October 28 at Che Bella restaurant in Phoenix's Biltmore Fashion Park. It's "celebrity waiter" night, to benefit children's charities. When I get there, there's only one "celebrity" whose face I recognize. But that's okay; he's the one I've come to meet.

My companion and I are shown to our table by a young waiter--a real waiter, who actually works there. He explains that this is celebrity-waiter night, and we act surprised. "You can meet Joe Arpaio, America's toughest sheriff," the kid tells us.

"Sounds good," I answer, more sincerely than he knows.
This is my first visit to Che Bella, Denny's being my usual eatery of choice. But my companion is a child of the California bourgeoisie, and it shows in her bearing. She's comfortable, though far from happy, when surrounded by right wingers. As Arpaio waits another table, she jokingly snaps her fingers and says, "Bring it on, Joe." She's dressed for the occasion, and looks like a Young Republican slut, her black dress showing plenty of flesh. Arpaio's going to love her.

Trouble is, he isn't our assigned waiter. Instead we get Tom Dillon, a sports broadcaster.

While we wait for our food to arrive, we're approached by the Phoenix Suns dance team, showing plenty of midriff. My companion introduces me as Lucius, her brother-in-law who's here on vacation from Scotland. The girls offer to sell me an autographed picture of them. How can I refuse? They sign it, "To Lucius . . ."

Joe Arpaio is a fascinating politician to watch, just because he's so low-class. He's one step from the trailer park. His ill-fitting shirts squeeze his flab into such odd shapes that in profile he looks slightly deformed. His beery red nose shines like the light on top of a cop car. And his hair looks as though he cut it himself during a spectacular drunk.

As my companion and I watch him bumble from table to table, talking about himself, I point to him and tell her, "That thing is going to be governor. He'll be responsible for education, taxes . . ."

And that's why I'm here tonight. I know Arpaio's planning to run for governor. I'd have to be missing a chromosome not to know it. The next election for sheriff is three years away, and yet, on October 25, he had a fund raiser at which he hinted to Governor Jane Hull that he might run against her. Rumor had it that he'd planned to announce his intentions that night, but chickened out because of Hull's presence.

The reason he keeps denying that he wants to be governor might be that, as soon as he announces his candidacy, he'll have to quit as sheriff. He'd lose his bully pulpit, and that would be hard on his ego.

Not that he denies it when New Times asks him. Although he constantly boasts that he fears no journalist, he hasn't returned our calls in more than a year. So I'm here tonight incognito to see if I can get him to come clean about his political plans for the future.

He keeps disappearing and coming back. Judging from his ruddy face and shiny eyes, it's not too hard to figure out where he's gone. That guess turns out to be right when he goes out and doesn't come back and my companion asks Dillon, "Has the sheriff left?"

"Maybe. But I think he's just in the bar, trying to get more people to come in." The place is packed, so it's doubtful as to whether that's strictly necessary. "I'll go and get him for you."

Arpaio struts over to our table about 10 minutes later. I turn on the tape recorder in my pocket. My companion shows him a combination of smile and cleavage. "Hi, sheriff!" she greets him. "Let me introduce you to my brother-in-law, Lucius. He's here on vacation from Scotland, and he's a big admirer of yours . . ."

I shake Arpaio's hand, but, before I can open my mouth to tell him just how much I admire him, he's manically talking about himself.

"Yeah, Scotland. I'm famous over there. Got the front page of the paper." He raises a clenched fist in triumph. "They wrote about the female chain gangs." He cackles.

"I was at your fund raiser the other night," I tell him. (The column I wrote about it hasn't yet appeared.)

"You were? Really? How did you know about it?"
"Oh, I read about it somewhere. It was great."
"I don't remember seeing you."

"Well, I could see you were busy, so I didn't want to disturb you. I just hung back. It was enough just to be there, and see all those people pay tribute to you."

He shakes my hand again. "Thank you."
"No, thank you. You know, it was so funny what happened that night with Jane Hull."

He nods. "When she got onstage . . ."
"Yeah. It's so obvious she's terrified you're going to run for governor."
Arpaio turns to my companion. "This is your brother?" he asks her.
"Brother-in-law."

