Arizona’s Self-Styled “American Sheriff” Wants to Go to Washington
Sheriff Mark Lamb, who fueled nativism and election conspiracies, is now running for the U.S. Senate, the latest tough-talking lawman to use the badge as a political stepping stone.
Jessica Pishko | April 21, 2023
Right after he won his first election for sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona, in 2016, Mark Lamb wore his office-issue polo, with a sheriff’s office crest on the breast pocket, when going out in public. His bald head was usually bare and his attire more subtle, like the southwestern transplant that he is, no cowboy boots or flashy belt buckles.
But Lamb has transformed himself since then. Soon after taking office he found reality television and became a fixture on the immensely popular A&E show “Live PD”, even hosting a spinoff called “Live PD: Wanted” until the series was canceled after Texas sheriff’s deputies were caught on “Live PD” cameras tasing a man to death in 2019. Lamb was also the star of the fifth season of another A&E show, “60 Days In”, which aired in 2019 and chronicled Lamb turning volunteers into undercover informants inside his jail. In 2021, Lamb then launched his own Live PD-inspired show, called “American Sheriff”, which featured him crossing the country to chit chat with other like minded sheriffs, cut against scenes of Lamb posing in the desert sunset as a camera pans slowly over the shadows of cacti. The show aired on Lamb’s newly-created American Sheriff Network, as does his newest production, a show called “Surviving Mann” where contestants undergo “elite military training”—all viewable for a $5 monthly subscription fee.
Early this month, Lamb, a Republican, jumped into next year’s race for Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat, currently held by Democrat-turned-independent Kyrsten Sinema, having fully honed his new “American Sheriff” persona.
In an ad announcing his campaign, Lamb declares, “It’s time for a new sheriff in Washington,” as a series of images flash across the screen zooming in on the details of his new favorite outfit—cowboy hat and boots with worn tips, a big Western belt buckle, a flak vest emblazoned with his title in large letters, and a Glock on his hip.
Lamb, who did not respond to questions for this story, is hardly the first sheriff to try and use his role in law enforcement as a stepping stone for higher political office. His predecessor, former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, ran two failed bids for congress. The infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio twice ran losing campaigns for mayor of his hometown. But other sheriffs have had more success: Troy Nehls, a Republican Houston-area sheriff accused of racial profiling, won election to the U.S. House in 2020, and Joe Lombardo parlayed his previous job as the sheriff of Las Vegas into a successful campaign for Nevada governor last year.
But Lamb, while always a self-professed “gun nut,” did not have a great deal of law enforcement experience when he first ran for sheriff. To compensate, he branded himself as a “constitutional conservative” with political ads calling himself “pro-life,” “pro-gun,” and “pro-religious freedoms.” Unlike many sheriff campaigns, there was hardly a word about crime, jail conditions, or public safety. One 2016 campaign video, titled “The Progressive Are Coming,” featured Hillary Clinton talking about limiting gun sales contrasted with Lamb and his large, Mormon family in a gun store.
When Lamb took over the sheriff’s office in 2017, he talked about wanting to deploy a “business approach,” which apparently mostly meant focusing on marketing the department through logos and revamped social media. He also generated affiliated merchandise, just as The Apprentice launched Trump Steaks, creating “American Sheriff LLC” to sell t-shirts, as well as a nonprofit under the same name, which was investigated for accounting irregularities. Lamb also trademarked what he calls his catchphrase: “Fear Not. Do Right.” It functions primarily as a slogan for Lamb’s t-shirts and is owned by another LLC he created. In 2022, one of Lamb’s sons, Cade, started a podcast named after the catchphrase and using the same brand logo.
Roberto Reveles, a longtime Democratic activist in Pinal County, says that Lamb reaching for a U.S. Senate seat fits into his long history of trying to capitalize on the new tough-sheriff character he created since taking office. “There are lots of questionable activities by Sheriff Lamb that make no sense, other than exploitation of his office,” Reveles said. “He sells Bibles. He sells rifles. He sells children’s books.”
