COEUR d'ALENE - Controversy, as they say, sells.
Tent cities, chain gangs, and pink underwear. Throw in alleged civil rights infractions, a novel's worth of press coverage and a cool nickname, and that sells even more.
"I didn't want to put the word out that I would be here because everywhere I go the demonstrators come," said Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff and featured speaker at the Women in Red fundraiser for the Kootenai County Republican Women at The Coeur d'Alene Resort Monday. "They all follow me around."
Controversy, the saying also goes, polarizes.
Love him, hate him, Arpaio can draw a crowd. And 800 people came out to hear "America's Toughest Sheriff" speak on illegal immigration issues in Arizona and across the country, as well as describe a behind-the-scenes look into how he runs the Maricopa County jail system.
"It's the 'World's Toughest Sheriff,'" Arpaio pointed out during a press conference. "Let's get it straight."
While demonstrators didn't picket Monday, the sheriff didn't shy away from any of the sensitive topics, either.
He isn't a racist, he said. He's just doing the job he was first elected to do 18 years ago. While cracking down on illegal immigration is a center point of his run as head of the department, it has landed him under investigation more than once, including a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice still pending, which doesn't concern him, he said.
"They just sued me. Let them do it. I'm just doing my job and I feel comfortable with my employees," he said. "I get no thanks. I'm just the bad guy, the bad guy for doing the job."
Oh yeah, Arpaio also has a $1 million bounty on his head placed by Mexican drug cartels.
Security was on hand for his visit, which he began with a press conference in the afternoon before the evening dinner which, at $45 per ticket, raised money for the KCRW scholarship program and donates books to schools across the county.
Meanwhile, the sheriff said that his Arizona county has seen a 19 percent decrease in crime over the last few years. He attributes that to his crackdown on illegal immigration, which the federal government should enforce more seriously.
"Somebody better do something," he said of the jail system, which includes Phoenix, with around 40,000 inmates. "In the meantime I, as the elected sheriff, have been doing what I can."
Perhaps most polarizing of his moves was when he established Tent Cities, an extension of the Maricopa County Jail. It has been controversial because of Phoenix's extreme heat, their placing next to "the dump, the dog pound, and the waste disposal plant" and for hanging a sign outside them saying, 'vacancy.' He also made inmates wear pink, and brought stray dogs from on overcrowded animal shelter into jail where inmates cared for them.
He said on Monday, besides unofficially supporting congressional hopeful Raul Labrador, that he was going to stay his current course as well as in the news, and run for re-election in 2012.
"I'm not done yet," the sheriff said.
"I've been an admirer of his for a longtime," said Carol May, Post Falls resident who spends two months a year in Arizona with her husband, Larry, and knows how bad the problem is for the state. "He's my John Wayne."
The stopover was the sheriff's first visit to Coeur d'Alene, an area he called beautiful.
"It just seems like every night there is another killing," Larry May said about the problem other states, including Idaho, might not understand since they don't deal with it on Arizona's level. "They're not noticing the realities of it."
Sharri Siegwarth, with the Kootenai County Republican Women, listens to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio discusses his job and the controversy it has raised in recent years.