Could U.S. Marshal David Gonzales be the bipartisan, bicultural candidate to finally dethrone Sheriff Joe?

The Marshal Plan

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: People Issue: May 2016
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On a breezy Tuesday afternoon in late March, on the day of Arizona’s hotly contested 2016 presidential preference election, David Gonzales is  relaxing on the front patio at Hava Java on Camelback and 32nd Street, sipping  a hot chai and raving about the Springsteen concert he caught in L.A. over the weekend. He’s attended around a dozen of them. 

“Three and a half hours, and it was non-stop!” he beams behind a pair of classic black Ray-Ban aviator shades, an accessory that provides a cool counterpoint to his formal suit and tie, remnants of an appearance this morning at an annual charity breakfast at the Phoenix Art Museum. “My wife is not a Bruce Springsteen fan, so she got me this trip as a birthday present. Plus, I got to see my sister in Santa Barbara.” 

Gonzales pauses to take a call on his iPhone, and suddenly, for a tense 12 seconds, the gravity of his job, as the presidentially-appointed U.S. Marshal of Arizona, cuts through the casual banter and exhibits itself in his stern tone and command of the situation. 

“We had a bomb threat in our Tucson office today,” he explains, after wrapping up the call. “When I was driving over here, some guy called into our office and said, ‘I planted a bomb in your building. I wonder how many marshals are going to die today.’ He’s saying he’s related to El Chapo, and he assumes we had something to do with El Chapo’s arrest. 

“Which...” he adds, then abruptly stops himself from saying anything further, waving his hand dismissively – but flashing a knowing wink over those Ray-Bans. 

There are many other things Gonzales can’t discuss, for reasons of security. As the head of Arizona’s division of the oldest national law enforcement agency (the U.S. Marshals were created by President Washington in 1789), the 62-year-old career lawman oversees a crack team of deputies responsible for hunting down wanted fugitives, overseeing the federal witness protection program, transporting and housing pre-trial prisoners and providing protection for federal judges and others involved in volatile court cases – all duties which require a high degree of secrecy. 

“It’s the nature of the job,” says Stephen McNamee, one of only six U.S. Senior District Judges in Arizona and a judge who’s counted on Gonzales’ protection before. “You know a lot, but you can’t say a lot.” 

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Unfortunately, one of the things Gonzales can’t say a lot about is whether or not he’s planning to run for Maricopa County Sheriff this year, a run for which supporters of the roundly admired marshal have long lobbied (in 2013, the New Times’ “Best of Phoenix” annual voted him “Best Lawman We Wish Were Sheriff”). Insiders say Gonzales is seriously considering it. An independent campaign committee has started a website, Run David Run, to enlist backers in drafting Gonzales to throw his hat in the ring.

“We stay out of things political,” says McNamee, who lives down the street from Gonzales in central Phoenix and often socializes with his family. “But I’d support David in whatever he chooses to do. He’s a first-rate administrator who has an incredible reputation for integrity, and he works well with a broad range of people all over this state.”

“I would love to be sheriff,” Gonzales concedes, even though he acknowledges he’d actually be taking a huge pay cut by switching jobs. “I know I could make a big difference there. The sticky point on that is, as a presidential appointee, I can’t do anything political until I resign my position. And I don’t want to do that until I have a clear path to victory.” 

The main obstacle in that path is Joe Arpaio, and whether or not the controversial 83-year-old sheriff will even be allowed to run for the office an unprecedented seventh time, pending the ruling in the ongoing civil contempt case against him. A U.S. district judge is still mulling whether to hold Arpaio in contempt for violating a federal judge’s order to cease racial profiling.

Assuming Arpaio runs for sheriff again, political wisdom says Gonzales, a moderate Republican, would have a better chance switching parties to run against Arpaio in the general election, rather than the August 30 primary. Although Gonzales enjoys widespread bipartisan support – in fact, he holds the rare distinction of having been appointed to his position by a Republican president, George W. Bush, and reappointed by a Democrat, President Obama – he’s not sure he wants to change affiliations just to run for office. “I understand why people do that, but it doesn’t sit well with me,” he says. “Even though I do lean left on a lot of social issues and lean right on a lot of fiscal issues, I’ve been a registered Republican for 35 years. And Maricopa is a very Republican county.” 

One sector whose votes he can count on, regardless of party affiliation, is the county’s large Latino population, which fell squarely in the crosshairs of the Arpaio-supported SB 1070. Critics say the law promotes racial profiling during searches for undocumented immigrants. In contrast, Gonzales, raised by what he calls “old-school Hispanic” grandparents after the death of his mother when he was 11, has a deep understanding of what goes on in Arizona’s Latino communities on both sides of the law. And he’s become a strong voice for equal treatment under the law for all of Arizona’s citizens, even garnering a Torch of Liberty Award last October from Phoenix’s chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

“He’s got the perfect mix of experience for the job,” says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. “He’s bilingual, bicultural and he knows the public safety needs of all Arizona’s communities. He’ll be an effective leader – and be a personable, amiable and friendly one.”

That’s important, given the fractious relationship that exists today between law enforcement and some minority communities. 

“We have certain pockets of our community that are afraid to talk to the police, who don’t trust the police – especially the Hispanic community,” Gonzales says. “And it erodes the faith people have in the judicial system, which in the end makes our communities less safe... As law enforcement, we have to gain the trust of our communities. If we don’t, the kinds of things we’ve seen in Ferguson and Baltimore are coming here.”