How did Joe Arpaio happen? I ask that because, after almost 20 years in our midst, his time as sheriff may soon be coming to an end.

How could someone retain his office who's cost county taxpayers millions, whose office has been on the losing end of so many lawsuits, whose deputies have arrested law-abiding citizens in an attempt to intimidate them, who has conspired with a disgraced county attorney to drum up phony indictments against public officials, who has neglected to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults, and who now faces possible federal civil lawsuits as a result of the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO)?

Oh, and who might soon face criminal indictments arising from a separate DOJ investigation?

Why have Maricopa County voters repeatedly returned him to office? Why have so many public officials, including many prominent East Valley politicians, eagerly sought the endorsement of the sheriff many believe to be a bullying, corrupt demagogue?

In other words, how did Joe happen?

The answer's complex. But it involves public relations, the federal government, the economy and the media. Oh, and cowardice.

Let's deal with the most obvious first, Arpaio's PR machine - at one time was a fairly large, and expensive, part of his office. Whomever was in charge of that office knew how to get the sheriff into the papers and on TV, whether it was Tent City, pink underwear, chain gangs or his tank.

And the local media? They ate it up. He was "Sheriff Joe," the "Toughest Sheriff in America." They would show up and report every one of his stunts. But when Arpaio's behavior became a little less "Oh, that's just Joe," and more "Oh, no, that's Joe," much of the local media was tardy to reporting the more dangerous behavior of the MCSO. Still today, you can listen to some local talking heads defend Arpaio, though not quite so vociferously as in the past.

Two other factors combined to give Arpaio the kind of carte blanche he's had over the last several years: the economy and the federal government.

When the economy faltered and thousands in Arizona lost their jobs, and homes the illegal immigrants suddenly became villains. In part, there was truth to that label: At the very least, illegal immigrants drove down the pay legal residents received for jobs they competed for. And the costs to education and health care were very real, too. So when we started to suffer here, the illegal immigrants were a good target for our frustration. At the same time, the federal government had done little to improve border security. The Bush Administration only reluctantly sent a few National Guardsmen to the border.

So Arpaio turned his attention to arresting illegal immigrants. Why? Good question. Only he really knows. But we do know that his "crime suppression" sweeps were popular, even when they resulted in few arrests. Or worse, resulted in arrests of legal residents. And had no real effect on crime. And took deputies away from other duties. And led to hundreds of sexual assault cases uninvestigated. And revealed that many of us would look the other way when Latinos were discriminated against. Nevertheless, Arpaio was seen as one of the few Arizona public officials protecting us from the "illegal invasion."

So his PR machine, a mostly-fawning media, and the horrible economy and weak border enforcement all combined to create Joe Arpaio. But there was another factor, too.


Public official and media types had known for years that the MCSO was careening out of control. And yet, hardly a peep from them. Newspapers continued to endorse his candidacy, TV anchors continued to joke with him on news shows, talk radio hosts would deify him in interviews. Worse, politicians either continued to support him or suddenly went quiet about him. Very few had the political courage to stare Arpaio down. The cowardly silence of so many for so long helped create the environment Arpaio thrived in.

So here we are today - once again in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons, once again facing federal lawsuits and millions more in legal costs, once again having to face the sad fact that we might have tolerated his serial malfeasance because it was "them" and not "us" who had to suffer.

And when the this history of Maricopa County is written, his shame will be our shame.

•Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

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