Fresno Republicans drank in nearly an hour’s worth of riffs on immigration, gun rights, President Donald Trump and more from the polarizing former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at their annual Second Amendment barbecue Friday night.
As he did at a news conference earlier Friday evening, Arpaio held little back when discussing a variety of political and societal issues with a few hundred or so Fresno County GOP supporters. Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients should be sent back to their country and given a “fast track” back to America, he said. President Donald Trump is his personal hero. He was just doing his job in Maricopa County. Obama’s birth certificate is 100 percent fake.
The crowd – mostly older white men and women – funneled into a small, hot dining room after passing through no less than three security checkpoints and hundreds of protesters whose chants could be heard faintly as those in attendance waited outside for dinner.
I was invited by my father, Ray Appleton, who was in turn invited by former Sanger mayor and current Fresno GOP vice-chair Mark Johnson.
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Arpaio – called a tough-on-crime patriot by some, a brutal racist by others – has gained notoriety over the years for his unique approach to marshaling criminals and those awaiting trial in the Maricopa County Jail. Inmates were forced to wear striped uniforms and pink underwear while sleeping in tents in the Arizona desert – moves Arpaio has been happy to flaunt in public. Some of the more serious accusations against him – including that he did not provide adequate food and shackled a pregnant undocumented woman to her bed – were not discussed as openly by either Arpaio or his audience Friday.
Earlier this year, a federal judge found Arpaio in contempt of court after his office refused to stop detaining people solely because it suspected them of being undocumented. He was pardoned by Trump on Aug. 25.
Standing up for Sheriff Joe
Fresno GOP Chairman Fred Vanderhoof introduced the former sheriff, telling the audience he was proud of them for standing up for Sheriff Joe, as Arpaio was called throughout the event.
He also made light of the national opposition to his organization’s choice for the event, which is in its third year and typically honors law enforcement and veterans, by calling out the Democratic National Committee. He claimed the group called Fresno County racist for hosting Arpaio, something he said he considered “a badge of honor.”
Lt. Col. Lorenzo Rios, a retired U.S. Marine and U.S. Army soldier, acted as the master of ceremonies. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims was originally slated to handle the microphone, but she cited a scheduling conflict. Kings County Sheriff David Robinson backed out after he learned of Arpaio’s legal issue.
Rios kept it light, joking that he knew he didn’t have to ask them to stand for the pledge of allegiance – even saying someone would come by and make you stand if you didn’t. He also encouraged the crowd to mingle.
“Make new friends, because you may lose some friends for being here,” Rios said.
At about 8 p.m., Arpaio took the stage to a standing ovation.
The former sheriff thanked the Fresno Police Department and other law enforcement agencies for the security provided. The event was heavily guarded, with guests passing through three police checkpoints just to park their cars. After that, a check-in and quick pass with a metal detecting wand.
Multiple doors were guarded. Armed and unarmed security patrolled the Sunnyside Events grounds. Arpaio had at least two bodyguards, whom he said would not allow him to talk to the demonstrators assembled outside.
Arpaio drew heavy applause for his riffs on the Second Amendment, National Football League players taking a knee and Trump.
He said he worked to arm most of his citizens, telling them that if someone opens fire on a crowd, they should “take your gun out and kill the guy before the cops get there.”
He told the audience that millionaire football players should be fired for refusing to stand for the National Anthem, even saying he would pay for NFL owners to buy miniature American flags for each spectator as a show of force to the players.
Arpaio agrees with basically everything Trump does, he told the audience, and not because Trump pardoned him. He believes the president cares about law enforcement and veterans – of which Arpaio is both. He has forced Republicans to stop “hiding” from the country’s illegal immigration problem.
The immigration question came up later, when an audience member asked Arpaio’s opinion on DACA. The sheriff said America should “put them on an airplane” back to their country, then “fast track them back.” This drew some applause and cheers, but it was not as warm a response as he received when bashing football players or talking about his gun.
As he did in the news conference, Arpaio denied allegations of being a racist. He was authorized by the federal government under the Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act to police immigration, he said, and he did so with “common sense.”
“If they can’t get you on one thing, they always call you a racist,” he said, drawing both laughter and applause.
Arpaio showed restraint when asked several times how his brand of justice could be brought to Fresno County, saying he would not tell any other sheriff or police chief how to do their job. He also sidestepped a question about the “tyranny of the Ninth Circuit” – apparently a reference to the San Francisco-based federal court believed by some Republicans to be too soft on immigration.
Local roll call
Although the event was a fundraiser for the local GOP, most of Fresno County’s elected Republican leaders were conspicuously absent from Friday’s event.
Rep. David Valadao of Hanford was not there. Tulare Republican Devin Nunes sent a representative.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand was in Spain on a high-speed rail fact-finding trip, but he previously said he would not have attended if he was in town due to split opinions on Arpaio. City Councilman Garry Bredefeld also refused to attend.
Councilman Steve Brandau was one of the few elected officials in attendance, and he made his present felt by begging Arpaio to run against Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. The former sheriff told Brandau he didn’t like to speak ill of elected Republicans, but he didn’t appreciate McCain or House Speaker Paul Ryan disagreeing with his pardon.
A recording from Mims praised the Second Amendment but made no mention of Arpaio.
A few other council members and board members from various smaller towns in Fresno County also attended.
The event itself was quite tame, with some light excitement provided when several pro-Arpaio protesters – decked out in Trump campaign gear – arrived to brief everyone on the protests and eat.
And what do you serve at a Joe Arpaio speaking event? Mexican food, of course. Enchiladas and chile verde.