Recall Joe!

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These are bullying tactics you would expect from what President Bush calls "axis of evil" nations -- not from the head of the fourth largest sheriff's department in the country.

For too long, political leaders in the state have been intimidated by Arpaio's swagger. They have been cowered into silence by his proven willingness to abuse his police authority and investigate political opponents, like Dan Saban, as if he were some two-bit Sudanese dictator ("In the Crosshairs," June 24, 2004).

He's scared nearly every political leader in the state, except U.S. Senator John McCain, who would love to have Arpaio's scalp attached to his belt.

McCain could play a pivotal role in a recall campaign. The Republican senior senator's endorsement of Dan Saban came late in the primary campaign last summer, and didn't have time to resonate with voters. If McCain backs the fledgling recall movement, it would give the effort immediate credibility.

Ironically, it's GOP members, not Democrats, who will likely lead the charge to send fellow Republican Arpaio packing.

It's very unlikely that Governor Janet Napolitano will take on Arpaio, although she has a golden opportunity at this moment to drive a stake through the sheriff's most high-profile idea ever -- the Tent City jail.

Nothing has generated more publicity and political support for Arpaio than his infamous tent complex, despite the fact that courts have called it an extremely dangerous facility.

Tent City has been in violation of the Arizona State Fire Code since the day it was first erected in 1993. The only reason it has been allowed to operate for the past 12 years is that the state fire marshal grants MCSO a variance every six months.

Another request for a variance is now on the desk of acting state fire marshal Bob Barger, who was appointed by Napolitano to succeed Duane Pell, who retired on December 31.

Pell tells me that the Fire Marshal's Office never expected Tent City to be permanent.

He says the variance was first approved in 1993 because the jails were overcrowded and because voters had turned down a bond issue to build new ones. But voters have since approved the 1/5th-cent jail tax, and two new jails have been built. More facilities are to be constructed in the future.

Pell says he would expect the Fire Marshal's Office to reexamine its policy to issue the variances as permanent jails are completed. The Fire Marshal's Office did not respond to my questions concerning such future variances.

But Pell made it clear that if Janet Napolitano asked the office to take any action concerning the tents, it would happen.

"If Governor Napolitano said we need to look at Tent City, I guarantee you there would be a couple of fire marshals out there looking at Tent City," Pell says.

The Governor's Office, however, also did not respond to my request for comment.

It's clear that Arpaio has no intention of ever closing down Tent City, despite the construction of new jails. No matter how much it costs taxpayers from settlements of numerous lawsuits filed by inmates. He keeps the tents open purely for public relations purposes.

Napolitano has the power to put an end to Arpaio's tent jails by ordering acting fire marshal Barger to deny the sheriff's request for a variance. If she can't muster the courage to cut Arpaio off at the pass, she could at least give him notice that this is the last variance that will be issued, and he has six months to get the new jails up and running.

I doubt Napolitano has the nerve to get into a face-off with Arpaio. After all, it was Arpaio who came to her rescue during that razor-close 2002 gubernatorial race with the television commercial.

Many Maricopa County Republicans remain livid over Arpaio's defection to Napolitano's camp in 2002, blaming him for Republican candidate Matt Salmon's narrow loss. The Maricopa County Republican Executive Guidance Committee -- which includes the top party bosses -- last year refused to endorse incumbent Arpaio and instead backed Saban.

This severely damaged Arpaio's campaign. He went from a 71 percent approval rating among Republican voters in the winter of 2004 to the narrow 55.9 percent victory over Saban in the primary.

Ominous for Arpaio is that Salmon was elected last month to be the new head of the Arizona Republican party. Salmon now has the clout to rally the troops and generate campaign funds to back the planned recall of the sheriff.

In an interview last summer, Salmon made it very clear how he feels about Arpaio.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty