Things are just getting going when the bomb scare comes, so no one wants to hear from the police chief when he scurries to the stage. But he takes the mic anyway.
There's a suspicious package, he says.
The threat looks real.
We're not evacuating, but we suggest you leave in an orderly fashion.
A good 1,300 people are packed into this Overland Park conference center. They have come to be riled, to be moved, even to be scared — but not by some silly little bomb threat.
"We're not going anywhere!" one man yells. Then another: "Hell, no, we won't go!"
In an evening of high-pitched consensus, things are suddenly quiet and tense. But then Kris Kobach steps back to the mic, his big, angular face emitting a sense of calm. He'd been riding an oratorical tidal wave when the police chief rushed the stage. He fully intends to see that wave to shore.
"Seriously," he says first, "if you have any fear at all, please don't hesitate to leave."
But no one moves. Down in the front row, an older woman says something — to herself but also for the group: "I can't think of a better way to go."
Yes, the perfect place to die: Engulfed by 1,300 people who all agree that tonight's speakers are genuine heroes. The lawyer who wrote the country's toughest illegal-immigration laws and the sheriff who enforces them at all costs: a match made in America.
Kobach is the lawyer, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and rising star among illegal immigrants' most vigilant foes. This event is ostensibly a rally for his bid to become Kansas' next secretary of state. But Kobach, armed with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford, is smart enough to avoid the topic of his campaign.
He has made his name (and plenty of money) flying from state to state, crafting and defending laws designed to root out illegal immigrants. The laws he has written punish illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them, landlords who rent to them and states that educate them. Civil rights groups have labeled him a racist and have sued, often successfully, to block his efforts. But the fight has granted him a saintly status among the people packed into this conference room.
His most famous work is Arizona's S.B. 1070, which makes illegal immigration a state crime and forces local law enforcement to seek out and arrest illegal immigrants. The law has attracted national attention, accusations of racial profiling, and lawsuits by the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union. (The ACLU suit is being underwritten by The Pitch's parent company, Village Voice Media.) But S.B. 1070 is just one of many similar laws in the works. And with more than half of Americans supporting it, there will be more laws, and more Kobach.
Kobach knows all that. So while he faces a tough Republican primary in less than two weeks — against well-regarded if little-known opponents who are busy touring Kansas talking about being secretary of state — he knows that nothing will improve his chances like being the Guy Who Ships Out Illegals.
Besides, tonight — like much of Kobach's rise to fringe fame — is about Arizona. As much as these people have come to see Kobach, they've come to see the old man sitting behind him: Joe Arpaio.
The sheriff of Phoenix's Maricopa County since 1992, Arpaio is known for housing prisoners in tents and forcing them to wear pink underwear. More recently, he's become known for his aggressive fight to keep illegal immigrants out of Arizona.
He's less famous for the rest of his résumé, which reads like that of some faraway dictator: dangerous health conditions and a history of prisoner deaths in his jails; sweeping witch hunts against political and media rivals, including readers and employees of The Pitch's sister paper Phoenix New Times; and other civil rights and human rights abuses, many of them against Mexican immigrants, illegal and legal.
His "rule of law" has led to thousands of lawsuits, costing his county millions of dollars. He's also the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, which he brags about like a stripe on his uniform.
It's the sort of reputation you might expect a candidate to steer clear of two weeks before an election. But to Kobach and his faithful, Arpaio's transgressions are something to chuckle about — just more legend for the sheriff's ever-expanding folk tale.
That Kobach's biggest campaign rally features an illegal-rousting, border-state lawman might seem unnatural — especially considering the not-very-Wild West duties of the Kansas secretary of state, who runs elections, licenses businesses, and oversees the state's notary-public program. The last guy elected to the job, Republican Ron Thornburgh, stuck around for 15 years without making a name for himself, and no one has bothered to update the office's website for his replacement, Chris Biggs.
