Skip to comments.Arpaio's big decision
Posted on 03/04/2002 1:19:35 PM PST by dittomom
Arpaio's big decision
|Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic
|Sheriff Joe Arpaio sits on a bunk in the Tent City Jail that he established. He was tagged "America's Toughest Sheriff," and his name is recognized by 94 percent of voters in the Phoenix area.
By Tom Zoellner
The Arizona Republic
March 03, 2002 12:00:00
For Joe Arpaio, redemption first arrived in the form of a newspaper headline.
He had grown up unhappy and neglected, frequently hit with a belt for minor childhood misdeeds, but had gone on to a promising career as a federal drug agent. After he helped arrest four Turkish peasants who were guarding a ton of raw opium in 1963, he was prominently quoted in a news story picked up by hundreds of local papers across America.
What was more important, however, is that Arpaio's father saw it in the local paper in Arpaio's hometown of Springfield, Mass.
It was the first time that Arpaio, then 31, knew that he had done something that made his distant father proud of him.
"He used to come home after a hard day's work and fall asleep in the chair," said Arpaio, whose mother died giving birth to him. "So I didn't have a father that would take me out to play ball or those kinds of things. He was always tired. I didn't have that type of childhood. . . . My father was proud, I know, when I made international news. I could see when I got home that he was proud of that."
He is now Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 69 years old, and known as "America's Toughest Sheriff," the subject of more than 1,000 interviews by media outlets from around the globe. They have done stories on his famously punitive jail policies, his flamboyant public personality and his musings about running for governor, a contest that several polls say he could win.
He is considered the man to beat in the Republican primary, even though he is not an announced candidate, has no organization or platform and hasn't raised a cent. Arpaio has booked a Phoenix hotel ballroom for March 27 to announce his decision. He is silent on his intentions. Even his wife says she doesn't know what he will do.
The 1963 opium headline was the first trickling of an eventual dam-bursting flood of ink. The constant quest for popular validation is still what drives Arpaio. It even lies at the heart of his political philosophy.
Asked what he would do as governor, he cites few specific policy goals or broad visions, but talks at length about the "special link" between himself and the faceless crowd of voters.
"What this state needs is someone who they can trust in and believe in and is outspoken," he said. "What the people need is someone who tells it like it is. . . . I go back to the cowboy days. I always said I wanted everybody to know who their sheriff was. I'm not walking down a dusty street with a six-gun, but that's the concept. Now do I want to go off into the sunset as the sheriff or the governor? That's the big question."
There is no question that his broad populist appeal and his pitch-perfect understanding of the media would make him a formidable candidate for the top office in Arizona. But what motivates him, according to his critics, and even Arpaio himself, is not ideas but the thirst for approval.
"Joe's obsession with presenting himself as one tough hombre isn't just some recently concocted marketing scheme. It's something that drives his whole being," said former sheriff's Lt. Kelley Waldrip, who worked with him closely during his first year in office in 1993.
Waldrip also said he thinks Arpaio "doesn't even believe 99 percent of what comes out of his mouth."
"He uses crime fighting as a platform to get his face plastered in the papers," Waldrip added. "If he could get the same thing by dressing in a clown suit and advocating the rights of criminals, he'd do it."
A nearly boundless appetite for publicity and fame has defined his nine-year tenure as sheriff. The operations of the entire department have been remade to fit his personality. His programs, such as making inmates live in tents in the sweltering heat, clothing them in convict stripes and punishing them with bread and water diets, have been fodder for news stories from Texas to Tokyo. A staggering 94 percent of voters in metro Phoenix know his name.
Arpaio has turned himself into the ultimate Public Man, whose inner wars and insecurities are lived out loud, in full view, through media images and in criminal-justice policies that affect thousands behind bars every day. He loves the abstract concept of "the people" but has no intimate friends except his wife, Ava, who has been instructed to play Frank Sinatra's My Way at his funeral. "I don't know what that means, friendship," he has said.
For all of this, Arpaio says his proudest accomplishment is not cracking down on criminals but elevating the public prominence of himself and his office.
"The only reason I keep going is the people," he said. "If they weren't behind me, I could not go on. Since they support me, that keeps a lot of (critics) quiet. It's hard to go after a guy with high poll numbers."
He will not talk about what he would do as governor, saying that to do so would tip his hand to his opponents. When pressed on specifics, he says only that he is in favor of letting racetracks have slot machines, that he would consider raising taxes to fix the deficit, that he is anti-abortion, that he believes in education and that his first act in office would be installing the Capitol press corps next to his ninth floor governor's office.
Arizona's prisons, Arpaio added with a smile, would probably be "the most controversial in the United States."
A review of Arpaio's record as sheriff provides further insight into his qualifications as a leader:
The only known recidivism study on Arpaio's jail showed the hard-nosed programs had no effect on an inmate's likelihood of returning to jail. The Arizona State University study conducted five years ago found that a Maricopa County inmate was 62 percent likely to re-offend after 30 months, about the same rate seen under Arpaio's predecessor.
