FLORENCE — Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has been on the job less than two years, but he's already emerging as a leading border security hawk and a rising star in the Republican Party.
Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigration has created an insatiable appetite for pundits to banter over illegal immigration, and Babeu has helped fill the void. The shiny-headed, 41-year-old sheriff has appeared on cable news shows at least nine times since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the measure April 23.
Babeu's an unlikely authority on illegal immigration — a "border sheriff" whose territory lies dozens of miles from the border; a lawman with a decades-old political career that began as an 18-year-old city councilman in New England.
But he's carved a niche as a prolific critic of the federal government.
"Literally the president has shirked his responsibility," he said. "I'm letting everybody who will care to listen know what is going on here."
With a penchant for publicity and a dogged focus on combating illegal immigration, it's easy to compare Babeu to Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff known nationally for his tough immigration enforcement and locally for his battles with political rivals.
Babeu says he respects Arpaio but rejects suggestions that he's the next "Sheriff Joe." Their styles are very different, he says.
"Sheriff Paul" — as he's known on his campaign materials — had just a few years of experience in law enforcement when he ousted an incumbent sheriff in 2008 and took over as chief of the 700-person department responsible for law enforcement and the county jail. Two decades earlier he was the youngest councilman ever elected in North Adams, Mass., and he went on to fail in two bids for mayor there.
So he followed his parents west and signed up to be a cop in suburban Chandler, outside Phoenix, and was later elected by his fellow officers to lead the police union.
The affable cop smiles easily and often, even when he's just finished a biting attack on the federal government. He was the first Republican in memory to win countywide in Pinal, and he quickly raised the profile of his agency by joining the circuit of vocal Arizona border hawks.
Four months after taking office, in May 2009, Babeu teamed with immigration hard-liners including Arpaio and state Sen. Russell Pearce in a legislative hearing calling for local police to get more involved in immigration enforcement. The hearing was a precursor to Arizona's immigration law that, a year later, would give Babeu a megaphone to build a national profile.
He grabbed the attention of conservatives when he asked last month for donations to buy new semiautomatic rifles. "My deputies are outgunned and we are outmanned" by Mexican drug cartels, he said.
Critics, including the chair of the county Board of Supervisors, wondered why he didn't just ask the supervisors to buy the new weapons. Babeu said the crisis was so imminent he didn't have time to deal with government procurement rules.
As sheriff, Babeu oversees 218 sworn police officers who patrol an area larger than Connecticut, much of it remote desert. It's miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, above Pima and Santa Cruz counties, but still a key corridor for human and drug smugglers sneaking toward busy highways.
The situation on the ground hasn't changed much in the last decade or so, said Sgt. Dave Hausman, interim president of the union representing Pinal sheriff's deputies. Babeu's just made immigration enforcement a higher priority.
"The sheriff certainly saw an opportunity to make a name for himself on this issue, and he is politically savvy enough to take advantage of that opportunity," said state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat, who said she appreciates that Babeu is always polite even though they bitterly disagree.
On one morning earlier this month, Babeu was visited by Romanian law enforcement officials who wanted to learn about battling organized crime. He showed them intelligence photos of men carrying rifles and bales of marijuana through the desert.
Ever the politician, Babeu gave his guests a defense of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, and a rebuke of President Barack Obama.
"At a time when we need help, our federal government has become our enemy and is taking us to court," he said, referring for a Justice Department lawsuit challenging Arizona's immigration law.
Then he added: "We can say that in America and I won't disappear at night."
Babeu's rise hasn't been without stumbles. He was forced to apologize for appearing on a radio show that endorses racist ideologies. He said his staff didn't do enough research about the show.
Babeu owes much of his political standing to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who enlisted Babeu in April to help sell his 10-point border security plan. Babeu also starred in two key television ads touting McCain's plan, including a much-lampooned spot in which McCain turns to Babeu and says "complete the danged fence."
"He's really on the front lines, and his knowledge and expertise I value enormously," McCain said of the sheriff. "But also he's become a national figure and spokesperson for border security, and I think he probably has a bright political future."
Indeed, campaign finance reports show donations have flowed in to Babeu from around the country all summer. Babeu doesn't face re-election until 2012.
In Babeu's office, atop a stack of books on a crowded coffee table, sits a memoir by Sarah Palin. Behind his desk is a framed photo of the sheriff with McCain's former vice presidential nominee.
It's fitting company for a smooth-talking politician who, like Palin, suddenly skyrocketed to Republican celebrity with a little help from McCain.