Exit Interview: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Defends His Record to New Times and Discusses His Future

The display cabinet behind the desk of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been cleaned out. The walls of his expansive office on the third floor of the sheriff's space-agey headquarters at 550 West Jackson Street are bare; photographs and framed awards overlap on the floor, ready to be boxed up.

Clad in a dress shirt and sport coat, soon-to-be-just-Mr.-Arpaio looks weary. It's understandable: At the age of 84, he fought to convince voters to return him to office for a record seventh four-year term, all the while battling forces including billionaire activist George Soros (who funded the campaign of Arpaio's successful competitor, Democrat Paul Penzone), a federal judge, and, of course, outgoing President Barack Obama.

And he lost.

He's entitled to feel disoriented. So do many metro Phoenix residents.

Maricopa County has known Arpaio for what seems like ages. The man has been in office for 24 years.

New Times has been on his case since he turned the immense jail he oversees and the force of sworn officers into his own campaign circus. With the help of Lisa Allen, a former TV reporter who he brags was the only outside employee he brought into the agency after he was first elected in 1992, he concocted publicity stunt after publicity stunt, trying to keep the media spotlight shining on him at all times and, whenever he deemed it necessary, using his office like a bulldozer to clear out and trample political enemies.

Voters who liked Arpaio as a man, liked his policies, or both, returned the sheriff to office again and again. As they did, former New Times staff writers including Tony Ortega, John Dougherty, Paul Rubin, and Sarah Fenske, along with former executive editor Michael Lacey and current writers including managing editor Amy Silverman, columnist Stephen Lemons and this reporter — along with many journalists around the state — dogged him.

Whatever his alleged accomplishments, he had an often shockingly bad record of inmate safety, commitment to the communities his office served, discrimination and hassling of immigrants and Latinos, targeting perceived enemies with bogus criminal investigations, withholding of public records, failing to investigate hundreds of sex crimes and other cases of actual crime, employing a tyrannical chief deputy (David Hendershott) to do his bidding, and wasting enough taxpayer money on lawyers to defend the county from the consequences of his decisions to build several new schools.

Click here for a compilation of stories about Arpaio from the past two decades.

Arpaio isn't as sharp as he was when he first took office. But he comes alive during media interviews, staying focused on questions that would trip up a novice public official. When he's forgetful, there's always the lingering question of whether he's being intentionally so. When it comes to bluster and defensiveness, he hasn't lost a step.

But on the recent day when he sat with New Times for a wide-ranging interview, he had the look of a man who hadn't come to grips with what befell him the week before.

Arpaio denied that he had plans to resign if he'd been re-elected, and he said Donald Trump hasn't called him about a possible job, despite widespread reports that the president-elect is considering him for Homeland Security secretary.

Asked if he was ready for the job if that call did come, Arpaio whipped out his newly updated, five-page executive résumé. It shows the highlights of a man who has lived a big life, starting with the fact that he served as sheriff since January 1993. (It does not mention that one of his campaign promises was to serve no more than one term.)

After leaving the U.S. Army as a sergeant in 1953, Arpaio began his career in law enforcement, working as a cop in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. As he has touted many times, he worked in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its predecessor, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, serving in Turkey in the 1960s and Mexico City in the 1970s, in addition to stateside assignments. He lists no professional experience from the time he retired in 1982 as special-agent-in-charge of the Arizona division of the DEA until he was elected sheriff 11 years later.

Few words fit Arpaio better than "cunning," a label hung on him by his former chief deputy, Hendershott, whom Arpaio pressured to resign in 2011 following a damning internal report. Cunning implies trickery and deceit, and Arpaio's record shows he wasn't always fully honest with the public — or with his top commanders, who at times turned on him and Hendershott.

For many reasons, being booted out of office in a fair election was an appropriate ending for a master politician. Arpaio put armored vehicles in political aisles instead of reaching across them. He was a poster boy for theatrical, immigrant-bashing attack-politics long before Donald Trump used those tactics to win the presidency.

For someone who gloated in election after election that he and his policies had a mandate because the people had spoken, Arpaio, who faces a criminal contempt charge for violations of a federal court order in the racial-discrimination case Melendres v. Arpaio, now feels the same sting of defeat he enjoyed inflicting on others.

* * *

Noticing that Arpaio seemed off-kilter as last Thursday's interview commenced, New Times points out  the bright side of leaving office: Nobody can say he's a quitter, and he's not dead.

"Thank for saying the first part," he says, hinting that he might have preferred to die in office than lose an election.

Barring a Trump appointment or health or legal obstacles, Arpaio says, he could have seen himself running for an eighth term in 2020, when he'll be 88.

"I am a fighter," he says. "I went down in a fight. I didn't just surrender. That's what I am. Especially when you know you're right."

He and his wife, Ava, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, will move on to the next stage of their life together. He considers himself very lucky to have had Ava beside him — or, as it goes, not beside him — for support.

"I love my wife," he says. "She put up with me for 59 years, followed me to Turkey, Mexico City — I could go on and on. She has never complained. She has never said, 'All you do is work, you think of your job more than me.' That gave me the luxury of working 14 hours a day, whether it was giving speeches or running this office. And I had no pressure.

"She was with me till the end. She really wanted me to win this time."

Ava's health is "way better" lately, he says.

"She's sad that I lost, but you've got to go on," he says quietly. "I wanted my wife to swear me in again this time."

At one point in the interview, Arpaio's third in command, Deputy Chief Dave Trombi, strolls into the office, pretending to be on his mobile phone and loudly interrupting, "No, just an application for Chick-fil-A, that's all I'm looking for."

The act, performed for New Times' benefit, is only half in jest. Trombi has worked for the sheriff's office for much of his life and is a loyal Arpaio-ite. It remains to be seen whether Penzone retains close associates of Arpaio in high-ranking positions or transfers potentially disloyal troops to undesirable jobs the way Arpaio did after his 2004 re-election.

"What [Penzone] does is going to be his decision, not mine," Arpaio grumbles.

Throughout the interview, Arpaio laments that the media usually fails to cover the great work his agency does. He notes that law-enforcement agencies from around the country ask for training and help from the MCSO, which is one of the largest offices of its kind.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern