There may be nobody in Arizona better at ginning up publicity than Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
During his 20 years in office, the flamboyant Republican icon has proved time and again that he knows how to get his name in the news.
Today will be no different.For weeks, Arpaio has been talking up his investigation of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, saying he would announce its results on March 1. Spurred by the conservative website WorldNetDaily and local Tea Party activists, Arpaio is using the already debunked theory that the president was not born in the United States to once again hoist himself in the spotlight.
His ability to get the media to focus on the stories he wants them to cover is undoubtedly one of the things that has made him so popular, with his approval rating topping 80 percent earlier in his career and hovering around 50 percent more recently.
It may also explain why Republican presidential candidates have clamored in recent months to get the sheriff’s endorsement — even as he remains the target of civil and criminal investigations.
In a recent interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, the sheriff hinted that the whole birth certificate investigation may end up being much ado about nothing.
“The people have come to me, my constituents, and asked me to look into it. I don’t throw it in the wastebasket, so I’m looking into it,” Arpaio said. “It’s very simple. Maybe I can clear the President. We don’t know.”
Today’s stunt may be Arpaio’s strangest yet. But while true believers in the conspiracy theory wait patiently for the sheriff’s results to arrive, the rest can enjoy this list TPM put together of some of his other publicity events that give it some competition:
1. Glen Campbell’s Jailhouse Concert
After finding out country singer Glen Campbell had pleaded guilty to a local charge of extreme drunken driving and would be spending 10 days in one of Arpaio’s jails in 2005, the sheriff figured out a way to get even more publicity out of it. Days into Campbell’s sentence, Arpaio got the crooner to play a 30-minute set atop a flatbed truck in the middle of the Tent City jail. The sheriff called it “work release.” The press called it news. The story was picked up by newspapers as far away as Memphis and Canada.
2. Never Running For Governor
In 2002, during the near-peak of his popularity, Arpaio panicked some of the most ambitious Republicans in Arizona when he announced he was thinking about running for governor. That April, the establishment breathed a sigh of relief when Arpaio said he would rather remain sheriff. “I just want to go out into the sunset as a law enforcement officer,” he told the Associated Press. Ever since, Arpaio has managed to use the same stunt every couple of years, saying he was eyeing some higher office. It earns him plenty of headlines, but he never pulls the trigger. Still, some journalists continue to take his hints at higher political aspirations seriously. In 2010, Phoenix television station KNXV even reported that the sheriff would indeed finally run for governor that year. A short time later, Arpaio said he was grateful for the attention but would not be running for anything but sheriff. The TV station quickly scrubbed the story from its website after that.
3. ‘Con Rail’
Less than four weeks after the Phoenix area celebrated the launch of its highly anticipated light rail system, Arpaio announced that his office would begin to transport jail inmates on the trains alongside the regular riders. He called it “Con Rail” and it generated plenty of headlines. No surprise, transportation officials and everyday passengers were not amused. The sheriff cancelled his plans three days later.
4. Basketball Star Shaquille O’Neal Becomes Honorary Deputy
Arpaio made the NBA all-star an honorary deputy in 2006. But two years later, the pair had a falling out when Shaq was caught on tape talking trash about fellow basketball star Kobe Bryant. Arpaio told O’Neal he wanted his badge back because deputies weren’t allowed to talk like that. O’Neal ended up going to another Arizona police department and getting sworn in as an honorary officer.
5. Action Star Steven Seagal And The Tank
Another celebrity got Arpaio into hot water last year. The sheriff let action star Steven Seagal tag along with his deputies for a raid on a suspected cockfighting ring in Phoenix. The actor was filming the event for an episode of his reality television show “Steven Seagal: Lawman” and by all accounts the sheriff’s office went all out for the raid. With the actor in tow, deputies drove through the front gate of a house with a tank. They arrested the man they said was leading the cockfighting ring, but the deputies also allegedly killed the man’s puppy and about 100 roosters in the process. The suspect filed a claim.
6. Pink Panties, An Elvis Impersonator and Arpaio Singing Backup
Arpaio likes to tell people that he busted Elvis Presley on a traffic stop near Las Vegas when he was a young cop in the late 1950s. It’s impossible to know whether the tale is true, but the sheriff used it as the set up for a party he threw last year to celebrate the 18th anniversary of his Tent City jail. The party, which may be the strangest stunt of the bunch until today, included an Elvis impersonator, Arpaio singing backup and female inmates tossing pairs of pink underwear at the two men. The event got only limited coverage in the media.
Ed note: An earlier version of this piece said MCSO and Seagal had been sued, when a legal claim had been filed against them.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org