Posse Galore

Staking out Maricopa County's wildest political race -- to unseat Sheriff Joe Arpaio

"They made him into a movie character," says Richard Herrera, an associate professor of political science at ASU. "But he's not Gary Cooper in 'High Noon,' not the 'I'm worried, but by gosh I'm gonna do what it takes.' They made him into a John Wayne, the whole unflinching tough-guy thing. And boy has it worked."

Then, in 1993, they came up with the requisite "media event." The first, Josephson says, was "Operation Summer Heat," a crackdown in the county's southwest district based on crime statistics that, once manipulated, showed a murder spree taking place in a part of the Valley "where there were only cows and chickens."

What some in Arpaio's staff did, Josephson and two ex-deputies say, was publicly attribute all the murders committed in the unincorporated areas of Maricopa County to the southwestern Valley. Then deputies and helicopters and other heavy equipment were sent to the area, and Josephson followed with his video camera. And then arrest statistics were doctored to make it look like the crackdown was a success, Josephson says.

Tom Bearup preaches to his congregation at the Family Bible Fellowship & Academy in north Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Tom Bearup preaches to his congregation at the Family Bible Fellowship & Academy in north Phoenix.
Bobby Ayala has a passion for human rights and 30 years of experience with the sheriff's office.
Paolo Vescia
Bobby Ayala has a passion for human rights and 30 years of experience with the sheriff's office.

"They'd take a DUI, and if the guy was uninsured and was speeding, then it would show up as three arrests," he says. "We got tons of arrests and then declared victory. And everybody bought it."

"Hendershott was consistently inflating numbers," Bearup says. "It was false data. And Joe loved it."

Everybody bought it, including Paul Harvey, the part-time Valley resident who told his national radio audience that Joe Arpaio had taken his fight against crime "to the blood-soaked southwestern Valley." Once Paul Harvey's story aired, Josephson says, "Arpaio was on the national radar. And it just totally snowballed from there."

Arpaio and his shapers then stumbled upon a publicity gold mine, one that, according to political strategist Bob Grossfeld, had rarely before been mined.

It was the jails, Arpaio's primary responsibility. For the local television media, Grossfeld says, it was the "last piece of the criminal justice trifecta."

"You already had the chase and arrest -- all the lights and stuff -- and you already had the courts -- all the tearful scenes of whatever -- then all of a sudden with Joe, you got the jails," he says. "I'm sure Arpaio's people were like, 'Wow, cool, if we do anything at all and invite the press, they'll come and shoot it.' It doesn't require a high level of talent. After a time or two, you've got the formula down."

Cop-blotter mayhem has become the bread and butter of local television news. Thoughtful analysis of issues and enterprise reporting take time and brains; Joe and his green bologna, pink underwear, helicopters, howitzers and flashing lights take little time or thought, and make for great video.

Observers say Arpaio has also shown a mastery of playing to people's fears, particularly those of retirees, who, even more so than the rest of Arizonans, tend to rank the fear of crime as their top concern. What better anti-crime figure to give Americans than that of the Old West lawman, observers say.

And more than most elected offices, politicos and media observers say, the sheriff can survive on mythology alone. In reality, sheriff's deputies make only 3 percent of the arrests in Maricopa County, so the office has no real public-safety impact on the vast majority of voters. Nor do most voters come in contact with the sheriff's primary responsibility, the jails.

The complicated reality of running jails that house a mix of sentenced inmates and those who haven't been judged guilty is lost beneath his relentless publicity stunts aimed at reinforcing his mantra, "I won't coddle criminals."

"Arpaio took this fantasy that people are being coddled in the jails and has just continued to feed on it," Grossfeld says.

So now, Maricopa County has the Kevlar Kop, a media sensation seemingly impervious to scandal.

"In most places, nobody knows who the heck the sheriff is," Grossfeld says. "It's usually a pretty low-key, out-of-the-way position.

"Then you have Joe."


Jerry Robertson says he believes voters are getting sick of the "Joe Show." He says he hears the discontent when he's out stumping. He says he has seen private polling numbers that show Arpaio's popularity "slipping badly."

"I think you'll be surprised," Robertson says. "We're going to win."

Much more than Joe Arpaio, Jerry Robertson really looks the part of a Western sheriff. He has a strong jaw, he wears cowboy boots and he drives a big-ass American sedan. He looks a bit like Cliff Robertson, and the gals at the retirement villages think he's a hottie.

Although he's a marginal public speaker, Robertson is engaging, quick-witted and genial in conversation. He carries a calm, dignified authority, that air given off by lawmen who you know, if the conversation turned sour, could kill you in a heartbeat.

During a recent fund raiser in the bare-bones cinderblock Fraternal Order of Police lodge near I-17 and Indian School, Robertson moved easily through the small crowd of mostly retired deputies and detention officers. They talked about old times, they shook their heads in unison talking about the present times.

For good or bad, Jerry Robertson is definitely one of the boys.

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