Just as Lamb courted reality television after becoming sheriff, he also courted the far-right by fixating on issues that were core to the identity of Trump voters. He became a talking head on right-wing media, appearing regularly on Fox News and Newsmax, often broadcasting from his truck as if to show how busy he was policing the streets. In 2020, Lamb created a far-right sheriff organization called “Protect America Now,” which fueled GOP fears about border security, gun confiscation, and “antifa.”
In 2022, he partnered with leading purveyors of election fraud conspiracies like True the Vote to form something they called Protect America Vote, a fundraising website that offered a form for citizens to sign their local sheriffs up for a mailing list. This was part of a larger pattern of “constitutional sheriffs”—sheriffs who believe that they are the ultimate authority in their county—using their investigative powers to question election results. After the midterm election, the site disappeared.
Other than parroting election denialism, neither Protect America Now nor Protect America Vote appears to have done much more than provide Lamb with another opportunity to market himself.
In fact, marketing seems to be Lamb’s forte. Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which tracks far-right sheriff movements, believes that Lamb’s campaign will rely heavily on MAGA rhetoric without any additional substance. “Expect his campaign to begin with soft-focus law-and-order imagery before unveiling viscous nativism and election denial conspiracism with a badge,” he said.
As sheriff, Lamb has pulled numerous stunts on the southern border to inflame nativist fears and dehumanize immigrants, typically inviting some unwitting city-slicker—like Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz or Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk—to trek through spiny bushes to gasp at the backpacks, shoes, and other detritus left behind by border crossers.
In a short film Lamb made last year with Gaetz (who was investigated, but not charged, for sex trafficking), the sheriff says, with a smirk, that people “can use force … deadly force” against migrants. This year, an Arizona rancher named George Kelly shot and killed a migrant he says was on his property. Lamb has questioned the murder charges prosecutors filed against Kelly and called the rancher a “very nice guy.” “If you don’t appreciate what happened to the farmer who used self-defense…I don’t know all the facts, but I can tell you the bond seems excessive,” Lamb added.
Gun violence is now the primary cause of death for children in America. This includes record high numbers of homicides, suicides, and accidents. This year has had the highest number of school shootings in the past two decades. Yet, Lamb continues to advocate for unlimited gun ownership and open carry. He raffles assault-style weapons and poses with guns, charging people $500 in a fundraiser “for an evening of shooting, food, and fun.” On his podcast, Lamb’s son Cade recently praised Kyle Rittenhouse for killing two people and injuring one, depicting the teenager shooter as a righteous tough guy.
While the sheriff prided himself on defying COVID regulations, he largely ignored deaths and hospitalizations, which hit Latino communities more than white ones. Instead, he argued for “personal responsibility.” “As long as I’m your sheriff, we will NEVER mandate the vaccine,” he said in a video that went viral and ended up on Fox News. He touted it as a recruitment strategy.
Lamb also declared Jan. 6 a triumph of people exercising their Second Amendment rights, and described the rioters as “very loving Christians”—ignoring the five police officers who either died from their injuries or committed suicide, as well as the over 1,000 people charged with crimes.
In next year’s Republican primary for Senate, Lamb is expected to face other candidates with strong affiliations to the MAGA movement. Kari Lake, a close Trump ally who lost a close governor’s race in 2022 but has refused to admit defeat, is reportedly mulling a run, as is Blake Masters, another prominent election denier who lost the state’s 2022 Senate race. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego is running as a Democrat, and Sinema has yet to announce her intentions.
While Lamb still plays the tough-talking, border-trekking sheriff in his run for Senate, one of the first ads his campaign released this month uses a recent family tragedy to make a personal appeal to voters. It begins with Lamb talking about the pain of losing his son and granddaughter in a car crash just before Christmas last year, illustrated with news footage of the devastating wreckage. About 40 seconds in, the ad then pivots when Lamb mentions that his son struggled with drug addiction. “He even spent time in my jail for issues stemming from fentanyl use,” he says, “Even the sheriff’s office is being touched by this drug crisis.”
“I know what deadly drugs and the criminals peddling them are doing to families and communities, I know what it did to my family,” Lamb says before pivoting to this campaign promise, a declaration of war: “It’s time to declare the drug cartels terrorist organizations and use military force to wipe them out, just like we did to ISIS.”