Early Saturday evening, and three New Times staffers are having a meeting. Tony Ortega, Chris Farnsworth and myself sit in Ortega's living room and try to figure out a way to gain admission to a fund-raising party for Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Why do we have to hatch schemes? Why don't we just show up as members of the press? Because there's no way in hell they'd let us in. With most politicians, we'd have no problem. If we worked for any other publication, we'd be made as welcome as the CNN crew attending tonight. But the politician is Arpaio, and our paper is New Times. And we're about as welcome at his party as N.W.A at a KKK rally.
Why do we want to attend? Because we want to know what he's raising money for. Or rather, we want to know what he claims it's for. Arpaio's itching to run for governor. He can't get through an interview these days without mentioning what a wonderful governor he'd be, even while denying that he has gubernatorial aspirations. But he'd have to deny it. Because, first and foremost, above all else, Joe Arpaio is a liar.
Ortega has tried calling to obtain press passes. His calls were never returned. Tonight Ortega calls the private residence where the party is to be held and requests that two tickets be reserved in the name of Farnsworth. We decide to show up at the house separately. Ortega will appear as himself, since the sheriff and his flunkies know what he looks like. Farnsworth will appear to be an Arpaio supporter, there to give his money to the sheriff. And I will appear a little while later, pretending to be a naive Scottish tourist. If one of us gets eighty-sixed, the others might get to stay.
In jeans and a shirt, Ortega looks ready to mow his lawn, though his look is upgraded slightly when he throws on a coat. Farnsworth, clean-cut, fresh-faced and bejacketed, a hip John Boy Walton, looks ready to attend a Young Republican dance. And I look like I'm heading out to a leather bar, all in black, hair spiked, cuff and ring in my right ear.
I'm going along because I'm patriotic about Phoenix; I live here, I love living here, and I don't want law enforcement here to be in the hands of a thug whom Amnesty International views as a human-rights violator. I particularly don't want to let his political panhandling go unreported.
The party is in a house on East McDonald in Scottsdale. I get lost a few times, then finally find the place. It's barely visible from the street, and there's no obvious number. But there's a sign posted on the sidewalk, inscribed "Sheriff Arpaio's Extravaganza Parking," and an arrow pointing the way.
Tony Ortega has been and gone. He arrived at the same time as the CNN people. He knows one of the CNN guys, so he walked in with them.
When he saw David Hendershott, the sheriff's 300-pound enforcer, Ortega grinned and waved at him. "Hey, director!"
Then he saw Arpaio and went straight for him. "Hey, sheriff."
Arpaio looked grim. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
Ortega answered with a question of his own. "Sheriff, why are you raising funds with your election three years away?"
"I'm not answering any questions tonight. No interviews. Were you invited? How did you get in here?"
Arpaio and Hendershott conferred. Then an organizer told Ortega to leave or the police would be called. Ortega pointed to the CNN crew and said that other press were there. One of the organizers, Bob Sigholtz, said, "They were invited."
Before leaving, Ortega asked Arpaio, "How can you keep telling people you'll talk to any reporter when you won't talk to me?"
Sigholtz pressed up against Ortega, thrust his face in his and angrily told him to get off the property.
Arpaio started to walk away. "That's it, just keep running away. Why won't you talk, sheriff?" Ortega asked him.
"Because I don't talk to trash!" Arpaio said.
As Chris Farnsworth arrived, he saw Ortega leaving. Farnsworth got in without incident.
I follow the sign, and head into the driveway. I've seen hotels that were smaller than this house. There's a guy standing there who looks like a pallbearer at a Mafioso funeral. He tells me to park in a street around the back, and a shuttlebus will come and get me. I do, and it does. It drops me in front of the house.
The looks people give me as I walk in the door are classic. I tell the woman sitting at a desk that I have a ticket reserved in the name of Farnsworth. "Now, why does that name sound familiar?" she says, beaming, and I wonder if she's on to me.
"Uh . . . maybe because he's here already. I'm not Chris Farnsworth. He's a friend of mine. He reserved two tickets, one for him and one for me."
"Oh. I see. That'll be a hundred dollars."
It pains me, but I pay $100 for my ticket. She tells me to write my name on a sticker and wear it on my chest. "Now just go ahead and have a good time," she says.
Out in the garden, about 200 people are floating around. There's a stage with a public-address system, but nothing's happening yet. There's food being served--burgers and hot dogs--and, determined to get as much as I can for my $100, I get in line.
I shouldn't have bothered. The food is shocking. The hot dogs are tepid and limp. Arpaio might have done better to feed us the green bologna sandwiches he feeds his inmates. The guy really has a lot of class.
In a bar or a cafe or a mall, you'd never give me a second look. But, to these people, I'm from the Black Lagoon. I can literally clear a table just by sitting at it. Wherever I stand, I stand by myself, because no one will come within 20 feet of me. Farnsworth observes all this and manages to keep his face straight as he chats to the great and the good.
The Stepford Hostesses are Sara O'Meara and Yvonne Fedderson, and I can't tell which is which. They look and talk like they're in an amateur theater's production of Anne of Green Gables. One of them declares, "I have never met a single person who did not love Sheriff Joe." Apparently, she's never met anyone accused--rightly or wrongly--of a crime in Maricopa County.
