An Arizona Sheriff, His Helicopter and a U.S. Senate Run
In April, Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb — a GOP lawman and candidate for U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D) Senate seat — posted a video showing him in a helicopter “just south of Pinal County.” Lamb announced from a bird’s eye perch high above the terrain of the U.S.-Mexico border that “they bring a lot of drugs through here,” adding: “If you chase them, they’ll run.”
The video proceeds to show Lamb on the ground engaging with migrants who have entered the U.S. in order to claim asylum, which is legal under federal and international law. Cowboy-hatted and armed to the teeth, Lamb engages with a group of women and children, accusing them of lying. It’s highly produced propaganda that serves as an advertisement for Lamb’s Senate campaign under the auspices of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.
Lamb purchased the helicopter with funds from Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that gives local law enforcement money to “support joint efforts to secure the United States’ borders.” Such money can be used for personnel, equipment or travel expenses, so long as it relates to “border security.” A 2017 audit of the program by the Office of the Inspector General found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which administered the grant, “did not meet their oversight responsibilities to monitor Stonegarden grantees, issue guidance and approve costs, and demonstrate program performance.”
Since he announced his Senate campaign, Lamb has used his platform to spread conspiracy theories about immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, calling it an “invasion” in a Facebook campaign video. “We must stop this invasion, or we are going to have big problems,” he says. The candidate and lawman is not afraid to use threats of violence.
In another campaign video, Lamb calls for the U.S. military to “wipe out” drug cartels “just like we did ISIS.” “I’ve been so frustrated as a sheriff, now I’ve thrown my hat into the race for the U.S. Senate,” he said on Fox News. He names “secure the border” and “combat the cartels” as “targets” illustrated by the sheriff himself firing an assault rifle into the desert landscape. The viewer is left to imagine who is on the other end of the gun.
But, Lamb’s anti-immigrant fervor, which echoes the talking points of the “white replacement” conspiracy theory promulgated by far-right champions like Tucker Carlson, is also an assault on America’s democracy. As historian Kathleen Belew told NPR, the idea that America’s demographics are changing — and potentially benefiting the Democratic Party — is the root of Republican efforts to prevent all votes from being counted: “So this is attached to redistricting. This is attached to gerrymandering. This is attached to disenfranchisement efforts and the gutting of drive-in voting and vote by mail. All of this is, like, a mechanical exercise of disenfranchisement that’s attached to white supremacy in some really persistent ways. And it’s going to take an enormous amount of work to sort it out and secure a democratic process.”
Don’t forget that Lamb was one of the most prominent supporters of True the Vote — a far-right group peddling unfounded voter fraud conspiracies — going so far as to campaign for donations even though the organization has faked their finances and lied to their donors. In a “secret” meeting with True the Vote supporters, Lamb asked for donations, saying the money would be used to “encourage sheriffs to enforce the law.” (My reporting has indicated that the extent of Lamb’s activities was limited to sending a letter to sheriffs via a now-defunct website.) Lamb publicly touted the debunked claims of Dinesh DeSouza’s conspiracy-laden film, “2000 Mules.” When residents of Pinal County, alarmed by Lamb’s anti-democratic views, came to express their opinions during public comment at a county meeting, Lamb called them un-American.
Lamb is wrong, of course. It is quintessentially American to participate in the democratic process, which includes voting, public comment and political speech, without threat of violence from law enforcement or vigilantes. Those Pinal County residents expressing concerns about their sheriff were acting as exemplars of the democratic ideal by engaging in debate and holding their elected officials accountable as best they could.
Despite the fact that the right to vote applies to all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity or gender identity, Lamb is happy to use his public persona and political campaign — funded by American tax dollars — to spread alarmist theories about changing demographics.
By Democracy Docket contributor and sheriffs expert, Jessica Pishko.
In Arizona, voters were harassed and threatened by armed vigilantes who patrolled ballot drop-boxes and took pictures of license plates. Other self-appointed watchdogs videotaped voter registration drives that become evidence in criminal prosecutions. In Yuma County, Arizona, a woman was sentenced to 30 days in jail based on one such video even though the sheriff’s office and the attorney general’s office could not connect her to any widespread conspiracy. (She pled guilty to one count of “ballot abuse.”) One Yuma County resident told the New York Times that the prosecution was deterring others from voting: “[Residents] feel they’re going to get nailed if they do something wrong.”
Democracy is about more than ballots. Spreading lies and conspiracy theories about purported “hordes” of migrants encourages hate crimes and everyday vigilantism, to deadly results. This year, an Arizona rancher shot and killed a migrant he claimed was on his property. (Lamb himself expressed support for the shooter, who had previously written a self-published novel about killing Latinos).
When people fear leaving their homes, the democratic process suffers. States are passing bills at an alarming rate that narrow the right to vote through identification requirements, limited polling locations and gerrymandering. But the GOP is also threatening democracy by making this country a place where people are afraid to leave their homes, afraid of public spaces and afraid of speaking. There cannot be democracy unless voters are free from violence.
Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and how law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.