In October, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the top cop in Arizona’s Maricopa County, will appear before Department of Justice lawyers to defend himself against charges of criminal contempt. The news of that impending status conference came as an anonymous message of no confidence, supposedly penned by Maricopa County employees, was sent to his office. If prosecuted, Arpaio, who has nicknamed himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and has controversially served in the state’s most populous county since 1993, could possibly serve time for allegedly allowing—and even promoting—the racial profiling of Latinos.
Forever lackadaisical about federal intervention, Arpaio, who is currently campaigning for reelection, says he will not resign, will not plea bargain and will definitely win in November. He’s already running ads in the state wherein he calls himself a “fiscal conservative” who is “tough on crime.”
But in fact, a bevy of lawsuits against Arpaio, who has been repeatedly sanctioned by the Department of Justice for racial profiling and prioritizing immigration offenses over other offenses like sexual assault, has already cost taxpayers $150 million. Nonetheless, there is in fact a very good chance that the 84-year-old sheriff will remain in office come November. And as long as he rules over Maricopa County, his cops will enforce immigration laws, no matter what the feds have to say about the legality of them. Arpaio’s breed of xenophobic law and order has been popular for as long as he’s been in office, but he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Trump.
It’s July, and the sheriff has just finished a halting speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that lasted six minutes. In it, he praised Donald Trump for being a rare exception of a man who promises to be just as tough on illegal immigration as he is. Arpaio prides himself on having started the entire national conversation about illegal immigration and he was a birther long before Trump was.
After his speech, I search the RNC floor. I finally bump into Arpaio right where he was spposed to be: the Arizona delegation.
Arpaio is a popular item. Interviewers impatiently jostle for his attention, along with those who simply want to pay him tribute. As we talk, Fox News pundits Kimberly Guilfoyle and Bret Baier come up to greet him, with Baier calling him “Sheriff Joe” like a small boy fawning over a real, Western hero. Guilfoyle, a hard-ass former prosecutor who co-hosts right-wing chat fests Outnumbered and The Five, kisses him on the cheek.
Afterward, Arpaio jokes, “CNN doesn’t kiss me,” which is kind of funny. Arpaio’s humor is somewhat disconcerting, especially when you consider how his antics have driven bands like Desaparecidos and Andrew Jackson Jihad to write furious songs about him. But Arpaio isn’t offended by negative attention. “Never bite the hand that feeds you,” he says to me in what seems to be his typical off-kilter mixture of savvy and senile.
As much as he can enthuse about Trump, Arpaio doesn’t appear to have many sincere emotions. The sole exception is when he speaks speaks about his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Apraio tells me Trump phoned his wife when he heard. “I didn’t need him to use my wife to get to me, you know?” he says. “Politicians use wives. He didn’t do it to hook me. I was already hooked. I was hooked at day one.”
As we talk, our interview becomes eight minutes of struggling to get him back to talking about real matters—or at least the actual question I pose. The conversation is a war. He asks me if I want to know his age. He tells me things I could look up on Google or Wikipedia. He confusingly says, “Hugh Hefner has my underwear.” (He circles back to that later, explaining that he meant a pair of the infamous cotton-candy-pink underwear he makes his inmates wear.) He chats about how Pamela Anderson visited his jail last year to pass out PETA-friendly food and about how he once visited a vegetarian restaurant, which he speaks about in a disdainful tone. Throughout, he questions my affiliation with Playboy. His dour demeanor makes it seem like a condescending challenge, even if it is intended to offer grandfatherly levity.
After several minutes of wasted time, I finally get Arpaio to answer a question about drug legalization. Unsurprisingly, the man is against it because he “spent 55 years fighting the drug problem,” referring to his time at the Drug Enforcement Administration well before it was called that. Legalizing drugs, he says, would make every problem much worse. He’s worried about the border, not just because of undocumented workers; heroin, too, comes over in batches. Trump can stop it all.
America’s toughest sheriff does compromise, however, on medical marijuana. “If that can help the veterans and the senior citizens…” he says. The research proving that medical marijuana can help cancer patients, like his wife, does not escape me. “I just wish they would dole it out in a drug store prescription like you do with everything else.”
My time gets interrupted when Fox News’s digital team asks for an exclusive. “I was just on you,” says the Sheriff to the dot-comers, puzzled. He then turns to me. “How much more you got?” Thus far, he has let me take up some of his time while blocking other reporters from butting in. This might be his version of politeness—to let me listen to him ramble one-on-one— but the conversation has left me strangely exhausted. I can’t think up a final question, damning or even softball. “You know what?” I say. “You go ahead.”
I find it comical how other reporters crowd him, wanting to know Arpaio’s wise take on Trump and Trump’s bizarre immigration policies. “He builds hotels; I’m sure he can build a wall. I can build a wall,” is his response. It’s always that easy for the voters who want a wall, and Arpaio is no exception.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been stationed around the world in Turkey, Mexico and South America. He’s been hounded by the DOJ for years and he ignores them. They haven’t got him yet. He’s not worried about Hillary Clinton, either, because she’s not going to win.
Arpaio has many puzzling tirades to offer, but in reality, those are nothing more than the last gasps of what might be confused for “toughness” in a younger man who has turned into nothing more than a fame-hungry politician. He believes that he has saved his constituents more than he’s cost them—mostly by housing inmates in his infamous Tent City and serving rotten food in his jails. He thinks he’s telling it like it is. And in person, he acts as if you and he are having a real, no-bull conversation. But not really. He’s almost always just talking at you.
In August, he easily won his primary while ignoring the other candidates. In November, Democrat Paul Penzone will face off against the sheriff. Though he lost to Arpaio by six points last election, Penzone has got billionaire George Soros funding attack ads and flyers on his behalf—though not, he claims, with his input—and observers think he has a better chance than previous competitors. Even a few polls from before the primaries showed Penzone beating Arpaio by three points. Sheriff Joe has raised more than $10 million, though, and much of it comes from out-of-state donors.
If Trump wins in November, it’s as if Sheriff Joe must win as well. They’ve helped each other. Trump might as well have learned xenophobia and birtherism from Arpaio; just look at how well it has served his campaign. If Trump’s fearmongering and strutting can take him this close to the Oval Office, there’s no reason not to assume that Joe Arpaio will remain sheriff until he drops dead.