By Glenn Thrush
June 20, 2016
Joe Arpaio was standing in his top-floor office looking down on a summer cityscape baked semolina-loaf brown waiting for Donald Trump to call, or even email, a “Happy Birthday” message.
“Did he get in touch?” the 84-year-old Maricopa County sheriff asked his assistant, who replied, “no,” but a Trump aide had sent a really sweet email.
It is cosmic coincidence that the fiery Arpaio, the stocky Italian populist prototype for the burlier Scotch-German GOP nominee, was born on the very same day, June 14 – but 14 years earlier, two states away in Massachusetts, and far poorer than silver-spooned baby Donald in Queens.
Sheriff Joe endorsed Trump early, and describes him as his one true political soulmate. They share a boot-on-throat rhetorical style, a focus on kicking out illegal immigrants and kicking the ass of America’s enemies, and both love bashing the whiny “political correctness” of minority groups. Arpaio hit on the formula first – adding a Korean veteran’s fondness for accumulating .50-caliber machine guns and other military ordnance – but he is too media-smart to walk into the trap I set by suggesting Trump is stealing his shtick. “I don’t like people to say, ‘He’s copying you,’” Arpaio said during an hour-interview for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast.
As a rule, Arpaio is loath to criticize anything Trump says or does – but he did allow himself one point of significant divergence.
During his 23 years as sheriff, did he ever ban a news outlet from his events and press conferences, like Trump has done with POLITICO, the Washington Post and others?
“Why would I bite the hand that feeds?” he said, shaking his head in disapproval.
In Arpaio’s view, controversy is a useful tool, a way of elevating the causes he cares about (guns, law-and-order, immigration, the epidemic of wimp-ism), but it’s also an end not just a means, the only way to grab the attention of a national media and political establishment that would otherwise ignore him. “I'm controversial,” he added with a shrug. “You wouldn't be here talking to me if I was a nothing, I don't think.”
Trump was born with a famous name, a fortune and direct access to New York’s tabloids. Arpaio had none of these advantages and he talks freely about how being “controversial” was the best way for an outsider like him to break into the national conversation. Put another way, in the half-joking words of a longtime Arizona critic, he’s “strictly a self-made madman.”
He’s easier to detest at a distance than up close, and there’s a Rat Pack madcap to his patter that gets lost in the sound-bite outrage culture of cable news. He was a cop in Vegas in the 1960s, when the mafia ran everything, he’s fond of saying, and you know, it wasn’t so bad (“there wasn't that much crime when the mob — now, I'm not saying that's good or bad, but the mob had its own ethics too… They will never kill a child or a cop, OK?”).
He knew I was Jewish, so I got this: “Israel is a great country for examples on how to do security. I really love how Israel operates, and I love the Jewish people. I'm not just saying that because you're Jewish.”
Then, instantly, he linked the Vegas point with the Israel point to make a whole new point. “The only Jewish guy that the mob hired is Meyer Lansky,” he added. “I don't know how he sneaked in there, but he knew how to count the money. Actually, I'm the only one that ever busted that guy. Do you know that?” (I did not.)
In the early 1990s, Arpaio parlayed a successful but relatively low-key federal law enforcement career into fame (and infamy): Arpaio is the guy who slapped those pink undies on inmates in front of the national TV crews (he hands out autographed bloomers to visitors from a storage nook behind his desk), houses prisoners in a hotter-than-Hades tent city and feeds them crappy high-calorie meals, and remains the subject of an Obama Justice Department suit alleging his department systematically discriminated against Hispanics.
Oh, and he expended millions in county resources to fruitlessly pursue Barack Obama’s “fake” birth certificate (a crusade he insists isn’t over by a long shot). That’s what got him his first give-‘em-hell letter from part-time birther Trump. “That's not dead as far as I'm concerned,” he told me.
But beneath the bombast, there’s a whisper of a showman’s self-awareness in Arpaio that seems so absent in Trump. It’s a bad idea, he tells me, to alienate reporters and news organizations, even when they are out to get you, because a politician’s power is ultimate derivative of the press – and when they turn on you, look out.
“I'll tell you, the day I leave, you won't know how to pronounce my name,” he said, sitting at a conference table under a mounted Billy club and blackjack. “You could care less about me, and I should be dead and buried because there's not one media that will come and remember who Joe Arpaio is. That's the way it is in politics.”
Joe Arpaio is literally a poor man’s Donald Trump – same approach, different bank account – and in Arpaio’s life story he’s the poor man (or at last the working-class) man. His birthday is a bittersweet occasion, even without Trump’s partial snub. On June 14, 1932, Arpaio’s mother, a 28-year-old immigrant from a town just south of Naples, died giving birth to him. His old man, who had immigrated (legally, through Ellis Island, he says) in the 1920s, struggled to run a small grocery store. And the two Arpaios shuffled through a succession of Italian family-run boarding houses in western Massachusetts, sharing a bedroom, a bath and two plates at someone else’s dinner table until his father remarried.
