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What A Drama-Packed Race For Pima County Sheriff Could Lead To In November

Published: Monday, September 14, 2020 - 2:06pm
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LAUREN GILGER: Familiar faces are stirring up controversy in one of Arizona's sheriffs races — and no, we're not talking about former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, not this time anyway. No, this time Pima County is seeing political drama play out in that battle to be top cop. Republican Sheriff Mark Napier has accused his Democratic opponent, Chris Nanos, of intentionally and maliciously defaming him. The accusation comes after a billboard claimed Napier was guilty of perjury and, quote, "a proven liar." Nanos also called Napier a liar on social media and now faces threats of a lawsuit. So what might this mean for November's election? I talked to Jim Nintzel, executive editor of Tucson Weekly.

JIM NINTZEL: Let's actually step back a moment. Pima County, the sheriff from 1980 to 2015 was Clarence Dupnik. He had a very, very long run as Pima County sheriff. He stepped down in 2015 and the Board of Supervisors appointed Chris Nanos to the job. Chris Nanos, a Democrat, had to face election in 2016. And along the way, he got caught up in a procurement scandal and some other issues regarding Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) dollars that had sort of been lingering in the department for a while. And that led to him having some, some pretty serious headlines that resulted in him losing his race in 2016 — the first time a Democrat had lost a race for Pima County sheriff in many decades. And a Republican, Mark Napier, won. He's our current sheriff. He's running again for reelection this year. A former Tucson Police Department officer and he is now facing Chris Nanos, who is making a comeback. He's trying to get back into the sheriff's office. He was able to prevail in a primary down here. And so now we have the rematch of Sheriff Napier vs., versus Chris Nanos.

GILGER: OK, and this campaign a rematch, it is. But it's also turned really kind of ugly in recent weeks, right? In fact, Sheriff Napier is now threatening to sue Nanos. What is he taking issue with here?

NINTZEL: This had to do with a review of a officer who was disciplined by Sheriff Napier, and the officer took his claim to the Pima County Merit Commission. Three people heard the account and interviewed other witnesses within the department. One of them felt as though Sheriff Napier and the other officials had told some falsehoods in that encounter. The other two disagreed. But Chris Nanos ran with that and put up a billboard accusing Mark Napier of committing perjury. Mark Napier has responded with his attorney, saying that he has not been convicted of committing perjury. It was an allegation that was made and he's saying that that billboard should come down.

GILGER: And the billboard was removed, right? So what's Napier demanding beyond that?

NINTZEL: Well, he was basically saying that Chris Nanos should, should get out of the race. And that's something that Chris Nanos has no interest in doing. But he, as you said, the billboard did come down.

GILGER: But where did they sort of differ when it comes to policy? Like, there's a lot of politics around this, but what are the debates going to be like around how they would actually run the department?

NINTZEL: You know, it's interesting because, you know, Pima County, of course, is a very blue county. Democrats tend to do very well down here in countywide races. But Mark Napier did manage to pull off that victory partially because of the scandal that reached up to Chris Nanos. And one of the things that Mark Napier has done is he hasn't been a sheriff like you guys saw in Joe Arpaio up in Maricopa County or the folks in Pinal County saw with Paul Babeu. He's, you know, there hasn't been a lot of, "Hey, let's round up all the illegal immigrants," or a lot of playing to the right-wing crowds. He has really struck more of a balance of saying this is a professional office. This year, he's taken a look at use of force with all of the controversy about law enforcement and tactics and stuff like that. He's, he's calling for a lot of reform within the sheriff's department. So he's been a very moderate Republican when it comes to this kind of thing, saying that he feels the job of the sheriff is to basically represent all the people in the county. Chris Nanos is saying, you know, morale has fallen among the officers. He's, he's making a big deal out of that. He's saying that, that the department is being mismanaged. So it's not so much a policy debate as it is a managerial one, I think.

GILGER: So you've covered politics down there for a long time, Jim. Is there something unique about this race that stands out in your mind? Like does this in some way mark a turn in Pima County? And if a Republican were to get reelected there, what do you think that would mean?

NINTZEL: Well, I think it was fascinating that, that Mark Napier was able to win the race in the first place despite the voter registration disadvantage that he had. I think it's gonna be tough for him to keep in office. I think what we're seeing is a, a blue wave forming across the country. And I think Republicans on a countywide basis are probably an endangered species down here in Pima County. You know, I think that the one thing Chris Nanos has on his side besides his history in law enforcement is, is that voter registration advantage. If Mark Napier does pull it out, it really does say something about his ability to reach out to people and independent voters and even Democratic voters and get them to cross county — party lines in order to support a Republican.

GILGER: So how much of this sort of nastiness, you know, the, the threats of lawsuits and calling people liars on the campaign here is being driven by, do you think the current political climate? Like, do you think it might matter come November that this is a big presidential election year in which we're going to see a lot of this kind of stuff?

NINTZEL: Yeah, I think that does make a big difference. You know, the turnout in a presidential year is going to be enormous. Particularly this presidential year, it seems like people on both sides of the aisle are willing to crawl across glass to to cast a ballot this year. So it's definitely going to be tough for Napier to hang on to the seat. But, you know, crazier things have happened.

GILGER: Definitely. All right. That is Jim Nintzel, executive editor of Tucson Weekly, joining us with the latest on the Pima County sheriff's race going on down in Tucson. Jim, thank you so much for the time.

NINTZEL: Always a pleasure.

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