee that he would outlast the appeals.’’
If Arpaio runs – and he stressed that no decision has been made – it could undermine the candidacy of former state Sen. Kelli Ward who to this point is Flake’s only announced foe. Ward has staked out some of the same positions as Arpaio on things like illegal immigration and her support for Trump.
But Ward suggested she’s not about to withdraw, though she sidestepped questions about how an Arpaio run might affect her chances.
“My campaign has incredible momentum and I will do everything possible to make sure the sheriff and I remain on the same team – united to retire Sen. Flake in 2018,’’ she said in a prepared statement.
Flake, for his part, had no comment.
Whether the former sheriff’s musings translate into an actual candidacy is speculation at best.
During his 24 years in office, Arpaio often delighted in telling reporters how he was the most popular elected official in the state and openly suggested he might run for governor. None of those campaigns ever materialized as Arpaio concluded he liked being the top law enforcement officer in the state’s most populous county.
But now, after he lost last year’s reelection bid and following the criminal contempt conviction – now moot because of Friday’s pardon – Arpaio finds himself with nothing to fall back on.
“When I left office, I told my wife I am not going back into politics,’’ the former sheriff said. “And then I decided in recent months that I’m going to go back into politics.’’
And the possibilities, he said, include going after Flake who recent polls suggest would be vulnerable in a Republican primary.
A statewide survey of 400 likely Arizona general election voters found that if Flake went up against Ward, she would pick up 42.5 percent of the vote against 28.2 percent for Flake.
But nearly a quarter had no opinion or declined to comment.
One interesting note in that HighGround poll is it found that both likely would lose to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the general election if the congresswoman opted to make a run for the Senate. That leaves the question of whether Arpaio would fare better.
Political consultant Chuck Coughlin said his firm’s poll conducted earlier this month did not pose that question.
“The former sheriff has a high name ID amongst a vast majority of Arizona’s electorate,’’ he said, as well as a “strong loyal following’’ among Republicans “which, in a general election cycle is not an insubstantial thing to consider.’’
But Coughlin said Arpaio, like Trump, remains a “highly polarizing figure’’ among many voters, and would also have a hard time beating Sinema were she to get into the race.
There’s something else for the GOP to consider if there is a primary fight.
The last time Arizona put a Democrat into the U.S. Senate was in 1976 when two Republican members of Congress, John Conlan and Sam Steiger, engaged in a heated battle to be the party’s nominee after Paul Fannin retired.While Steiger won the primary, the race left so much bad blood that Democrat Dennis DeConcini from Tucson snatched the seat in November with 54 percent of the vote.