Political News

A convict caucus takes shape ahead of midterms

Posted January 9, 2018 3:17 p.m. EST

— The building blocks of a congressional convict caucus are heading to three high-profile primary ballots ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Former Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio, only months removed from a presidential pardon, announced on Tuesday that he was taking his act back to the campaign trail, in pursuit of a Senate seat in Arizona. If not for President Donald Trump's August intervention, Arpaio might well be in prison right now, after being convicted a month earlier of criminal contempt.

The erstwhile sheriff's return to the headlines will offer yet another rallying cry for Democrats and other critics of Trump's claim to a special affinity for and dedication to the rule of law.

On the stump in 2016, Trump embraced the politics of "law and order," a resurrected tool of the Nixon era, when the expression gained its currency as a cultural and racial dog whistle. It became a running theme of his campaign, which Trump capped off by declaring at the Republican convention in Cleveland, "In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate."

Arpaio, like the others, faces a tough road to Capitol Hill and likely won't get help from the national party. The Republican primary in Arizona is getting crowded and Arpaio, who is 85, lost his most recent campaign -- a bid for a seventh term as sheriff in 2016.

The compromised candidate slate also counts former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a disgraced coal titan found guilty in 2015 of conspiring to violate mine safety standards, but vying now to unseat West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, and the former congressman Michael Grimm, better known these days for having pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2014. (If not the time he threatened, on camera, to heave a reporter off a balcony on Capitol Hill.)

Grimm was banking on the support of Steve Bannon in his effort to oust GOP Rep. Dan Donovan, the man who replaced him, in a coming primary fight. But with Bannon's banishment from Trump circles, Grimm has renounced the deposed former Breitbart boss and made most vividly clear his allegiance to Trump.

"As a combat Marine veteran and former FBI agent I took an oath to defend this country and our President," Grimm told the Staten Island Advance last week, "whether it be sacrificing my life for the commander in chief or standing up to slanderous allegations about him."

In West Virginia, Blankenship is looking to shed a deeply, deadly tarnished reputation. With the candidate as its chief executive, the Massey firm was running the Upper Big Branch mine when an explosion there killed 29 workers. In 2011, the year after the disaster, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a report finding that Massey had engaged in "systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts" to evade safety regulations.

"I respect Judge Berger's decision and agree that those who break mine safety laws should be punished to the full extent of the law," West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a potential future colleague, said after Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison, the maximum on offer, in April 2016.

Unlike his fellow campaigning convicts, "Sheriff Joe" never spent a day in jail. Still, his crime -- illegally detaining suspected undocumented immigrants in defiance of a court order -- was, like Arpaio, probably the most visible of the bunch.

Explaining her verdict, the judge in his case said Arpaio exhibited a "blatant disregard" for the law and, apart from "abdicat(ing) responsibility" for his department's actions, had "announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise."

Now, he climbs the political stage anew, with a nod to the President in his announcement.

"I am running for the U.S. Senate from the Great State of Arizona," Arpaio tweeted Tuesday, "for one unwavering reason: to support the agenda and policies of President Donald Trump in his mission to Make America Great Again."