On his website, sheriff candidate Jay LaSuer has prominently posted an autographed photo of himself alongside Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.
Arpaio is a polarizing figure: The Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of whether his deputies are illegally profiling as part of immigration sweeps.
He supports the new immigration law in Arizona — as does LaSuer — and says his office has investigated, arrested or detained over 38,000 “illegal aliens” in the last three years.
The self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” makes jail inmates wear pink underwear and requires them to pedal stationary bikes to generate electricity for television sets. To cut costs, he feeds inmates just twice a day, houses them in tents, and cuts out salt and pepper, which saves taxpayers about $20,000 a year.
Their relationship opens a window into what kind of sheriff LaSuer would be if elected.
LaSuer said he admires Arpaio for “thinking outside the box” to solve problems. LaSuer also said he would adopt many of Arpaio’s policies if elected — like having deputies enforce federal immigration laws and allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons.
For his part, Arpaio has endorsed LaSuer and attended a fundraiser for him.
LaSuer is the campaign’s curmudgeon on the attack, the retired undersheriff who makes things interesting at debates by vigorously claiming his opponents are incompetent. He’s the ultra-conservative one touting a background that includes law enforcement and local and state politics. And he’s the candidate whose primary issue — illegal immigration — happens to be the center of a national debate.
LaSuer, who contemptuously labels San Diego County a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants, has posted on his campaign website a real-time tally of immigration stats, including the number of “anchor babies” and “illegal immigrants incarcerated.”
“It’s just saying hey, these are the facts, folks,” LaSuer said in a recent interview.
When pressed about the relevance of the stats to being sheriff, LaSuer said: “Somebody’s got to say enough is enough.”
LaSuer was recently endorsed by the Vista Tea Party, which cited his tough stances on illegal immigration and government spending. He was also endorsed by the California Association of Firearms Retailers and Gun Owners of California for his record of championing Second Amendment rights to possess firearms.
On the campaign trail, the very things he’s championing are giving opponents fodder to criticize him.
“If we turn this department into Maricopa County it would be a giant step back in time,” Sheriff Bill Gore said. “Joe Arpaio’s got a great PR machine but he’s just not that effective.”
Gore’s campaign consultant, Tom Shepard, noted that the crime rate in Arpaio’s jurisdiction is higher than San Diego County’s — 33 crimes per thousand residents versus 52 in Maricopa County.
“If the tents are working so well, what’s the deal with the crime rate?” Shepard said.
LaSuer, born in Hutchinson, Kan., moved to El Cajon in 1940. He served three years as an Army paratrooper in the late 1950s. When he was discharged, he became a San Diego police officer and attended San Diego State University. He has lived in La Mesa since the early 1970s.
His daughter, Lori Briggs, a professional fundraiser who is running LaSuer’s campaign, said her dad may seem aggressive, but he’s really just trying to hold people accountable.
“The reason he is assertive is he knows what he knows. My dad is a digger. He is relentless when it comes to the truth,” Briggs said.
Behind the gruff exterior is a “normal guy” who prefers to wear jeans and a denim shirt. A guy who is so loving, loyal and dependable that his daughter thought she would never find a husband “as awesome as my dad,” who would measure up to her dad’s example, Briggs said.
LaSuer spent 25 years in the Sheriff’s Department, including four years as undersheriff for Jim Roache, who received a 92 percent no-confidence vote from his deputies during a tumultuous four-year term as sheriff, from 1991 to 1994. Most sheriffs in San Diego County serve multiple terms.
LaSuer said he prefers not to talk about his time as undersheriff because it would require him to be critical of Roache.
“There were a lot of decisions as sheriff that Jim made that I disagreed with. It was my duty to carry out those decisions,” LaSuer said. “Those were his decisions, that was his error, part of his life.”
He added: “Jim had a lot of good intentions. Sometimes he came up a little short on that.”
That may be considered a gross understatement by deputies of that era. The no-confidence vote was inspired by what some called Roache’s volatile, anti-social and vindictive manner of demoting, transferring or driving away foes while promoting friends. That led to plummeting morale.
LaSuer was often lumped together with Roache as part of the department’s significant leadership problems and scandals. There were a series of embarrassing jail escapes. And accusations that female inmates at Las Colinas were given joyrides in department helicopters. A top Roache aide — who claimed LaSuer gave him permission — was fired as a result. LaSuer denied the accusation at the time.
There were investigations that county funds were used to buy pricey office furniture, including a $26,000 desk, and that Roache’s commanders profited from the 1992 purchase of two used Huey helicopters. No criminal wrongdoing was found, though an audit determined the department made a bad deal — the helicopters were purchased for three times their worth, and they were too large to serve their purpose.
“I just felt like when that part of my life was over I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. That was not a good time,” LaSuer said. “There were things he should have done and could have done. I don’t want to drag Jim through the mud hole. He’s not running for anything.”
Roache did not respond to interview requests.
LaSuer then went on to a career in local and state politics. He was elected to the La Mesa City Council for a decade, beginning in 1990, and then became a state assemblyman from 2000 to 2006, when he was termed out. His district included eastern San Diego, El Cajon, La Mesa, Santee — home to some of the county’s most conservative voters.
During his time in the assembly, he was named legislator of the year by three law enforcement associations and by the California Rifle and Pistol Association.
As a councilman, LaSuer introduced an ordinance that would have made La Mesa the only city in the county to issue its own concealed-weapons permits, rather than going through the Sheriff’s Department. The 1996 measure was defeated. The same year, when Mayor Art Madrid sought to ban so-called Saturday Night Special handguns, LaSuer was key in defeating that measure.
LaSuer was part of the council that made national and international headlines in 1994 when it started publishing the names and pictures of individuals arrested for prostitution.
“I consider him to be a decent human being who is very conservative and there’s nothing wrong with that, but he only looks at one side of the issue,” said Madrid, who is still La Mesa mayor. He has endorsed Duffy.
At debates, LaSuer is the feisty candidate who makes things interesting by assailing his opponents — Jim Duffy as a “nice guy” but an inexperienced pawn for organized labor; and Bill Gore as an “incompetent leader” because of his role as an FBI supervisor in the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
LaSuer, while touting his own experience in both law enforcement and as a lawmaker, said neither opponent comes close to having the background to lead the department. Gore, he said, is an outsider with no local law enforcement experience.
“It’s like asking a truck driver, ‘I know you’ve been driving a truck all your life but I want you to come over and fly this 747.’ It’s totally different training,” LaSuer said.
“From a qualifications standpoint I don’t think he’s qualified,” LaSuer said. “Nobody running comes anywhere near what I’ve done.”
For LaSuer, no issue trumps illegal immigration, and he criticizes his opponents on that subject as well.
On his Facebook page, he notes that they don’t support the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law. “My opponents, APPOINTED Sheriff William D. Gore and Jim Duffy, do NOT! SHAME!”
(Duffy originally opposed the law but said he later changed his mind and supports it.)
To LaSuer, a key solution to San Diego County’s public safety issues is to employ Arpaio’s methods: Arrest illegal immigrants and make jail a miserable place so inmates don’t want to go back.
Outside LaSuer’s November fundraiser at Marina Village attended by Arpaio, there were news cameras and protesters holding signs that said “Racist Go Home!” and “Fascist Pig” and “Go Home Arpaio.”
At the end of the evening, organizers held an auction to benefit two charities. The show-stopping items weren’t a dinner cruise or a trip to Palm Springs. They were pink boxers, stamped with a sheriff’s emblem and autographed by Arpaio.
Briggs joked that they’d told Arpaio not to show up without the boxers.
One went for $250. The other, $400.