Babeu is new face of Arizona sheriffs

Mass. transplant to Pinal molds himself into border-issue hawk
2010-05-23T00:00:00Z Babeu is new face of Arizona sheriffsTim Steller and Brady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You've probably seen him by now, in one of numerous TV interviews or walking with Sen. John McCain along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in the senator's latest television ad.

He's the blue-eyed, shaved-headed man in a crisp sheriff's uniform describing "off-the-charts" violence in Arizona, defending the state's new immigration-enforcement law and lamenting the federal government's inability to secure the border.

"Senator, you're one of us," he tells McCain in the political advertisement.

But who is he?

He is Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a 41-year-old from Massachusetts who has become the new face of Arizona border sheriffs in the last two months, although his county is about 90 miles from Mexico.

Babeu's border-hawk stance and penchant for self-promotion have led some to label him a less abrasive version of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But Arpaio was a law enforcement officer who turned politician, while Babeu is a politician turned sheriff.

Raised in North Adams, Mass., in a family of 11 children, he was elected to the City Council at age 18.

Shortly after losing his last election try, for mayor of North Adams in 2001, Babeu followed his parents to Arizona. He became a Chandler police officer and found a friendlier audience for his conservative views. In November 2008 he defeated a Democratic incumbent to become sheriff.

Babeu didn't make the border a key campaign issue, but by the time a Pinal County deputy was shot and wounded April 30, he was already emerging as a border-security authority. Deputy Louis Puroll's shooting, apparently by smugglers, magnified Babeu's national profile.

Babeu (pronounced "BAB-you"), unmarried and with no kids, downplays his political aspirations, but he molds his personal image by posting his latest TV appearances on his Facebook page and his personal website - Sheriffpaul.com.

The increasingly public face of Pinal County also has a scar: As a young teen, he was abused by Catholic priests. But even in that context, Babeu became a sort of spokesman for the often shattered church-abuse victims.

Pete Rios, a veteran Democratic politician and chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, questions some of the sheriff's initiatives, but admires his political skill.

"When he ran for sheriff, nobody even knew how to pronounce his name," Rios said. "They do know how to pronounce his name now."

Border Hawk

Babeu walks alongside CBS reporter Bill Whitaker in an April 30 report on Arizona's new immigration law, decrying border-related crime.

"Assaults against police officers, officer-involved shootings, home invasions, carjackings, violent crimes. And you ask why is that? We can clearly point to the flow of illegal immigrants," he tells the reporter.

Since his appearance with Sens. McCain and Jon Kyl during an April 19 news conference in Washington D.C., Babeu has become the Arizona border sheriff, making regular appearances on national TV and radio.

Babeu considers himself qualified to speak on border issues due to his position as sheriff in a smuggling corridor and his leadership in the Arizona Army National Guard during Operation Jump Start, which sent National Guard troops to the Southwest border in support of the Border Patrol.

In 2006-2007, Babeu spent 17 months as commander of Task Force Yuma supervising 700 soldiers, and the unit was credited with major reductions in illegal crossings.

Babeu knows, he said, "how to secure this border here. I've seen it work. I've been a part of helping make it work."

He advised McCain and Kyl on their 10-step border security plan and took some credit for McCain's hardened border stance.

"I've worked to convince him (McCain) that this is the way to go. To his great credit, he has seen that and shown great leadership," Babeu said last week.

But to some, including longtime Arizona law enforcement officials, Babeu is a pretender. Many officers question how 3 1/2 years spent patrolling Chandler's streets, plus a border deployment, qualify him as a national expert on border security, said Bill Richardson, a retired Mesa police officer who also worked for 10 years on a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Pima, Pinal and other counties.

"It would be like a college freshman pre-med student who's had one anatomy class telling a veteran pathologist how to do an autopsy," said Richardson, who has followed Babeu closely since 2008.

Smuggling has long occurred in western Pinal County, but Babeu's claims of soaring violence have more to do with his own political aspirations than reality, Richardson said.

