Me and Sheriff Joe Arpaio

On his recent swing through Northern Nevada, I got to spend an hour with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona. Arpaio is known the world around for putting his inmates in pink underwear, making them sleep in tent cities no matter how drastic the heat, and he also uses chain gangs, both male and female, in his jails.

“Nobody says I’m a great guy,” says Arpaio, 79. “Do you think I worry about what I’m telling you? If the people don’t like what I say, go vote for somebody else. That’s how I feel about what you’re probably going to ask me about all this controversy.”

Arpaio did not shy away from his controversial actions in Maricopa County—a sprawling place as large as several states that includes Phoenix, the country’s sixth-largest city—or the firestorm they ignited.

“I’m not running a first- and second-class airline system,” Arpaio said. “Everybody eats the same food, everybody wears the same uniform, and all the policies are the same, except for one thing: Those I put in the tents have been convicted of a crime and are doing their time.”

I couldn’t let the sheriff get away without discussing the 2012 Republican presidential field. A prominent supporter of Mitt Romney in 2008, Arpaio made it clear he had not made up his mind about who to endorse for 2012. “Michele [Bachmann] came to my office last week, and we had a nice talk, I met Herman Cain in Vegas recently, and Perry’s underlings called me a couple weeks ago.”

I was glad the sheriff brought up Rick Perry, for I was interested to hear what a man like Arpaio, widely considered to be the toughest man in America on the subject of illegal immigration thought about a Texas governor who is notorious for being a moderate on the very same issue.

“I’m not trying to skirt the question,” Arpaio said, and then proceeded to do exactly that. In bits and pieces, however, his opinions came out.

Arpaio parted ways with Perry on the DREAM act. “I have compassion for the college kids; however, the overriding fact is they are here illegally, they are on the wrong side of the law, so they need to go back where they came from and come back here the right way.” On the subject of building a wall on the country’s southern border, which Arpaio referred to as “the fence,” he expressed his support, provided the laws are strong enough. “If you’re gonna buy a ladder to hop the fence, I want you to go to jail, not back home to get a bigger ladder.”

Arpaio is up for reelection in 2012, and is “99 percent sure” he’s going to run again. He is also flirting with a run for the U.S. Senate to replace Jon Kyl, who has decided not to seek reelection. Arpaio boasted about his fundraising prowess, but several times referred to himself as a senior citizen, making me wonder if Washington, D.C., is where he wants to go at this stage in his life.

“Next time you’re in Arizona give me a call, and I’ll give you a tour of the tent city,” Arpaio promised, holding out a Joe Arpaio trading card autographed to me. This is an offer I one day intend to redeem.

Whether it’s sleeping in tents in 120 degree heat, making inmates pay for their own food, pink underwear, or traveling the globe to ensure that everyone knows the story of America’s Toughest Sheriff, Joe Arpaio has a megaphone, a bully pulpit, and the stones to use them whenever, wherever he pleases.

He is a dynamic, fascinating man, which leaves me wondering if the good citizens of Arizona keep reelecting him because they like his policies, or do they do it out of curiosity. Love him or hate him, nobody knows what’s he’s going to conjure up next.