But given Kobach's vision for his political career, the unhinged-lawman motif fits perfectly.
"I would be transforming the [secretary of state] model somewhat," he told The Wichita Eagle last month. It would change "from a ministerial model to more of a law-enforcement model," he said.
It was an odd proclamation. The job is nothing if not ministerial, and with the state facing a $400 million shortfall — and with the secretary of state's office firmly in the black — chasing criminals seems destined to be accompanied by the sound of money fluttering out the window.
"We have the KBI [Kansas Bureau of Investigation] to investigate. We have the attorney general to prosecute," says J.R. Claeys, one of Kobach's two opponents in next month's primary. "I don't disagree with going after people who commit fraud. I just don't think we should pay for it twice."
But it's Kobach's reputation as "enemy to illegals" that has gotten him this far, and there's no stopping now. He has positioned himself as the prince of common-sense America, riding into towns and vanquishing illegal immigrants with his sharply crafted briefs. It helps that he looks the part, seeming to have been sketched by Disney's prince-drawing division: wavy hair, shoulders fit for a linebacker, a jaw line that deserves its own insurance rider.
To let his stardom shine on his campaign, Kobach has made voter fraud his singular issue. His volunteers' T-shirts feature crossed-out logos for ACORN, the group busted for illegally registering voters. His website's space is devoted mostly to the threat of "stolen" elections. Who's stealing them? He doesn't say, but the implication is obvious: Illegal immigrants are among the culprits.
When asked by a reporter before the rally, Kobach lays out his plan to transform Kansas elections. He would push for new laws that require voters to show government-issued IDs and make first-time voters prove their citizenship.
It all makes for a very tidy brochure. But the rhetoric defies a chorus of experts who say the specter of voter fraud — people voting from the grave, illegal immigrants stealing elections, felons deciding races — is severely overstated. Fighting the problem is expensive and time-consuming, voter-rights advocates say, and it shuts out more legitimate voters than illegitimate ones.
"A public official is going to advocate for a voter ID in Kansas to stop a problem that doesn't exist," says Dan Winter, executive director of the Kansas and Western Missouri chapter of the ACLU. "He's going to be wasting time and money. When he should be going about the minutiae of making the state run better, this guy's going to be race baiting."
Kobach stands alone on his platform of stolen elections and dead voters. His other primary opponent, Elizabeth Ensley, says, "You have to take it seriously and look into it, but Kansas has good laws." Biggs, the current secretary of state, says Kobach would be fighting a "problem that doesn't exist."
Thornburgh, the former secretary, wouldn't talk with The Pitch, but he told the Kansas Free Press in an interview earlier this year: "We haven't had voter-fraud problems. By setting up an ID system, that will require us to pay for those IDs.... We have to decide on how much voter fraud we have and if it's practical. I live in a rural area, and many people drive up to 40 miles to vote. They get to the polls, don't have their IDs, and they get angry and may never vote again."
Kobach calls Thornburgh "defensive" and claims that fraud grew "under his watch." And while he admits that there are few examples of illegal immigrants voting in elections, he says that could be because we're not looking hard enough. So beyond pushing for voter IDs, Kobach says he would scour the state's databases for illegally registered voters.
Scouring databases would at least fall among those workaday, ministerial duties that Kobach wants to abandon. But in his most notable stint as a boss, Kobach didn't reveal himself to be a particularly adept manager.
In 2007, Kobach was named chairman of the Kansas GOP. During his two-year tenure, a Federal Election Commission audit revealed that he botched his number one job: keeping track of the money. The office's rent went unpaid for months, The Kansas City Star reported, and bank statements piled up untouched. The party's coffers were drained, dipping below $5,000.
Kobach blamed the mismanagement on Christian Morgan, the state GOP executive director. But it wasn't Kobach's only blunder as chairman.