The year before, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, with less restrictive policies that Arpaio loves to ridicule ("I went there for lessons on how not to run a jail"), saw a recidivism rate 7 percent lower, resulting in a net savings for taxpayers.
Arpaio has repeatedly claimed that his tight-fisted financial policies, including buying surplus green bologna and ostrich meat for inmates, have reduced the cost of inmate meals to 40 cents per day. An Arizona Republic analysis of jail budget records reveals inmate meals, with the cost of preparation, actually cost closer to $1.49 per day.
But when compared with other large urban jail systems, county taxpayers are getting a bargain. The daily cost of feeding and caring for prisoners is $34.89, the second lowest rate among 19 of the largest counties in the nation.
Arpaio's management structure is the second most top-heavy of any large sheriff's office in the nation. He has installed 15 officers at the deputy chief or director level at a cost to taxpayers of $1.8 million in salaries and benefits. A Republic survey of 18 of the largest sheriff's departments in the nation shows that only Broward County in Florida has a more bulky administration. But Arpaio says he has worked to reduce the hierarchy by abolishing the position of sheriff's major.
After conducting a three-year investigation into multiple allegations of inmate abuse at Tent City, the U.S. Justice Department dropped a lawsuit against Arpaio in June 1998. The sheriff claimed victory, but the government issued two reports condemning, among other things, unprovoked violence from the guards, the use of restraint chairs as punishment and shooting male inmates in the testicles with stun guns.
He overspent his budget in 2000 and was forced by county officials to cut deputies' overtime pay, reduce meals to inmates to two a day from three, sell a helicopter and return 77 leased cars, some of which were used by top executives. It was a replay of an earlier spending feud in 1993, when he lost a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors and was forced to cut $2.2 million.
Public records show that jail inmates and citizens have won multiple excessive-force, civil rights or property-damage lawsuits against Arpaio's department, but the cost to the taxpayers has been limited to $6.8 million in legal fees and settlements, an average payout of $850,000 a year. That's because judgments in excess of $1 million are covered by the county's insurance company. Officials with the county Risk Management department note that sheriffs anywhere are frequent targets of lawsuits and that insurance premiums have not risen disproportionately during Arpaio's tenure.
Deputies and civil rights advocates have repeatedly warned that the jails are understaffed and packed with disgruntled inmates who pose a constant threat of violence. But no guards have been killed in the line of duty. Since 1993, there have been three major riots, each causing property damage. The biggest uprising, a 1996 riot dismissed by Arpaio at the time as "a little disturbance," started after a guard used pepper spray to punish an inmate for using a portable toilet.
Political subtlety is not Arpaio's strong suit, as one recent incident illustrates. In an unsuccessful attempt to get one of his employees, Thelda Williams, appointed to fill an empty seat on the Board of Supervisors, he reportedly threatened to campaign personally against any supervisor who didn't back her. Arpaio has denied making this statement but has fought several previous battles with a board that he must work with closely, going so far as to call it "incompetent" in a 1994 videotape.
Joseph Michael Arpaio was born June 14, 1932, the son of a grocer who had immigrated to America from a small town near Naples. Arpaio's mother died in childbirth, a fact that would affect him profoundly in childhood and provide the basis for one of the only positions he has been willing to articulate thus far in his theoretical bid for governor.
"She gave her life for me," he said. "That why I'm pro-life."
Arpaio's father was unable to raise the boy by himself. He enlisted the help of other Italian families in the Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield. Arpaio's father never laid a hand on him, but his surrogate parents did not hesitate to use the strap.
"There was a lot of discipline," he said. "A lot of discipline. I don't remember what I did to get whacked. I can't actually tell you why."
He will not name the family today but said that the punishments did not amount to child abuse. "In those days, you got strapped if you did something wrong," he said.
Arpaio was a poor student, by his own admission, "studying all night to get a C." He played team sports all through school, didn't do any dating and worked long hours making grocery deliveries up narrow flights of stairs for $3 a day.
Tina Mutti, who knew him in high school, remembers him as "a nice kid, quiet and shy," who was still profoundly affected by the death of his mother. He was often busy working in his father's store when others were out having fun.
"I remember him as a kid being withdrawn," said Mutti, now 69 and still living in Springfield. "His life was clouded by the fact that he didn't have a mother's love. But he certainly came out of it and conquered his demons. I couldn't believe it when I read what he had done with his life. He was shy."
When Arpaio graduated from high school in 1951, he left town and never looked back. He joined the Army and was sent to a medical detachment in France, where he got the first law enforcement task of his life: helping French police check prostitutes for venereal disease. He also suffered heartbreak while overseas. A girl he'd met near his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., mailed back their engagement ring to him.
After his discharge, Arpaio got a job with the Metropolitan Police of Washington, D.C., and started walking a beat around the tough neighborhood of 14th and U streets. He made a name for himself by making numerous arrests, even for minor offenses. It was a characteristic that would stay with him in his later career as a federal agent.
"I was kind of aggressive," he said. "I locked everybody up. I tried to clean up the streets. Everything in my life, I've done overboard."
