PHOENIX, Ariz. – Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose hardline stance on illegal immigration has drawn him national controversy as well as a Justice Department investigation, says he will not endorse a GOP presidential candidate before next Tuesday’s Arizona primary.
Arpaio had previously endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who dropped out of the race last month and endorsed former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
“You know, I was a Perry guy,” Arpaio said. “We’ll see what happens in the near future. ... (Santorum and I) did a lot of joking. We were talking about the border, my philosophy, and a little about religion. And that’s about it.”
The announcement from Arpaio came in a gaggle with reporters during the Maricopa County Lincoln Day Lunch and Straw Poll. Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had addressed the gathering earlier in the afternoon.
Arpaio also said that he plans to hold a news conference on March 1 announcing the results of an investigation into President Obama’s “birther situation,” although he declined to go into detail about what he plans to say.
“Well, you know what, I’m not going there to get my face on TV,” he told reporters. “I can do that a million other ways.”
Arpaio said that he had met with Santorum on Tuesday morning and that Gingrich had called him last week. All of the candidates in the race have asked for his endorsement, he said, but even so, he doesn’t plan to make a move before the Feb. 28 primary.
“Why does everybody want my endorsement?” he asked reporters as he left the luncheon. “I’m the guy taking all the heat from Washington and everywhere else. Why would they want my endorsement? Haven’t figured that one out yet.”
The embattled sheriff said that he hadn’t ruled out endorsing any members of the GOP field – including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), with whom there appeared to have been a little bad blood.
In addition to being endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an opponent of Arpaio’s immigration stance, Romney had also sought and won the endorsement of another Arizona sheriff, Paul Babeu, who resigned his volunteer leadership spot with the Romney campaign over the weekend when, in the wake of allegations made by an ex-lover, he revealed that he is gay.
“He seems to have forgotten my number,” Arpaio said of Romney. “He did call me briefly. But he has another sheriff that he went with. And he has a right to go with anybody. But I’m sure McCain has a lot of influence on Mitt Romney.”
Asked about his relationship with McCain, Arpiao responded, “Sure, I don’t get a Christmas card from McCain — sure, he doesn’t like my stance on illegal (immigration) – but he’s a nice guy.”
He also declined to weigh in on the firestorm of controversy surrounding Babeu.
“I’m not going to talk about that,” Arpaio said.
An endorsement from Arpaio of Santorum could shake up the race; most recent polls show Romney leading in Arizona, and while Arpaio has become a controversial figure both inside and outside Arizona, he remains an influential figure within the state GOP.
At Tuesday’s Lincoln Day luncheon, one vendor was selling T-shirts with Arpaio’s face on them next to shirts depicting Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) now-famous tarmac encounter with Obama last month.
Arpaio said he counseled Santorum to “stop saying secure the border – that’s okay – but don’t say, ‘First, and then we’ll look at it comprehensively.’ ”
“The reason they say ‘first’ is they don’t want to lock ‘em up in the United States like I do. ... So, don’t keep blaming it on the border first,” he said. “You notice that’s the new word? ‘Border first?’ Why ‘first?’ Then you’ll look into it?”
Asked how he feels about Gingrich, Arpaio noted that the two have a relationship that extends beyond the current presidential race.
“I put all his Reinvent America videos in all the jails for three years so that all the inmates could do is watch Newt Gingrich,” he said. “Everybody forgets that.”
He also offered some colorful advice for the presidential field when it comes to illegal immigration.
“I hope that whoever is the president of Mexico and the U.S. will get together, have a little beer, and smoke, light up a pipe and get together like I did when I was head of the federal drug enforcement in Mexico right after G. Gordon Liddy and I under Nixon closed the border,” he said. “And then I had to take over. They didn’t like us in Mexico, but we were really able to get together.”
He added that he “did it on blueberry pie that my wife baked, and a little whisky with the attorney general of Mexico.”
“I got more done with blueberry pie than the big stick, and that’s how you get things done in Mexico, or other parts of the country,” he said.
Despite his often-combative relationship with the media, Arpaio at one point during his chat with reporters Tuesday had a friendly back-and-forth with PBS’ Gwen Ifill.
“Are you with PBS?” he asked Ifill.
“I am,” Ifill responded.
“You’ve interviewed me before,” Arpaio said.
Ifill nodded. “I have.”
“Did it come out nice?” he asked.
Ifill responded, “Only when you answered my questions.”