Late in 2007, Blue Tide Rising, a liberal Kansas political blog, obtained a letter in which Kobach seemed to boast about the party's use of a controversial — and in some cases illegal — election tactic. It's called "voter caging," and it involves sending direct mail to registered voters and using undeliverable mail to challenge voters' registrations. It's obviously dubious; voters move. But the letter seemed to boast about the party's use of the ploy.
"The Kansas GOP has identified and caged more voters in the last 11 months than the previous two years!" the letter crowed.
Kobach calls the situation "laughable." He claims that the letter actually was referring to the party's Voter Vault, a nationwide database maintained by the GOP. It's a plausible explanation, considering the letter's context. But just in case, he also blames that on Morgan, who could not be reached for comment.
"He chose an unfortunate term," Kobach says, before being pulled away by his wife. The rally is still a half-hour away, but fans are showing up to take photos with him and the sheriff — at $250 a click.
As Kobach attends to his last-minute shmoozing, Arpaio looks bored. A few minutes before showtime, the sheriff wanders into the heavy July heat. Suited private security guards urge one another to "keep an eye on him."
"America's Toughest Sheriff" is now 78, and he looks less like the gunslinger lawman that Google Images memorializes — big hat, tan uniform, gun in the holster — and more like an aimless grandfather. Tonight, the only obvious tribute to his particular brand of law enforcement is his tiepin: a little gold pistol.
He wanders mostly unnoticed through a crowd of people who have come to see him. Eventually he makes his way to a tent where conservative radio personality Darla Jaye is broadcasting live.
"What kind of tent is this?" Arpaio jokes to Jaye, a reference to the tents where he houses his prisoners. "Get a real tent."
Jaye, recognizing the sheriff, scrambles back from commercial so she can interview him. He obliges. But he had a different motivation for wandering toward the crowd. "I want to see the illegals," he says. "Where are they?"
Arpaio has flown to town to stump for Kobach, but he knows to give the people what they've come for: a giant helping of ship-'em-out bluster. He brags about the Department of Justice investigation into his office.
"Whose civil rights are you violating?" Jaye asks, sounding legitimately dumbfounded. "Criminals?"
He shrugs off the question, more concerned with the "illegals" he's looking for. "This is a low crowd," he complains, gesturing to the protesters across the lot. "I usually get 10,000."
"They had to be bused in," Jaye in-forms him.
They're a happy pair, baking in the sun under a tent, surrounded by a polite audience of like-minded Americans who whoop at the mention of "Mexicans." They could go on, but suddenly Kobach himself is standing beneath the tent, calling for the sheriff to head inside.
It's rally time.
You might expect Kobach to deal reluctantly with Arpaio, the way a child might approach a wacky uncle. It's one thing to partner with a controversial lawman when you're flying around the country rooting out "illegals"; it's another when you're running for office.
This is especially true given Kobach's history. After working as a city councilman in Overland Park, Kobach made an unsuccessful run for state senate in 2000. The next year, he took a fellowship that landed him in Attorney General John Ashcroft's office, where he helped design a program that forced men from certain Muslim countries to register with the federal government, resulting in thousands of deportations.
He returned to Kansas to run for Congress in 2004, against Democrat Dennis Moore. But he lost again, by 11 points — a setback that was blamed on allegations of his ties with extremists.
Kobach has long been dogged by his association with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the anti-immigration group whose founder, John Tanton, has been tied to white supremacists; it also has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kobach has done much of his law-crafting work around the country on behalf of FAIR's legal arm.
Kobach brushes off those claims, and he's comfortable enough with Arpaio to walk around clutching autographed pairs of the sheriff's notorious pink underwear. And as Arpaio goes off the air, Kobach waits patiently to usher him inside.
"If you come to Arizona, call me," Arpaio tells Jaye's listeners as he leaves to re-enter the conference hall. "We won't ask for your papers."