His partner on the Washington force introduced him to Ava, the girl he would marry. They have been together for 44 years, and she followed him to every one of his overseas jobs. She even posed as a prostitute for him several times over the telephone during undercover operations.
"Whatever he wants to do, I will be doing it with him," Ava said. "If he wanted to be a garbage collector, I would help him pick up the garbage."
Arpaio's big break came in 1957, when he joined the Chicago field office of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, later known as the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was here he discovered he had tremendous talent as an actor.
"I loved working undercover," he wrote in his 1996 autobiography. "I enjoyed fooling and outfoxing the dope peddlers. I had the knack. I played a hundred roles, I had a thousand stories."
It was in the Chicago office that he acquired the nickname Nickel Bag Joe for his zeal at busting even the most low-level drug salesmen. The night his son, Rocco, was born, Arpaio wasn't at the hospital. He was in the Cook County Jail, posing as a drug dealer to get information on a hidden stash of heroin.
"Joe always felt he had to do it all," said Humberto Moreno, a retired federal agent who served with Arpaio. "If he thinks he's right, he goes all the way with it."
His honesty and dedication impressed his superiors, and Arpaio was rewarded with promotions and high-profile postings. He was regional director in Mexico in the early 1970s when he supervised some agents working on a supply link in the famous "French Connection" case, in which heroin was being smuggled into the United States in small quantities by prostitutes.
This is the root of one of Arpaio's most challenged statements about his career. He claimed to have personally "broken up" the drug ring, but most of the instrumental work was done by New York City detectives, one of whom has said he has never heard of Arpaio.
According to retired agent Frank Macolini, who was working on the case in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Arpaio kept up with the investigation through weekly phone calls and three to four visits per year. "I don't know that we were at the center of it," Macolini said by telephone from his home in Colorado. "It was kind of an agencywide deal. Everybody had a piece of it. You know that old saying about success having a thousand fathers and failure being an orphan?"
Arpaio's forceful personality was in full flower in Mexico, where he was known for a blustery swagger and a trademark cigarillo hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
"He was always kind of controversial," Macolini said. "He'd go in there with his big cigar and start arguing with the State Department. He was definitely not the suave type. I went head to head with him a lot, but he always treated me fairly."
Arpaio picked Arizona as a retirement spot and arranged an appointment as the agent in charge of the Phoenix bureau. But his taste for the limelight did not wane. Local newspaper reporters became accustomed to his visits and phone calls, as Arpaio sought press for one drug bust after another. It was uncharacteristic behavior for a federal agent, who is usually trained to shun publicity.
After leaving the DEA in 1982, he helped Ava run Starworld Travel Agency. Seven years later, newly elected Sheriff Tom Agnos decided to re-bid the agency's $500,000 contract for plane tickets used to bring fugitives back to Phoenix.
Arpaio threatened a lawsuit and then decided to run against Agnos for sheriff in 1992. His political timing was good. Agnos was vulnerable because of a botched investigation into the murders of nine Buddhist religious workers in the West Valley. Sheriff's detectives had arrested the wrong men.
Arpaio ran a sober campaign as a reformer with plenty of federal credentials to back him up. He suggested the sheriff should be appointed rather than answerable to the people, a position he repudiated almost immediately. In fact, "accountability to the people" has since become the pinnacle of his political philosophy.
He also signed a notarized document pledging to serve a single term, a stance he now calls "the biggest mistake of my life."
Arpaio won decisively, with an editorial endorsement from The Arizona Republic: "A proven professional, he offers the best chance of reforming our clownish sheriff's department."
One of his first acts in office was to tour all the jail facilities and introduce himself to the deputies, some of whom had never met their elected sheriff before. He also enlarged his office at a cost of $9,300.
Then came the tents. A shortage of jail space in early 1993 led Arpaio's Chief Deputy Russell Pearce to come up with the idea of housing a small number of minimum-security inmates in some military tents in the fenced yard outside the Durango Jail. It was an experiment used with some success by the Arizona Department of Corrections the year before.
Arpaio unveiled Tent City to great acclaim on Aug. 2, 1993, a day when the temperature hit 113 degrees. The tents instantly attracted worldwide attention and scorn (the liberal Village Voice of New York likened the operation to a "concentration camp"). Arpaio was delighted, and the tents soon grew from a temporary experiment for work-release inmates to a permanent encampment that today houses 1,500 inmates, including those who have been convicted and those who have not. The tents have become his trademark.
"Everywhere I go, they know me," Arpaio said recently. "If I go into a restaurant, they come up to me and say, 'Thank you, Sheriff.' And they all want me to run for governor. I will be letting a lot of people down if I don't run. . . . I have a special link between me and the people."
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-2474.
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Thanks for posting this article!
Yeah, but what are the people saying who DON'T come up and talk to him?
I've had the privilege of meeting them both. I think they are both really good men. Matt's got the "charisma," if you will, to become Governor. Joe is Joe. What else can you say?
A leader is one who has the ability to bring together those who possess disparate viewpoints, not roll over people in the way the sheriff does.
All the RINOs need to go as soon as possible.
...and I can't disagree with it.
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