A member of Arpaio's executive posse says the sheriff has "something interesting" to announce tonight. Is the son of a bitch going to announce that he's running for governor, announce it right here in front of Governor Jane Hull?
Once O'Meara and Fedderson finish simpering, U.S. Senator John McCain gets his turn. In words that McCain--darling of the East Coast media--must have strained to utter, he says, "This is a safer county since we have been blessed with Sheriff Joe."
This is the tone of the entire evening. I don't hear the name "Arpaio" more than twice. He's "Sheriff Joe," a cartoon character, the novel Tasmanian Devil of law enforcement. The party is a festival of lies, and the moral degenerates who make up the audience applaud every lie that's spouted from the stage.
And make no mistake--these people are scumbags. You can make excuses for them--that they're well-meaning, but just poorly informed because of their cloistered lives. But such excuses are lame. These people have the benefit of wealth and education. If they're ignorant, it's because they choose to be. And tonight they're here to celebrate brutality, to pay homage to a man notable only for his cruelty and ego.
Most of the people in Arpaio's jails are not criminals. They have been convicted of nothing. They're awaiting trial, and the only thing they've been found guilty of is not having enough money to make bail. And nothing could be more outrageous than a couple hundred smug assholes who can afford to fork over $100 to get into a party sitting around talking about how great it is that this man treats criminals the way they deserve to be treated.
But that reality of Arpaio's jails is never touched upon this evening. And neither is Amnesty International. There's no mention of people being tortured. No mention of Scott Norberg being asphyxiated, or of Richard Post--a paraplegic--strapped in a restraint chair, his neck broken, and left there for hours. And, to those gathered here tonight, would it matter? I mean, if Sheriff Joe lets people get tortured, well, they must deserve it, mustn't they?
The emcee for the evening is Ron Masak. I've never heard of him, but apparently he's played a sheriff on TV. He says he'd like to play Arpaio, who he calls "a hell of a man" who "went into Tent Village [sic] alone and unarmed--and went to sleep!"
The audience laughs and applauds its hero's fearlessness. Arpaio nods and smiles modestly at this lie. Masak must have forgotten about the daily-newspaper reporter Arpaio brought along to mythologize his night of peril . . . or the SWAT team Arpaio had situated nearby.
Masak says that though Arpaio has been criticized for the chain gangs, what people don't know is that the inmates volunteer for them. What he doesn't go on to explain is that Arpaio himself obscured this fact, presenting the chain gangs as another "tough on criminals" measure. Only when the criticisms came did he turn around and point out that it wasn't his doing.
Jane Hull takes the stage. She talks about what a great innovator Arpaio is, and how people with new ideas are always criticized at first. Since she doesn't seem capable of any new ideas, this is one pitfall she's likely to escape. Hull says her favorite Arpaio innovation was the pink underwear he imposed on his inmates. She doesn't explain how this improved the standard of law and order in Maricopa County.
She asks Arpaio to come onstage. He does. She says she wants to make a donation to his campaign fund. She says it's for "Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the year 2000." It's so obvious that she's scared he'll run for governor that even Arpaio realizes what she's doing. He smiles and tells her, "Well, you're doing a good job . . . for now!"
The Sweet Adelines come on to sing. One of their songs has the line, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Nobody seems to pick up on the irony, but then nobody seems to be listening to them. People talk all through their short set. At the table next to the one I am sharing with all my new friends, a young man with big teeth and small eyes tells an old man that he's reading a book by Winston Churchill.
People pay more attention when Tex Hill and the Rhinestone Rangers perform, perhaps because they talk as much as they sing, and the talk is all about Arpaio. Tex himself is in the posse. The bassist in the band says his favorite thing about Arpaio's gulag is "girls in chains." Nobody seems surprised, and there's probably no reason they should be.
Tex invites Arpaio to come up onstage, which of course he does. Tex says he's written a song about him. Arpaio stands there, hands folded, smiling humbly as Tex serenades him. Sheriff Joe Arpaio/Sheriff Joe Arpaio/He's the toughest sheriff in the West/Sheriff Joe Arpaio/Sheriff Joe Arpaio/He wears the star of justice on his chest. . . . I'm not making this up. The song is meant to be serious, and that's how the crowd takes it. The song also contains the line, Liberals may squawk/And prisoners may balk . . . .
Jane Hull has taken off. It's announced that "now that the governor has left, Sheriff Joe has something else to say." I wonder if he'll announce his gubernatorial campaign, but he chickens out. Instead, he just tells some jokes--the ones he always tells. He really needs some new material. Then he thanks his loyal staff for its help and support.
Unfortunately, most of his loyal staff members don't get to hear it because they're not here. Although primary flunkies like Hendershott and Lisa Allen--his aging bimbo of a PR flack--are present, his rank-and-file employees aren't. Considering how many of Arpaio's staff members hate his guts--especially his deputies--this isn't strange. But it underlines that even Joe Arpaio's gratitude is fake.