My 20 Minutes with Joe Arpaio, America's Toughest Sheriff and a Future Job Reference

Sheriff Joe Arpaio says to make sure I get his gun-shaped tie pin in the frame.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio says to make sure I get his gun-shaped tie pin in the frame.
Sky Chadde

The offer comes as a surprise. "Now that I have your contact info," a nice woman from the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party emails me after I ask a question for a different story, "I will forward to you a press invite to interview Sheriff Joe Arpaio, if you're interested." Of course I'm interested. How can I pass up interviewing one of the country's most notorious lawmen? And all I have to do is drive out to Southlake?

My next thought is, does he know I'm coming? See, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has some history with the Observer's sister paper, the Phoenix New Times. The paper has extensively documented his department's harassment of Mexican immigrants, Arpaio's questionable real estate deals and his use of intimidation, bullying and lies to attack his critics. In 2007 he ordered the arrest of the New Times co-founders, falsely accusing them of leaking testimony from a grand jury that hadn't been convened. They were recently awarded a $4 million settlement. Will he even talk to me?

I drive out to Southlake this past Friday afternoon with the hopes of not being thrown out immediately, even though I've never worked for the New Times. I'm to meet the sheriff at a mansion on Peytonville Avenue, where the Tea Party group is throwing a dinner in his honor.

The Southlake mansion in which Sheriff Joe dined Friday night.
The Southlake mansion in which Sheriff Joe dined Friday night.
Sky Chadde

I walk in the unlocked door after watching another reporter drive away and set off the alarm system. No one seems to notice. I wander around the anteroom until someone asks me how I'm doing, and I tell them I'm a reporter. She introduces me to the woman who set up the interview, who then tells me I'm early and that I'll have to wait a bit. I sit down in a plush chair. A few minutes later, Sheriff Joe enters the room.

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I expected a badass cowboy even at his 82 years, but he looks more like a grumpy but playful grandpa in his blue suit and tie.

The interview starts with a conversation about newspapers.

"What's the big paper?" he asks me. "What's the daily newspaper?"

"The one here is called The Dallas Morning News," I say.

"Is that you?"

"No," I reply. "We're the smaller one, the other one."

"Are you a weekly?"

"Yeah, we're weekly."

"You're not like the New Times or all that garbage?"

"We're owned by the same company that owns the Phoenix New Times," I tell him.

"So you are ..." he begins, bemused, "my big enemy, you're interviewing me."

I tell him I don't work for the Phoenix New Times. It doesn't seem to matter.

"They've been after me for 22 years, that paper," he continues. "In fact we locked up the owners."

A few awkward, silent moments pass until Sheriff Joe breaks the tension.

"See how I caught him?" he says to his handler. "I interrogated him. He's with the free newspaper that hits me ehh-vree week for 22 years."

At this moment, because it's noisy in this part of the house, we relocate the interview to another room. I walk behind the sheriff. Despite who he thinks I work for, he seems to be warming to me.

"But he's an honest guy," Sheriff Joe says. "He admitted to that. You gotta make a living, right?"

The sheriff sits down at a desk, and I sit near the door. Behind the sheriff is a signed photo of George W. Bush, some UT paraphernalia and a model commemorating the moon landing.

He seems defensive now that he knows my employment's six-degrees of separation. Sure enough, his rhetoric seems toned down when he answers my questions on immigration and the possibility of the Islamic state at the border. Of course, his answers are pretty much what you'd expect: He wants to send people here without documents back to where they came from. He has no evidence of terrorists on the border, but border security is an issue and anything is possible. The Tea Party is a good organization.

He says he loves Texas because the people are nice and the economy is good.

"Any plans to retire here?" I ask.

"Never," he fires back. "I'm retiring where I'm at."

The interview begins to wind down.

"If you ever come down [to Arizona]," he says. "You can come and do an interview, and don't call your local New Times." He says the name dramatically. "Everyday they're blasting me."

"Why do you think that is?"

"I don't really think they're doing it just for publicity. I really think they got a mission, a satisfaction, to take down this sheriff. Usually it's not that. Usually, it's you want a story, but you don't have a personal thing -- 'Oh, I want to take this guy down.' But it doesn't work. The fact the more your paper down there blasts me -- nobody reads it anyway, I hate to tell you that, it's a freebie but on the back they got all these hooker advertisements -- sometimes they come up with some good stories, like you, because they have the time to do a good story. If they would only balance it out a little more, but ... what do they call it? It's an alternative. You're an alternative. You're sure not going to make me look good if you're the alternative. You gotta go on the other side, so I understand that. They bust me for 22 years. I mean, everything."

Sheriff Joe seems to get reflective at this point.

"Why don't they get somebody else? Why me?"

I ask if he wants to add anything.

"I wish you put this story out before I came because maybe you would've drawn some activists."

"Out here?" I ask.

"Well," he says, reconsidering, "I don't know if they can afford the gas."

"Yeah," the handler says, cracking up. "I don't think so."

Sheriff Joe talks about a protest in California he inspired, and how he loved the controversy. Then he says some truly inspirational stuff.

"You got a job to do," he says, "and one day you might break a great story, whether it's your newspaper, get the Poo-litzer Prize. It's been done. Even the New Times has some good reporters. They got the time to do it unlike a quick, hard news story like you're doing now. If you're ever down there, you get a job at another newspaper, call me."

Then he turns to the handler. "These are my enemies," he says. "I treat my enemies right."

"Oh you're so good," the handler says cheerily.

She then wrangles me into taking a picture of him flanked by her and her husband. I shake the sheriff's hand. We exchange a few words on how hard it is to find good jobs in journalism these days. He gives me a smile.

If journalism doesn't work out and I find myself in Arizona, Sheriff Joe says as he hands me his card, give him a call.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.


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