By his own admission, Joe Arpaio wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet during his lengthy tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
And the former GOP official didn’t shy away from his past controversies during his speech Saturday night at the St. Louis County Republican Party Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner — or his robust defense of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The people of this country are beginning to get it,” Arpaio said. “And one reason they’re beginning to get it is because your president isn’t afraid to speak out from the heart, tell like it is. And you’re going to get in trouble. Every politician understands that. But sometimes you’ve got to not be a politician.”
Arpaio served as sheriff for 24 years. He gained national attention for his hard-line stance on immigration. That gained him fans among Republican activists — and foes from across the political spectrum.
During his speech, Arpaio touched on a number of controversies that popped up over his political career: Placing detainees in tents, being found in contempt of court, questioning the validity of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and even getting into a tiff with NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. But much of his speech centered around Trump, whom Arpaio endorsed during the 2016 presidential campaign.
He contended that Trump, who issued a pardon to Arpaio in 2017, is getting more criticism than a typical president because of how he speaks his mind.
“He’s different. And he takes heat for it,” Arpaio said. “So I hope he keeps twitting, tweeting, whatever you want to call it. And keeps fighting back, and he’ll survive.”
Even before he entered a south St. Louis County banquet hall on Saturday, people from both parties criticized Arpaio’s appearance at Lincoln-Reagan.
For instance: State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said the decision to bring Arpaio in was a “perfect encapsulation why the GOP keeps losing ground in St. Louis County and suburbs everywhere.” He noted that Arpaio lost re-election in 2016 when Trump carried Maricopa County.
And during his address, a woman called Arpaio a “<expletive> fascist” before quickly leaving the room. Demonstrators lined up on the road leading up to the banquet hall criticizing Arpaio’s tenure as Maricopa County sheriff — and Donald Trump’s administration
St. Louis County Republican Party Central Committee Chairwoman Rene Artman contended that Arpaio became a target after he endorsed Trump in the 2016 election.
“Anybody who is friends with Donald Trump, the Democrats and the liberals think it’s fair game,” Artman said. “And they say that Sheriff Joe is a racist. No he’s not. He is a lover of the law. And he is not against immigrants. He is against illegal immigration.”
Besides Arpaio’s address, a plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County was a prime topic of discussion during the Republican event.
A group called Better Together is seeking to create a metro government that would oversee what is now St. Louis and St. Louis County. The St. Louis County Republican Central Committee voted to oppose the merger plan.
And speakers like St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, called on GOP activists in the crowd to actively fight back against the proposal.
“As you know, that Better Together plan is a nuclear option to blow everything we know and love about the way we choose to be governed in this county,” Harder said. “And then try to reassemble all this into a metro city from the rubble of that devastation.”
Since Better Together is taking its plan to the statewide ballot, it’s possible that the merger could fail in the city and county and still be implemented if it gets enough votes in other parts of the state.
That’s one of the reasons that Gary Wiegert of the St. Louis Republican Party says GOP activists will need to expand their opposition campaign beyond St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“Even if they were able to pass this statewide and you get a 70 percent no [in St. Louis or St. Louis County], tell me that’s not going to fail,” Wiegert said. “When you force people into a merger that they don’t want, it’s going to ultimately fail, whether you jam it through on the state level or not.”
Better Together hopes to place the city-county merger proposal on the 2020 ballot.
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