"Well," he tells her, knowingly tapping the side of his nose. "He's clever." He winks at me.

I start to ask him if Hull has cause to be worried, but at that point, someone I know appears in the restaurant, so I go and hide in the rest room, afraid he'll rat me out. He doesn't.

When I return, Arpaio gets called to a nearby table, to entertain a bunch of men with silver hair and leather skin.

I follow him.
"I have to take off, sheriff," I tell him, putting an arm around his shoulders. "It really was an honor meeting you."

We shake hands again. "You should come and live here," he says. "Scotland's a great country, but"--he starts to sing--"The sun shines every day in Arizona . . ." The men at the table laugh and applaud.

"Well, I am actually thinking about it," I say. "I reckon I'll be living out here within a year or so. Will you be governor by then?"

He looks at his apostles, then looks at me. "I will not be governor," he says. "It's a demotion."

On Friday morning, he has a news conference. The federal government has been investigating reports of brutality in Arpaio's jails. Today it has filed a lawsuit over it. But it has agreed to drop the lawsuit in six months if Arpaio implements certain changes to use-of-force policy in his jails. What this essentially means is that the feds believe the sheriff is guilty, and have put him on probation.

Not that you'd know it from the news conference, held jointly by Arpaio and Janet Napolitano, on the latter's final day as U.S. Attorney for Arizona. She's expected to announce her own run for governor soon.

In speeches that border on the surreal, both Napolitano and Arpaio declare that the sheriff has been exonerated. When the subject of the lawsuit is raised, Napolitano dismisses it as "a technicality."

"The federal government does not file lawsuits as technicalities," one attorney will quip afterward.

When a reporter asks Napolitano whether she believes the allegations against Arpaio are true, she says, "I'm not going to comment on the allegations."

It's sickening to see Napolitano back off from criticizing the most popular politician in the county. When a reporter suggests that her embrace of Arpaio might be motivated by her gubernatorial aspirations, she answers, "People can be cynical."

She ought to know.
Arpaio's performance is a familiar one. Never a man to discuss substantive issues when he can talk about himself, he begins by saying that it's good to be in the federal building, since he used to work for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He talks about how he's "famous all over the world," and says he doesn't consider the federal government's investigation to be an investigation, but a "management structure." He says he's never had anything to hide, that he has "an open-door policy."

New Times' Tony Ortega says, "Sheriff, if you have an open-door policy, will you meet me in your office on Monday morning?"

"I have an open-door policy for legitimate newspapers," Arpaio answers. Nobody asks him the criteria he uses to decide which newspapers are legitimate--perhaps because the answer is obvious. When you consider that Ortega's reporting on Arpaio made him Arizona Journalist of the Year, it's clear that to Arpaio a "legitimate newspaper" is one that doesn't ask hard questions.

By that criteria, most of those present at the conference are from legitimate newspapers. When he says his critics pick on him because of personal agendas, nobody asks what personal agenda made Amnesty International and a foreign court of law brand him a human-rights violator. They laugh at his jokes and address him by his stage name, "Sheriff Joe."

Although Arpaio has agreed to implement the measures recommended by the federal government, he says at the same time that nothing will change. "The chain gangs stay. The tents stay. The pink underwears [sic] stay. All my programs stay." So, presumably, torture and murder stay as well.

Arpaio seems to have forgotten what he told me on Tuesday, because, when asked if he'll support Napolitano's gubernatorial campaign, he chuckles and says, "I might be running against her."

As counselor to Anita Hill, Napolitano gained a reputation as a tough and pugnacious lawyer who knew the difference between right and wrong. In her cowardly praise of Arpaio, she reveals herself to be an expedient careerist unwilling to say anything that might harm her popularity.

And her capitulation is politically stupid. If by chance she and Arpaio do face each other for the governor's office, how is she going to criticize his policy of brutalizing inmates under his watch?

On the evidence of her behavior Friday, we should be grateful that the task of prosecuting Fife Symington was taken away from Janet Napolitano.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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