"What he's very skillfully doing, much like (Joe) Arpaio and (State Sen. Russell) Pearce, is he's creating fear or fanning the flames of fear, that the undocumented are the root cause of crime in Arizona," Richardson said. "In fact, they are not."

Figures from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office show major crimes in the county have either decreased or remained steady over the past three years. However, Babeu and Lt. Tamatha Villar said the information for this year is preliminary and does not provide a complete picture of crimes - such as bodies found in suspicious circumstances - likely linked to the border.

"I'm not making these things up," Babeu said. "There is more than enough stuff that's going on here, and the threat is real."

YOUNG POLITICO

In Babeu's office, a vintage Ronald Reagan poster hangs above the desk and a copy of Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" lies on the coffee table. But his hero is McCain, who, like Babeu, made military experience the foundation of a political career.

Babeu joined the Massachusetts National Guard as a 21-year-old and now is a major in the Arizona Army National Guard.

"One of the leadership traits in the military is you seek and accept responsibility," Babeu said. "That's what I've always tried to do."

His first run for office began at age 17. Still in high school, planning to become an electrician, Babeu led a campaign against a proposed raise for North Adams City Council members.

"I got up, was nervous as hell and said, 'I don't think this is right,' and they basically laughed at me," he said. "They thought it was cute."

But the council decided to reduce the pay hike, and Babeu, running as an independent, turned his public recognition into a winning campaign for council.

The inspiration for Babeu's entrance into politics was his father, Raymond Babeu, a gadfly in local politics who made two unsuccessful runs for office, said Babeu and his brother, Fran.

When Paul was a boy, his father, a longtime employee of the area's electric utility, spent spare time fighting water-rate increases, city-charter changes and the sale of pornography, the Berkshire Eagle newspaper reported in the 1970s and 1980s. The elder Babeu was barred from a local store that sold pornography and banned from a local radio call-in show. Babeu's father and mother, Helen, now live in Pinal County.

Local politicos took note of the prodigy Paul Babeu and foresaw big things. But after his first, successful run, Babeu faltered. He registered as a Republican in solidly Democratic Berkshire County, then lost a write-in race for county commission, and lost re-election to the council.

He later won a term on the Berkshire County Commission and became a leader of county Republicans. But Babeu lost subsequent races - for state Senate, and for North Adams mayor in 1997 and 2001.

"At certain times there were two or three times as many Democrats as there were Republicans," Paul Babeu said. "For a Republican to get elected was a herculean task in and of itself."

But that wasn't Babeu's only problem, said his longtime nemesis, John Barrett III, who defeated Babeu in both runs for mayor. Babeu sometimes wore his National Guard uniform in the race, Barrett said, but the voters discovered it was empty.

"He was very good at packaging himself," Barrett said. "That's what he did, and he's doing it now."

Tight with Arpaio

About six months after taking office as sheriff, Babeu sent Pinal County officers to Maricopa County for a crime sweep focused on illegal immigrants.

At the time, he told the East Valley Tribune, "I'm proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sheriff Joe."

Babeu's position as sheriff, emphasis on border enforcement, and numerous TV appearances have invited comparisons to Maricopa's Joe Arpaio.

That affiliation is new to Pinal County, said Roger Vanderpool, former sheriff and Arizona Department of Public Safety director.

"I had some mentors when I became sheriff. Mine was mainly to the south, (Pima County) Sheriff (Clarence) Dupnik," Vanderpool said. "Sheriff Babeu is mainly looking to the north."

Pinal supervisors Chairman Rios, a longtime legislator, said Babeu is doing a good job, but he worries about Babeu's focus on immigration issues.

"My concern is that this is how Joe Arpaio started -going after the bad apples, the bad guys," Rios said. "Then all of a sudden he's trying to get taco vendors."

Babeu respects Arpaio and considers him a "good person," he said, but their styles differ and they've had conflicts. The latest is over the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, in which Arpaio supports challenger J.D. Hayworth, Babeu said. (Arpaio declined to comment for this story.)

