Thanks to “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and Arizona’s secretary of state, the Grand Canyon State is deep into an election-year Birther Renaissance, sparking charges that the two Republican politicos misused their positions of power to curry favor with the 60 percent of Arizona voters who are birther-friendly.
The birther conspiracy theory—that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fake because he was really born in Kenya or Indonesia—has been refuted again and again by credible news outlets, and the state of Hawaii and the White House both posted copies of the president’s birth certificate on their websites.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Secretary of State Ken Bennett (the latter is also co-chair of Mitt Romney’s Arizona campaign and has floated the idea of running for governor in 2014) both say politics don’t factor into their inquiries into the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
Arpaio is investigating the Obama birth certificate because “if this was a fraud, then the people of this county were defrauded as well, thereby giving him jurisdiction to investigate,” his spokeswoman Lisa Allen wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. And Bennett has long maintained that he’s just doing his job by verifying names that go on the November ballot.
Bennett and Arpaio are the only state officials in the nation “to my knowledge” who have sought verification of Obama’s birth, Joshua A. Wisch, special assistant to the Hawaii attorney general, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
And that’s the reason critics say, that he got the distracting birther ball rolling.
In March, Arpaio announced the results of an “investigation” by his volunteer “Cold Case Posse”, headed by World Net Daily reporter Jerome Corsi, the author of The Obama Nation and Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. At the time, posse investigator Mike Zullo hinted that the president’s birth certificate had been Photoshop-ped. (“He is wrong,” wrote Wisch, the Hawaii AG official.)
Last week, the sheriff sent Zullo, along with a deputy whose salary is paid by taxpayers, to Hawaii supposedly to investigate “new developments.” Hawaii officials, the sheriff later maintained, “stonewalled” his investigators, perhaps because they were hiding something. (Wisch said officials met with the Arpaio investigators and gave them publicly-available information. But, “Neither Mr. Corsi nor any Sheriff from Arizona has any authority to investigate or police the Hawaii vital records system, which is maintained in accordance with the highest standards in accordance with State and Federal laws and standards,” he wrote The Daily Beast.)
Next, Arpaio issued a press release about a crazed Obama fan who made death threats against the sheriff on the Internet, whom he said was on the lam, and possibly en route to Arizona. The man was “apparently enraged by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s investigation into the legitimacy of the President’s birth certificate,” the release stated.
In the meantime, Bennett’s office had been badgering the state of Hawaii with emails for months, requesting “verification in-lieu of certified copy” of the president’s birth certificate. It must not have been playing well with moderates, because several days ago, Bennett wrote on his website “I have been on the record since 2009 that I believe the President was born in Hawaii. I am not a “birther”. At the request of a constituent, I asked the state of Hawaii for a verification in lieu of certified copy. We’re merely asking them to officially confirm they have the President’s birth certificate in their possession and are awaiting their response.” But then he said on a radio show he surely hoped Obama was born in Hawaii.
On Wednesday, Bennett caved. Hawaii officials “have officially confirmed that the information in the copy of the Certificate of Live Birth for the President matches the original record in their files… They have complied with the request and I consider the matter closed,” he said in a statement.
Still, Bennett’s perceived months-long love fest with birthers prompted delighted bloggers to label him “Birther-Curious.”
And the normally sober and serious Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts wrote: “We in Arizona are nothing if not one giant teeming conspiracy theory….So it seems only natural that we would take up this noble cause. We may not be the birthplace of the birther movement but where better than Arizona to take one final stand—or leap, if you will, right over the edge?”
But the Obama campaign, which is losing ground to Mitt Romney in the state it wants to turn blue, isn’t laughing.
“Secretary of State Bennett’s flirtation with a conspiracy theory that has been debunked time and time again will have no bearing on the election, but it does present an opportunity for Mitt Romney to finally rise to the occasion and denounce the extreme voices in his party,” Mahen Gunaratna, Arizona communications director for Obama for America, wrote in an email.
(Birthers aren’t going away, and make up a majority of Republican primary voters. Romney, who has never been particularly popular with birthers and may need surrogates to woo the base vote, continues to stay mum about Arizona’s birther politics.)
The birth certificate shenanigans are emblematic of the Sheriff Arpaio’s “doubling down on extremist positions” to distract voters from a record that includes alleged abuse of power, financial mismanagement, and failure to solve other “cold cases”—hundreds of sex-crime cases—said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
But Arpaio may not need to do much explaining. He’s got a multi-million-dollar campaign chest, while his opponent, Paul Penzone, has raised about $125,000. Penzone, an idealistic former cop, deems it “insulting” for Arpaio to claim his birther escapades aren’t politically motivated, and says Arpaio needs to assign those posse members to more important missions, such as solving the 400 unsolved sex-crime cases. (The unsolved cases were first brought to light by news reports in 2009.)
“For the umpteenth time,” the sheriff’s spokeswoman, Lisa Allen, wrote in an email, “we revisited all of the sex crimes cases back in 2009…and have made arrests where possible.” She wrote that “significant changes as to how we investigate sex crimes have been/are being implemented” and “the cold case posse was not involved in those cases as we have a full professionally trained staff dedicated to investigating those crimes.”
The cold case posse, she added, will “reimburse the sheriff for the airfare and hotel costs for the one deputy” who accompanied cold-caser Mike Zullo.
Allen said her boss is not conducting the investigation to “dissuade the media…from covering the DOJ lawsuit,” but noted that the “Sheriff surmises that the Obama administration is displeased about any furtherance of the birth certificate issue and while that displeasure may not have been the impetus for the DOJ, the fact that a lawsuit is now underway probably isn’t breaking any hearts in Washington.”
Arpaio didn’t need to score political points with his birther pursuits, she wrote, to be reelected. His “performance as sheriff over the past 20 years will do the job just fine.”
As Arpaio goes forward with his “investigation,” he’s voiced displeasure with Bennett for putting the president’s name on the ballot.
Meanwhile, Hawaii officials spend more time than they want responding to birther questions, Wisch said, “considering that this matter was resolved years ago.”