Feathered Bastard

George Gascon vs. Joe Arpaio: The New Yorker's William Finnegan on Joe's Mesa Raid Comment

If you've read about the latest kerfuffle involving soon-to-be former Mesa Police Chief George Gascon and Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- a kerfuffle egged on by the Arizona Republic -- then you know it involves a statement made by Arpaio in earshot of William Finnegan, the journo who just profiled Arpaio for The New Yorker magazine.

Essentially, Finnegan was listening in on a speakerphone call while in a car with the sheriff. The call was from a deputy whose detail was to observe the jury selection in a case where Mesa Mayor Scott Smith's spouse was a possible juror. (Why deputies are being used by Joe to spy on juries is another matter.) The deputy dawg reported to his jefe that Smith's wife had said that Arpaio was not her hero.

"I knew it!" Arpaio exclaims, almost comically. "I never trusted that mayor. He's pro-immigrant. He's never going to fire that chief. We gotta raid Mesa again."

Since Joe pretty much always sounds like a cartoon character (sort of a cross between Mr. Magoo and Yosemite Sam), and since -- as The New Yorker piece makes clear -- the sheriff was built without an edit button, just how serious was he about that Mesa raid?

George Gascon, or as Arpaio calls him "that chief," is ticked Joe ever made such a suggestion, telling the Rep that, "This is something people should be outraged about." Personally, I'd probably be less outraged about it if I had a sweet gig waiting for me in San Fran, but that's me. (Sense the envy?)

When asked about the remark, Arpaio shrugged it away as "off the cuff" and "tongue in cheek." And since Arpaio says outrageous, sometimes certifiably insane stuff in front of reporters all the time, it's hard to tell when our loony lawman means business or when he's just showing folks how he operates without a seven second delay.

I e-mailed William Finnegan, since he's the guy who was present for Arpaio's Mesa raid comment, to ask him what he thought of the remark, and if he took it seriously. Finnegan e-mailed back, saying he thought Joe was "venting" at the time. Here's what Finnegan had to say, verbatim:

"I wrote down what I heard in Arpaio's car, but at the time didn't really understand much of what I was hearing. I hadn't yet interviewed Chief Gascon, or heard the details of the big MCSO raid [on the Mesa Library] in October. At that moment I was just fascinated that someone, who seemed to be a sheriff's deputy, was eavesdropping on jury selection at the courthouse and reporting directly to Arpaio about what prospective jurors were saying about him. The sheriff's reaction only made sense to me later, when I learned a little more about Mesa politics, Arpaio's relationship with Gascon, and the October raid   

"Was Arpaio serious about staging another raid? I don't pretend to know how he plans his operations, but I doubt it. He just seemed to be venting. I wouldn't describe his remarks as  
particularly ironic or joking. They just seemed like extremely loose talk, worth reporting for their tone, and because he's a powerful official, who often seems to take a strangely personal, as opposed to professional, approach to law enforcement. 

"As a reporter, of course, I was startled that he would say stuff like that in front of me. And I must say I'm impressed by how he hasn't backed away from any of the more outrageous things I quote him saying. He's obviously been surprised to see them in print, but he doesn't deny saying them or claim they were off-the-record. In fact, he let me hang around through various meetings and conversations and I don't remember him telling me that anything was off-the-record. That's unusual. He's openly obsessed with his own press coverage, but he doesn't try to micro-manage it."

Finnegan has more to say about Joe in an online Q & A that The New Yorker posted a couple of days ago. And of course, his profile of Arpaio is in the current issue of the mag. Therein, you get a portrait of our home-town, tin-pot tyrant that rivals those done of Idi Amin in his day. Not that Arpaio's regime has been as corrupt or deadly as the African dictator's, but it's been nearly as colorful, so far.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons