Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” has his critics. But you’d have been hard-pressed to find any inside the Kendall County Republicans’ annual picnic Saturday in Yorkville.
As the featured speaker at this year’s event, Arpaio drew two standing ovations from the 600-strong crowd at the Kendall County Fairgounds. He spoke for an hour, and by the end, at least one man was ready to vote for him for governor of Illinois.
To find critics of the controversial lawman, you had to venture outside the fairgrounds, where about 70 people armed with signs gathered to criticize both Arpaio, and the Kendall County Republicans for inviting him to town.
Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona since 1992, is famous for his “tent city” jail in Phoenix, his firm stance against illegal immigration, and his willingness to enforce those immigration laws. He is known for raiding businesses suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, for instituting the first all-female chain gang, and for denying his prisoners the comforts offered in other jails across the country.
These actions have brought him notoriety, and he has taken advantage of that, writing a book and selling the pink underwear he makes his inmates wear.
Arpaio’s supporters say he is doing his job, following the law when it comes to arresting illegal immigrants. They agree that jails should be places inmates dread, and say his tough tactics—including making convicted prisoners in those chain gangs wear t-shirts explaining their crimes—serve as a deterrent.
His critics, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and the U.S. Department of Justice (which has been investigating Arpaio on claims of racial discrimination), say he violates his prisoners’ human rights, and his methods of finding and arresting illegal immigrants are unethical.
Arpaio addressed all of those controversies on Saturday, leavening them with humor. He repeatedly said how much he enjoys being “the sheriff,” accountable only to the people who elected him.
“I took away (prisoners’) coffee, their cigarettes, their salt,” he said. “I should get the Heart Association of the Year award, and all I get is lawsuits.”
He said he invites anyone who wishes to come to Arizona and tour his tents. He admitted that the temperatures in Phoenix can get blisteringly hot, but said he sometimes exaggerates the conditions for the press, holding the thermometer at the hottest part of the tent. (“145 degrees? Wow, that’s bad,” he chuckled.)
But then, he said, he “shuts everyone up” by comparing his tents to those in which soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq spend their days and nights. Soldiers, he said, are “fighting for our country, and they’re living in tents, so why are you complaining about criminals that have been convicted, doing their time living in tents?”
Like many of his remarks, that one drew wild applause from the crowd.
Arpaio repeatedly denied that he engages in racial profiling, and said President Barack Obama should thank him for opening up jobs for American citizens. He said his organization has rounded up 50,000 illegal immigrants during his tenure.
Kendall County Sheriff Richard Randall said Arpaio is “outspoken,” and while he respects some of his methods, he does not have the manpower to carry them out here. Randall described the Kendall County Jail as “clean and quiet,” and said he keeps it that way for the staff of the sheriff’s department, who have to be there every day.
He also disagreed with Arpaio on the Arizona sheriff’s policy of serving minimal, unappealing food to inmates. His meals cost $1.24 a day, he said, in contrast to Arpaio’s, which cost 40 cents.
“I felt if we give them decent food, we can expect them to clean up after themselves, be quiet and follow the rules,” Randall said. “If they do, they get decent food. If they don’t, we take it away.”
Outside the fairgrounds, a vocal group of about 70 protesters greeted Arpiao. The group consisted of Kendall County Democrats, local labor leaders and immigration activists from across northern Illinois.
The protesters often clashed with counter-protesters, one of whom taunted the mostly Hispanic crowd with racial epithets. In turn, protesters shouted back their own insulting remarks at Arpaio's supporters.
“That sort of language is just adding fuel to the fire,” said retired teacher Linda Porter of Oswego. “The discourse in this country needs to be moving in a different direction. It’s disappointing because when people hear that they just shut their ears.”
Porter attended the protest with her husband Ted Clauser, also a retired teacher. He said he and his wife are not Democrats, but showed up to protest what they see as human rights violations in Arpaio’s Maricopa County jail.
“We live in the United States where rights of individuals are held to a high standard. Doesn’t seem like it in Arizona,” Clasuer said.
What Arpaio’s visit will do to the relationship between the Democratic and Republican parties in Kendall County remains to be seen. Porter said she doesn’t hold out much hope given the controversial invitation extended to Arpaio.
“The fact that this racist is touted as someone appropriate for a family picnic is troubling,” she said.
At one point, Arpaio took the trip to the fairground gates to meet with the protesters, and argue his case. Despite some heated moments, Randall said the protest was peaceful.
“I’m a proponent of people saying they agree to disagree,” he said. “That’s what we saw out here today. No one got out of hand.”
Ken Toftoy, chairman of the Kendall County Republicans, said he was thrilled by Arpaio’s remarks, and pleased to see this year’s picnic draw the event’s biggest audience ever.
“Some people want to be politically correct,” Toftoy said. “He’s not. But most people believe in what he does, they just don’t want to say it.”
And as for that invitation to run for governor? One attendee asked him if he would be interested, but Arpaio brushed the idea aside.
“Why would I want to go from being sheriff, where I have a gun and a badge and can lock up the governor, to being governor?” he said with a smile.