America’s most infamous lawman is coming to California this week.

“Don’t think I’m going fishing,” the recently pardoned 85-year-old Arizona cop known simply as Sheriff Joe said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “I am not going away.”

Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff whose hard-line immigration policies divided the country and led to his own criminal conviction, is speaking at a Republican fundraising dinner in Fresno on Friday, an appearance that has local police bracing for protests and some GOP officials staying far away.

Arpaio is hoping to return to the political arena after receiving a pardon from President Donald Trump last month. He was convicted of contempt of court earlier this year, with a judge finding that he had violated court orders to stop racially profiling Latinos in Maricopa County, which includes metro Phoenix. The pardon saved him from a possible sentence of six months in prison.

In an interview on Tuesday afternoon, Arpaio, who lost re-election in November after 24 years in office, said the Fresno event was an example of him re-entering the national spotlight following nine months in the political wilderness. It’ll be his second public appearance since the pardon — the start of what he envisions as a renewed effort to fight for his conservative ideas around the country.

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But the reception he’s gotten among party leaders in Fresno suggests that he’s as controversial as he’s ever been.

A raft of prominent Central Valley Republicans, including Fresno’s mayor, have bowed out of the annual event, some citing scheduling conflicts and others saying outright that they’re steering clear of the fundraiser because Arpaio will be speaking. Besides racial profiling, his department was also accused of mistreating jail inmates, targeting political opponents and failing to investigate child sex crimes.

“Historically just about every local elected Republican would be at these events,” said Marcelino Valdez, a former state GOP official in the Central Valley who is attending the dinner. “Sheriff Arpaio has scared off some people with political ambitions.”

After losing his re-election campaign in November 2016, Arpaio said, he told his wife he was done with politics. But President Trump has reinvigorated him, and now he’s planning to travel the country to support Republican candidates and fight for causes he believes in. That includes his continuing (and widely debunked) effort to prove that former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is fake, Arpaio said.

His future could also include another run for elected office, although he was mum on details. “If I did, I don’t even know what office I’d run for,” he said. Political observers have speculated he could run for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, potentially challenging Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic.

Arpaio, who describes himself as the victim of a political “witch-hunt,” said he never applied for the presidential pardon, which Trump made without going through the typical channels in the U.S. Department of Justice. “I didn’t ask for the pardon. I accepted it, and I’m honored to receive it from our president,” Arpaio said.

He calls Trump — with whom he shares a birthday — his “hero,” not just for the get-out-of-jail-free card but for his crackdown on immigration.

“It took me 85 years to finally know in my own heart who my hero is,” Arpaio said. “You know who that person is? The president of the United States.”

The list of no-shows at the Fresno event is striking. Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, a Republican who has attended previous GOP fundraising dinners, is in Spain this week touring high-speed rail infrastructure, but said he wouldn’t attend the event even if he was in Fresno.

“While popular with some, Arpaio is a villain to others,” Brand said in a statement. “My job as mayor is to unite the community, and I am focusing my time and energy on events and policies that further those goals.”

Rep. David Valadao, who represents a chunk of the Central Valley and the Fresno suburbs, will not be attending the fundraiser, a spokeswoman said without giving a reason. Valadao, who represents a heavily Latino district that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, is seen as one of the most vulnerable California Republican members of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who was originally scheduled to introduce Arpaio at the dinner, said she wasn’t attending because of a scheduling conflict after organizers changed the event date. Her replacement, Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, later bailed on the event because of the controversy over Arpaio.

“I had to look up what he was even being pardoned for,” Robinson told the Fresno Bee. “I just don’t want my constituents to get a twisted impression and think I’m wanting to rub shoulders with Joe Arpaio.”

In the interview, Arpaio blasted Republican officials avoiding him.

“I would expect that from Democrats, not Republicans,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m so controversial. If the president showed up there, he’s controversial — would they stand up on the stage with him?”

Fred Vanderhoof, the chair of the county party, said the invitation to Arpaio was made in June, well before Trump’s pardon. He attributed the controversy to liberal protesters scared of free speech.

“Our purpose is to honor veterans and law enforcement,” Vanderhoof said in an interview. “The left has a megaphone and they’re blowing it loudly and the elected officials are seeing that. We just have to stand strong.”

On Tuesday morning, party officials announced they were moving the venue of the dinner from a restaurant near downtown to an event space in the outskirts, which party officials said was because of the impact of potential protests on traffic.

Democrats have condemned the event. “It is shameful that the Fresno County Republican Party is fundraising off one of the nation’s most notorious agents of racism and bigotry,” Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who supervised Arpaio’s federal prosecution when he worked at the Justice Department, said in a statement.

Even as Republican leaders are bowing out, ticket sales for the event are “stronger than the previous two years,” Vanderhoof said. As of Tuesday morning, tickets were nearly sold out.

Political operatives say local party organizations often invite controversial speakers to drum up ticket sales and raise money — and that the controversy Arpaio’s appearance stirs up will blow over by the next election.

In his speech, Arpaio said he plans to talk about illegal immigration, the legal case against him and what he thinks of football players kneeling during the national anthem. Spoiler alert: He’s not a fan.

He said he misses the job of sheriff and makes no apologies for his tenure. He quoted from his favorite song, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — “regrets I’ve had a few, too few to mention.”

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(c)2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Visit the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.eastbaytimes.com

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