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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."