Opinion: Fourth election defeat a sad end for Arpaio

Unable to leave the fanfare behind, the great ones inevitably hang on too long. There’s a sadness watching them fade in plain sight.

Think Muhammad Ali out on his feet against Trevor Berbick, Willie Mays batting a feeble .211 in his last year with the Mets, Elizabeth Taylor picking up a paycheck in the TV flick “These Old Broads.”

Then there’s former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Once a political juggernaut, a lawman sought out by presidents seeking to kiss his ring and parts further south, Arpaio, now 90, lost his fourth consecutive election earlier this month — for the lofty title of mayor of Fountain Hills.

To someone named Ginny Dickey. Who beat Arpaio, once America’s Toughest Sheriff, by 213 votes. This despite Arpaio spending $161,000, or about 31 bucks for each of his 5,207 votes.

The great ones never know when to bid us goodbye.

I met Arpaio in 1995, a few weeks after I moved to Arizona. He was two years into his 24-year run as sheriff, a law enforcement sideshow full of bombast and bull.

The gimmicks seemed endless: pink underwear so jail inmates wouldn’t steal undergarments, Tent City tours on 117-degree days, meals of donated fruit and green baloney to save the taxpayers money. There was a roguish charm to Arpaio then, like he was in on the joke, a hound for headlines who reveled in being despised by reporters and liberals alike.

During my early days as a columnist for the Tribune, I went to Arpaio with an insane idea: put me undercover on the chain gang. He couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. MCSO deputies sneaked me into the jail at 3 a.m., gave me a sweat-stained uniform, and chained me to a crew of convicts.

To a man, my fellow inmates confided that chain gang duty was better than sitting in the tents all day. We gathered trash from roadsides in the sweltering summer heat, passers-by constantly honking and giving us the finger.

I got a column and a bunch of TV interviews out of the deal. Arpaio got to read his name in bold news type yet again.

In the early days, Arpaio’s mantra I thought would serve him for eternity: You will never live better in jail than you live on the street. Eventually he lost sight of what made him a political rock star, instead using the sheriff’s office to target political opponents.

Arpaio failed to investigate serious crimes, and he misused the people’s money like a drunken lottery winner. As American politics got meaner after the turn of the century, tough Old Joe moved his crosshairs from criminals to anyone with brown skin.

In 2016, Arpaio lost to Paul Penzone, a retired Phoenix cop who has returned law enforcement focus and decorum back to the sheriff’s office. Two years later, Arpaio lost in a GOP Senate primary. In 2020, he lost in the Republican primary for sheriff.

Last year, announcing his candidacy for mayor of Fountain Hills, he told Fox News, “What do you want me to do? Go fishing? Go golfing? I don’t do anything. My hobby is work. I’ve done that my whole life. I’m not stopping now.”

Arpaio in his prime fooled me totally. Back in 2001, “60 Minutes” did a bio piece headlined “Joe the Jailer.”

How does it end for Arpaio?

“It’s gonna wear out when this guy passes away giving his speech in Sun City at 9 at night and he slumps forward into his rubber chicken,” was my assessment. “That’s when it wears out and not a moment before.”

We were younger then. The moment seemed eternal. It always does with the great ones, until it does no longer.