PHOENIX — Sitting behind his desk at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, a metal Glock pin glistening on his tie, Joe Arpaio brags, "My office is twice the size of the governor's."
On the wall hangs a picture of the sheriff standing with a grinning Barack Obama, as if the president himself were watching over the most polarizing and flamboyant law enforcement official in the country.
First elected more than two decades ago, Arpaio became the country's most infamous sheriff by pledging to put prisoners in outdoor tents, making pink underwear standard attire for those in the correctional system and restarting a chain gang that forces inmates to perform manual labor. More recently, he's stirred controversy with his emphasis on illegal immigration.
Last year a federal judge ruled that Arpaio's office systematically profiled Latinos in its patrols, giving judicial credibility to longstanding complaints from the local Hispanic-American community.The judge also ordered that an independent monitor be appointed to ensure that the sheriff's office doesn't engage in racial profiling.
“It’s the year of love,” Arpaio says mockingly.
His political future as sheriff is somewhat secure, but as he puts it, he has to deal with “all this heat.” The sheriff could run for governor if he wanted to — it's just that very few people take the prospect seriously.
At a recent press briefing, he chided reporters on why they haven't more prominently covered his hints that he may run to become the governor of Arizona.
A week after the Washington Examiner shadowed him for an afternoon, Arpaio sent out a fundraising email to supporters, saying he had chosen to run for a seventh term as sheriff, a position he has held since 1992. Two days after the solicitation, he told the conservative website Newsmax that the email was sent out in error, and he's “still considering” a gubernatorial bid.
The sheriff insists his deputies have not engaged in racial profiling. But asked what concrete steps he’s taken to reach out to minorities in Phoenix, Arpaio recalls a recent incident when he pulled over a car filled with “Hispanics.”
“They saw me [and said,] ‘Hey, Sheriff, we love ya!’ And I had my pictures taken with them,” he says. “They outreached to me ... I stopped the car, and outreached ... you can’t get any better than that.”
Arpaio himself is a first-generation American, born to immigrants from Italy. His mother died in childbirth. After skipping college and serving in the Army, he worked as a police officer before becoming an officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
For a tough-on-crime stalwart, he makes no effort to hide his vulnerability and insecurities. “Why does the media make fun?” he says of a joke made at his expense during the briefing. “What, do they think I can't win [the governor's race]? They know I can win.”
And on political candidates who beg for his endorsement and don’t thank him, he complains, “I’m like a piece of meat. They use me.”
It is impossible to know when to take Arpaio seriously. For each statement he makes, one has to wonder whether it was a joke or an expression of policy from an elected official who oversees law enforcement for nearly 4 million people.
But even his most fervent critics — and there are many, many locals angry with Arpaio — will acknowledge what a masterful showman he is.
Arizona Hispanic activists see Arpaio "as a demon," says Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor running for Congress. "[But] don't underestimate him. He's crazy like a fox. He'll pretend to be a jovial old man, but his policies undermine that completely."
Arpaio heads for Arizona State University, where he will give a lecture to a class of criminal justice students. The sheriff wants to show off his ringtone, so he whips out an old LG flip phone from the early 2000s. An aide is signaled to call the phone, which features on its home screen Arpaio’s wife of 57 years.
“Hang on, hang on,” Arpaio says. “How come it’s not working? ... My phone is screwed up. S--t!"
The sheriff is not one for technology. “I have never used a computer, and I never will,” he says proudly. But this lack of tech savvy can hurt: He pays $100 per month for his dinky non-smartphone. It also could explain the failure of his plan to release dogs with mounted cameras into in his tent prison to monitor inmates. (The turbulence of walking dogs was too rough for video, he explained.)
On the ride to Arizona State, he invites a reporter into his “armored” car (it’s not) and tried to rebut charges of racism. “I know a little something about foreign people,” he said. “I’ve got four adopted grandkids. All different ethnic backgrounds. And they call me a racist.”
Arriving at the university’s downtown Phoenix campus after a short ride, he’s clearly disappointed that nobody is demonstrating against him.
“I love demonstrators ... my polls go up every time they demonstrate. ... Let’s go see if those people know who I am,” he says as he exits the car.
As his four-person posse nears the lecture room, he walks up to a woman who appears to be Hispanic. “Where are you from? I don’t want to racially profile,” he says, before remarking on her attractiveness.
The class is rapt but it’s clear that among the 60 or so students assembled, a few disapprove of him. Arms crossed, mouths frowning, they listen to him for more than an hour. Despite the differences in age — he is 82 — he charms them, gets their attention, makes them laugh.
His aide dials his cellphone and this time it rings. It’s Frank Sinatra's "My Way."