“Eighty-four times… you have to look back at your life,” he said, subdued on his birthday amid the defiant detritus of his career – the New York Post covers lauding the tent city, a poster of him hugging the “Trumpinator” at a March rally in his suburban Phoenix neighborhood. “I never had a mother to grow up with, but that's the way it is… It was a little difficult sometimes when you don't have a mother and you're bounced from one Italian family to another.”
Twenty years before Trump pulled off the biggest outsider coup in the history of the Republican Party, Arpaio was tapping that same, deep vein of post-Reagan distrust, loss and anger among working- and middle-class whites. Maricopa, with its four million people, is one of the biggest and fastest-growing counties in the country – a sprawl of predominantly Republican suburban subdivisions emanating from the Democratic-dominated city of Phoenix, with lots of disaffected ethnic northern emigrants like himself.
The county is about 78 percent white, but about a third of households identify as Latino – a recipe for long-term tensions and polarized politics. In the early 1990s, at the height of the crack epidemic and crime wave, the county was ripe territory for a candidate running on what, in retrospect, amounted to a “Make Maricopa Great Again” campaign. He captured big majorities (in the five elections between 1992 and 2008, he netted between 55 and 66 percent) with a hard-edged law-and-order message that made Rudy Giuliani look like an ACLU lawyer.
Arpaio, even his enemies concede, is an engaging guy with an intuitive sense of seizing the moment – and he thinks Trump, responding to a stagnant economy and a widespread sense that the immigration problem is out of control – has the same knack. “Timing is perfect right now for a guy like him,” he told me. “Timing is everything, and he hit on the right timing.”
But times are changing, and the realities that are bedeviling Trump nationally began buffeting Arpaio locally in 2012, when he finished with barely half the vote in a crowded field. He’s running again this year and blames the Obama administration’s campaign against his policies for the drop. But local analysts noted a telling shift – support had slipped among educated whites who had previously backed him but were now turned off by his stridency and age.
Arpaio was an enthusiastic enforcer of Arizona’s now-voided 2010 immigration law, and he ran afoul of a federal judge in 2013 after telling a group of supporters he’d locked up 500 suspected illegal immigrant drivers his deputies had pulled over “out of spite.” He flat-out refused to talk about that case or the Obama administration’s racial profiling case – he not only dismissed the idea that his department acted prejudicially, but also cast doubt that anti-black or anti-Latino discrimination exists at all in 2016 America.
“I think it's overstated,” he said. “I think there's a lot of hype. Unfortunately, in our country today, you have to be very careful what you say. We do have freedom of speech, but if you say the wrong word, it looks like it makes headlines. So everybody has to be very careful.”
“You don't think that there is systematic discrimination in this country against Latinos and blacks at this point?” I asked.
His answer: “No. No. No, I really don’t.”
When I pointed out that many critics had called him “a racist,” he waved dismissively.
“When they can't get you for anything else, it's a famous word, ‘racist,’ he said. “Do you think it bothers me? It doesn't really bother me. I know in my heart what I am, so they can call me anything they want… [I’m] probably one guy that really doesn't [discriminate], you know, and I'm not going to say my best friend is black… No, no, no. And even in my family, I have a black and I have Mexican. I got all these family – but I'm not going to say that. I guess you could still have that and say you're a racist, you know, but no. I know what I am. Come on.”
He really likes Trump, gave him a souvenir or two (“he’s got my underwear”) was touched when the developer reached out to comfort his ailing wife, and buys his candidate’s claim of a “silent majority” that will pop up in November to confound the pundits and the pollsters.
Still, even Arpaio recognizes the political perils of being associated with the presumptive Republican nominee.
“All these politicians afraid to go near him,” he said – adding that Trump and his staff have never told him what to say, nor chided him for speaking his mind, as if they could.
“I think everybody is looking at their own elections. I hate to say that,” Arpaio added. “You know it; I know it. You want me to say it, and I'm saying it… People have to worry about their own future, their own elections. I understand that. But I'm not the type of guy that does that. I don't throw people under the bus… I know there's a lot of controversy on the Hispanic vote. People are always saying, ‘Oh, you can't win if you don't have the Hispanic vote.’”
He pauses to adjust the glasses, and reflects for the briefest of moments on his own political twilight, and a potentially tough 2016 reelection campaign.
“If there's anybody that should be shying away from Trump, it's me, with all the heat I'm taking, right?” he said. “Any smart guy would do that, but I'm not a smart guy, maybe.”
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