As regional director of the Arizona office of the Anti-Defamation League, Bill Straus has been a rock, a stalwart opponent of hate in a river of acquiescers, squirmers, and equivocators.
During the ongoing immigration debate in this state, many in public life caught a serious case of rubber spine or pandered to the worst fears and prejudices of the masses.
But Straus always could be counted on to blurt out the truth while others conveniently kept their mouths shut.
Arizona ADL Director Bill Straus Retires After 13 Years of Fighting Hate
Sitting in his office discussing his retirement at the end of December after 13 years as ADL's local honcho, he remembers a question from another reporter about late neo-Nazi J.T. Ready, who hunted immigrants in the Arizona desert with an AR-15-toting goon squad.
"The question was, 'You must find this extremely irritating,'" Straus tells me. "I said, 'I don't know what irritates me more, J.T. at the border or that we're the only people who seem upset about it.'"
Indeed, whenever local members of the media, law enforcement, or the political establishment (all of whom should've known better) ditched a troublesome moral compass, Straus was the guy who'd pick it up, dust it off, and hand it back to a chagrined owner.
From denouncing former state Senate President Russell Pearce's ties to Ready to opposing Pearce's anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070 to calling on the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 to investigate claims of racial profiling against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Straus consistently has been unafraid to use the moral authority of the ADL, even when doing so was sure to make those in power and the general public uncomfortable.
As we spoke, he reminisced about what I call his "greatest hits" as the ADL's point man in Arizona.
One of my personal favorites is from 2009, when Straus debated now-MCSO Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan on Channel 12 over allegations that his agency was racially profiling Latinos.
"The Sheriff's Office doesn't profile. End of story," Sheridan declared at one point.
That remark seems particularly asinine in light of federal Judge G. Murray Snow's finding Arpaio's office guilty of racial profiling earlier this year, in the civil rights lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio.
In riposte, Straus pointed to Arpaio's infamous response to a reporter's question that his deputies would have probable cause to stop motorists who "look like they just came from Mexico."
Straus quipped that if the answer had been, "We look for people who look like Bill Straus," then he'd be wary of going to the grocery store.
Sheridan insisted that the sheriff's statement was a soundbite taken out of context, but Straus wasn't letting him get away with the spin.
"I heard the entire interview," Straus told Sheridan. "And when I heard that the sheriff thought his statement was being taken out of context, my question was: 'What context? What possible context is appropriate to say we look for people who look like they came from Mexico?'"
Sheridan nodded his head, almost conceding the point.
Straus relished the moment, much as he did similar moments during debates that occurred on his radio show, Straus' Place, which ran for eight years on KTAR and on a now-defunct station.
In the 1990s, the show was a forum for every topic imaginable — UFOs, O.J. Simpson, the gun debate, the militia movement.
Straus was known for messing with wacko callers by telling them, "Well, you're an idiot, so I understand."
Just like when he was a horse-racing announcer in the 1970s, his delivery on the radio dial was entirely spontaneous. That changed when he transitioned to the ADL.
"All of a sudden, I had to filter my comments," he says. "I had to be more deliberate."
Not that Straus wouldn't fire his verbal six-shooter when he needed to. Like in 2007, when he moderated a panel at the Arizona Legislature, which discussed how dangerous white supremacist groups were gaming the immigration debate.
Anti-immigration activists packed the room, and they weren't happy with what the panel had to say about folks like themselves and the company they kept.
When one cat-caller suggested that the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the country, was a hate group, Straus had no problem putting the heckler in his place.
"I'm familiar with La Raza," he told the audience to scoffs and groans. "To put them in the same category with the [neo-Nazi] National Vanguard would be a statement of complete ignorance."
So it's no surprise that Straus has friends in the Latino community. Attorney Danny Ortega, past chair of the National Council of La Raza, hails Straus as a brother in arms.
"In our challenge to [SB] 1070 and all the anti-Latino legislation that was passed in Arizona, we really strived to have strong allies and partners," Ortega tells me. "Bill Straus and the ADL were the best partners we could have in our fight against hate."
Straus' role as a voice for tolerance preceded his time at the ADL.
As a talk-radio host, Straus helped Rick Romley get a hate crime bill through the Legislature and signed by the governor, the former county attorney tells me.
"Bill was on the radio and took on that issue." Romley says. "He had as much to do with that legislation being successful as any of my efforts . . . And we sent a message to white supremacists that we weren't going to tolerate that kind of stuff here in the Valley."
Straus' talk-radio activism on behalf of the anti-hate-crime law led to his being honored by the ADL, then to emceeing some of its functions. After the regional director's position became vacant, he applied for the job and got it.
The organization's goal, according to its charter, is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all."
To that end, Straus' leadership has known no ethnic lines and no borders, whether he was decrying the distribution of an anti-Mormon DVD in the Valley or standing in solidarity with Don Logan, former director of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue, after Logan, an African American, was seriously wounded by a mail bomb sent by white nationalists.
Romley also cited Straus' influence in helping the community come together to denounce hate directed at Muslims, Middle Easterners, and those perceived to be either or both, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Just days after 9/11, India-born gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down in Mesa by a racist idiot who mistook Sodhi's Sikh turban to mean that he was Arabic and, in the twisted logic of a bigot, sympathetic with the 9/11 hijackers.
Not only did Straus publicly inveigh against the hate crime, he reached out to the Sodhi family, offering them his friendship and the ADL's support.
Straus urged Balbir's brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, to share his family's story and to become a representative for the Sikh community in Arizona and the nation.
Now Sodhi, honored in 2010 at the ADL of Arizona's Torch of Liberty Award dinner, says he speaks before school, community, and law enforcement groups routinely, something he wouldn't have done before his family's tragedy and before the influence of the ADL and Straus.
"He really encouraged me to stand up and tell my story and to educate more people to make a difference," Sodhi says of Straus, adding, "For 12 years, he has been my brother."
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Straus says he will miss being the face of the ADL.
The Valley native turns 65 in February and wants to turn the page, saying he'll be working on a radio show he's had in mind for a while.
And if the past 13 years have shown us what Straus is like with a filter on, an unfiltered Straus should be even more fun to have around. Squirmers beware!