The appointment of Chris Nanos as Pima County sheriff in July 2015 followed a time-honored process.
The esteemed outgoing officeholder — in this case then-Sheriff Clarence Dupnik — picked his replacement, then resigned mid-term. Next, the county board appointed his pick.
It’s a maneuver many local officeholders have attempted, as I wrote at the time of Nanos’ appointment. Leave before the end of your term, then handpick your replacement.
That proud moment for Nanos has led, though, to a disaster — the indictment of his handpicked chief deputy, Chris Radtke, on federal charges of misusing RICO money.
Add the suicide of Nanos’ other top aide, Brad Gagnepain, which stunned the department; and the sheriff’s possible loss in the upcoming election, and the disaster of his first 16 months could be stunningly complete.
The indictment, though, isn’t just of one top commander — it’s also of the process that brought us here.
I wasn’t a fan of Dupnik by the end of his 35-year tenure as sheriff. I thought he should have passed the baton a couple of terms earlier.
But one thing you could say for sure about Dupnik, a Democrat: He knew politics. And when I say politics, I mean it in the broadest sense.
He had relationships with the Board of Supervisors, knew local business leaders, worked with the powers-that-be in Phoenix. He knew how to handle the internal politics of his department, as well.
Nanos, clearly, isn’t that guy, something he acknowledges freely.
“I’m not a politician,” he reminded me again when we talked Tuesday.
Normally that’s a good thing. Not in this situation.
As anyone who has spoken with Nanos can see, he’s rough-spoken and can be emotional. That would be OK — in fact, I find those qualities endearing — but he hasn’t also had the political skills or vision to run the department in a way that keeps its employees and the public on board with him.
When my colleague Caitlin Schmidt reported the story that prompted the FBI investigation, Nanos lashed out at her and at the FBI.
But more importantly, he picked as a right-hand man Radtke, a longtime officer who rubbed people the wrong way and may have done worse. Radtke’s alleged misuse of RICO money to benefit his niece’s cafeteria business — leading to Monday’s indictment — started in 2012. In that sense, Nanos should have or at least could have known better than to promote him.
Even now, though, Nanos remains pretty steadfast.
“I don’t know the evidence that the FBI has,” he said. “I, in my heart, believe Chris Radtke is a good man and didn’t steal anything. But could I be wrong? Absolutely. I didn’t do the investigation.”
The deputies’ union, led by Kevin Kubitskey, has lashed out at Nanos, sometimes in ways that have been extreme. For example, amid a variety of conflicts, Kubitskey filed an assault report against Nanos, which the Maricopa County’s Attorney’s Office determined was ungrounded. That was a bit of a stretch.
But the vehemence of their accusations that Nanos’ administration has been unfair and dictatorial is something a better politician probably would have been able to defuse, or to avoid in the first place by not naming Radtke as chief deputy and creating a new position for Gagnepain, whose title was chief of staff.
More recently, the deputies have allied with Dr. Richard Carmona, a longtime former sheriff’s deputy and an ex-U.S. surgeon general, to call out Nanos. Carmona said at a press conference last week that he’s speaking on behalf of bullied deputies worried to speak for themselves.
“It broke my heart,” he said, “that they feared for their paychecks and their futures.”
Carmona said this wasn’t about elections, and that he himself had not wanted to be sheriff. He simply wanted the public to be informed.
I suspect Carmona may be protesting too much when he denies his interest in the office, but again the critiques speak of a larger political weakness on Nanos’ part. He couldn’t protect that flank.
So, the indictment of Radtke is itself a bad thing but represents something bigger.
Nanos told me Tuesday he thinks he is politically more aligned with the people of Pima County than his Republican opponent, Mark Napier, is. He may well be right.
“If they want a politician, they should vote for Mark Napier,” Nanos said. “If they want a good sheriff, someone who knows this organization, they should vote for me.”
But what if, to be a good sheriff, you have to be a good politician? That’s something you can show when running for office, which, of course, is not how appointees get their jobs.