"He's super pissed off at me because of my support of John McCain," Babeu said.

Scarred youth

The 10th of 11 children, Babeu was raised in a declining mill town.

He called his family one with "lots of different personalities, lots of people who can be successful, and lots of people who may not be. I've seen lots of different things in our family, but that's all family business."

What Babeu learned, he said, is "In the end, every man, every woman has to stand on their own efforts."

The family's life was made harder by encountering Father Richard Lavigne, a Catholic priest who rotated around the Springfield, Mass., diocese for years in the 1970s and '80s, abusing children as he moved. One of the victims was Paul's brother Fran. Another was Paul himself.

In 1986, Paul Babeu, with the help of a Catholic nun and priest, told the diocese Lavigne had abused him. But the diocese let Lavigne remain active as a priest until he was arrested for abusing two other children in 1991. Their inaction is what infuriated Babeu: He estimated in 2002 that Lavigne victimized 10 more children after he spoke up.

Retired journalist Bill Zajac, whose reporting on Bishop Thomas Dupre of Springfield helped force the bishop out, remembered Babeu as an unusual victim in that the abuse hadn't broken him.

"Because he was so articulate, I would call him once in a while," said Zajac, who worked for the Springfield Republican. "He seemed to really get it, in terms of wanting to hold priests and the church accountable."

Eventually, in 2002, Babeu sued the diocese of Burlington, Vt., where he was abused by another priest on a trip with Lavigne, and the Springfield diocese. He received settlements from both.

While Babeu's father left the Catholic Church and became an evangelical minister, Babeu converted his relationship with God into a personal one, he said.

Although Babeu discusses being a victim, it's not a happy place to revisit.

"That stuff never leaves me," he said last week, adding: "That's a part of my past, part of my life. I'm not ashamed of it."

In fact, the experience inspired him to try to help troubled people, he said. In 1998, he accepted an offer from fellow Berkshire County Republican Michael DeSisto to lead the private boarding school DeSisto had founded in Stockbridge.

The DeSisto School's reputation was mixed. The school used controversial therapeutic methods and had been sued for alleged abuse by staff members, some of whom were convicted of crimes.

While Babeu worked there, the school fought efforts by a state agency to force the school to submit to licensure. Babeu acknowledges the issues but said he loved the school and that most students succeeded.

Learning on the job

During the 2008 campaign for sheriff, incumbent Chris Vasquez questioned whether Babeu had the experience to run a 600-person department with a $45 million budget. Babeu had been a Chandler officer for just 5 1/2 years, and was deployed on the Arizona border and in Iraq for two of them.

Despite that, Babeu won by nearly 8,000 votes, 54-46 percent.

Still, the questions linger. Vanderpool, the former sheriff, said Babeu is "learning management and supervision in law enforcement on the job."

That inexperience has morale at its lowest point in nearly two decades at the department, said Pinal County sheriff's Sgt. Scott "S.G" Gillen, a 19-year-veteran and president of the Pinal County Deputies Association. Evidence of that, Gillen says, is that he was elected union president six months after Babeu placed him on paid administrative leave while the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigates criminal complaints.

But while Babeu has detractors, he has a long list of supporters, too. And his résumé includes a host of accolades: glowing appraisals from Chandler police supervisors; two lifesaving medals as a Chandler officer, and numerous awards in the National Guard.

Villar, whom Babeu chose as the department spokeswoman, said the new sheriff has vastly improved morale by instilling higher standards and recognizing employees' efforts.

"Every holiday he comes and shakes hands with every staff member on every shift in our detention center who don't get to be home with their families," she said.

However Babeu's performance is judged, many people think his time as sheriff will be short because he will run for higher office. Ever the politician, Babeu said, "My goal is to serve an entire four-year term here and run for re-election in 2012. I love being the sheriff."

Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at tsteller@azstarnet.com Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or at bmccombs@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Featured businesses

View more...
Get weekly ads via e-mail