The patriotism is at full blast by the time Kobach and Arpaio wade into the throng. Men pace the aisles waving American flags. Colorful signs sprout from the sea of red, white and blue, announcing, "Illegal Means Illegal" and "We Love Arizona." People are spilling into the hallways, crouching on the floor next to the stage, and sitting in the very last rows. Their views are obstructed by cameras belonging to every local TV station.
"I hope the fire chief in Overland Park isn't a Democrat," jokes Chris Stigall, the conservative talk-show host and the evening's master of ceremonies.
After an opening speaker — an Ecuadorean immigrant named Angelo Miño who has joined forces with the anti-illegal movement — Stigall introduces Kobach. The banner that hangs over Kobach's head reiterates his run for secretary of state, but Kobach will make no mention of his campaign in his speech. This crowd has come to hear about Arizona, about The Law, and about spreading the sheriff's "attrition through enforcement" approach to ridding America of illegal immigrants.
They get what they've come for. Kobach tells them that S.B. 1070 "is built like a tank" and assures victory against the ACLU and the Obama administration. There is no mention of paths to citizenship, of middle ground to tread. There are illegals, and they must go.
"We love immigrants who come and learn English and want to assimilate," he says, setting up one of several standing ovations. "We even love the illegal aliens. But we'd really love it if they'd pack their bags and go home!"
He backfills the bombast with cold, somewhat flimsy facts. He cites a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that claims illegal immigration costs the U.S. economy $82 billion a year, but he leaves unmentioned that the true cost is unknown — and how some economists argue that illegal immigration actually provides a net boost to the economy.
He also claims that Phoenix now has the world's second-highest kidnapping rate, with more than 200 every year — a statistic he blames on the state's place at the center of the human- and drug-trafficking trades. But this Phoenix-as-Mogadishu tale, a recent favorite of Sen. John McCain, isn't nearly as scary as advertised. While the city does see its share of kidnappings, its own police department has debunked Kobach's myth.
"The media created that," Sgt. Tommy Thompson told the Arizona Republic this year. "People started running with it without any factual basis." In fact, he said, kidnappings are now dropping.
But that doesn't stop Kobach, who fires his hyperbole into the crowd like a stale hot dog from an air cannon. Then, to make sure the issue hits home, he estimates that Phoenix's metro area is about twice the size of Kansas City's, and he fantasizes about a Kansas City with 100-plus kidnappings a year.
"People wouldn't just be conceal-carrying, they'd be open-carrying," he says, slyly slipping his NRA rating into his localized portrait of chaos.
Kobach then launches into a complaint about how illegal immigration has been hijacked and polarized, and made to seem as if there are only two options: amnesty for everyone or deportation for everyone.
"There's a third option," he says. "There's a rational option. The rational option is that you ratchet up enforcement and people self-deport!"
There is no fourth option.
Eventually, after powering through the bomb scare, which turned out to be an unattended briefcase, Kobach passes the mic to Arpaio.
"I don't like to use the word hero," Arpaio says. "But you have one here."
He picks up where he left off outside, boasting about the DOJ investigation and the "only female chain gang in the world." And, of course, those tents. The 17th anniversary of the tents is this month, he muses, coinciding nicely with the Kobach-penned S.B. 1070 taking effect. "I'm going to get an extra set of tents for this new law," he says.
That his newest inmates will arrive in the middle of summer only makes the timing more perfect.
"Tomorrow, it'll be about 140 degrees in the tents," he brags. No one complains, but he fires off his stock response anyway. "Our men and women fighting, they're in tents," he says. "They never committed a crime. So quit complaining."
Finishing off his greatest hits, Arpaio ruminates on the famous pink boxers that he forces inmates to wear. "They hate pink," he explains. "Why would you put them in a color they like?" It's a neat transition to the evening's close, when Stigall will auction off another pair of those autographed boxers.
But first, with Kobach smiling behind him, Arpaio makes one final pitch for his young friend.
"He should be running for president," Arpaio says, as the crowd rises one last time. "But we'll take secretary of state."