Having something to hide usually hurts a political candidate’s standing with voters. Not in Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s case.
Lombardo is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. One of the biggest weak spots on his resume was ending the Metropolitan Police Department’s formal cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2019. Metro used to participate in the 287(g) program. That allowed officers to run an arrested individual’s information through an ICE database. ICE could then ask Metro to detain those who were flagged as illegal immigrants.
This partnership allowed ICE to deport illegal immigrants convicted of felonies and other crimes without the risk of in-person raids.
But illegal immigration activists disliked the program. Some believe illegal immigrants should be able to live in the United States without concern.
The ACLU of Nevada cheered when Lombardo completely withdrew Metro from the 287(g) program based on a California court ruling. It is “inappropriate for Nevada agencies to participate in the federal government’s deportation agenda,” said Tod Story, the ACLU of Nevada’s executive director at the time.
The general public and especially Republican primary voters strongly disagree. Aside from the policy implications, this presents a major political problem for Lombardo.
But after Lombardo ended the 287(g) program, he put a policy in place requiring his officers to call ICE anytime day or night about illegal immigrants in custody. Metro informed ICE when an inmate was going to be released, allowing it to take a suspect into custody. Athar Haseebullah, the current ACLU of Nevada executive director, called Metro’s new policy a “workaround.”
Despite the howls from illegal immigration activists, Lombardo’s policy isn’t going to hurt him politically. He even said at the time that he still “intended to cooperate with ICE.” Count me among those who didn’t think his cooperation would be so proactive. A review of his past statements show he wasn’t dishonest, even as he let people, myself included, get the wrong impression.
This move should help his standing with Republican primary voters. Given Lombardo’s front-runner status, the defining question of the primary may be if he’s conservative enough.
On many policy issues, Lombardo is a fairly blank slate. As sheriff, he doesn’t have a voting record on spending, school choice or abortion. Where he does have a record, there is cause for concern. He stayed neutral on the flawed 2016 background check initiative that every other Nevada sheriff opposed. He supports restrictions on magazine capacity. He supported a tax increase for more cops in 2015.
Republican voters should be worried that Lombardo will claim to be a strong conservative during the primary but then govern from the left if elected. Brian Sandoval ran as a hard-right conservative during his contested 2010 gubernatorial primary. He then broke most of his initial promises and pushed through the largest tax hike in state history.
That’s why this incident is so interesting. It turns out that Las Vegas was a sanctuary city in name only. Lombardo canceled the program and promptly changed policy behind the scenes to keep its essence in place. It suggests his conservative beliefs, at least in this area, are sincere.
Lombardo isn’t as conservative as Michele Fiore, the Las Vegas city councilwoman and fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate. But he also isn’t being investigated by the FBI for campaign finance violations. Every GOP candidate, including Lombardo, has a significant policy or political vulnerability.
Against that field, Lombardo probably needs only to convince voters he won’t govern as liberally as Sandoval did. Duping liberal activists in order to help deport criminal illegal immigrants will help him make that case.