No one can argue that the Kendall County Republican Central Committee went the safe route when it chose the guest speaker for its Annual Family Picnic.
The committee landed Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona lawman widely known as "America's Toughest Sheriff," to speak at the picnic later this month.
Arpaio is famous for both his tough stance against illegal immigration and the decidedly no-frills jails that he runs for inmates in Maricopa County in Arizona. Supporters say Arpaio is merely following the law when it comes to arresting illegal immigrants, and that jails should be places in which inmates dread spending their days and nights.
Critics of the Maricopa County sheriff say he routinely violates the human rights of his inmates and that he uses unethical means to find and arrest illegal immigrants, including searching vehicles stopped for routine traffic violations for drivers or passengers whom Arpaio thinks might be in the country illegally.
Ken Toftoy, chairman of the Kendall County Republican Central Committee and Kendall County coroner, said that he's thrilled to have Arpaio as the picnic's guest speaker. He says he's a fan of the sheriffand supports the lawman's tough views on incarceration and illegal immigration.
He added that Arpaio has no problem with protesters. If they do show up during the family picnic, Toftoy said, he's sure that the sheriff -- known to his fans as Sheriff Joe -- could debate them on everything from immigration laws to whether inmates should have access to salt and pepper while incarcerated.
"This guy is doing the right things," Toftoy said. "Staying in jail shouldn't be like staying at the Conrad Hilton. And people who do cross the border illegally are breaking the law. They should be arrested. I don't think the sheriff is doing anything wrong. I absolutely believe in what he is doing."
Not everyone agrees. Arpaio has many supporters but he also has many critics, with protesters frequently showing up at his speaking engagements or outside his Maricopa County office.
Count union leader Corey Johnson, business representative of Laborers Local 149 Aurora, as one of the Arpaio critics.
Johnson said the Republican committee has made a mistake in inviting Arpaio to talk during the picnic. The local laborers union boasts several Hispanic members. He said these members have asked Johnson and the union leadership to speak out against the choice of speaker whom these members say has long discriminated against Hispanic residents in Arizona.
"These members are the same ones who go to our churches. They are same ones whose kids go to our schools. They are the same ones who pay taxes in our community," Johnson said. "Yet the local Republicans bring in a guy who is truly offensive to them.
"This guy is like the supervillain of the Hispanic community. He is the Lex Luthor of the Hispanic nation. And still, the party brings him here to speak. I don't think that's a good move."
As a means of showing support to those union members who oppose Arpaio's policies, Johnson said, the laborers union will consider whether to donate money to the political campaigns of any politicians who attend the Republicans' family picnic.
"We try to give support to the candidates in both parties, as long as they are for working people," Johnson said. "We try not to lean either left or right. But when you have a party bringing in a guy like this, it's a non-starter."
In addition to his tough stance against illegal immigration, Arpaio has gained fame for his treatment of jail inmates. One of his most famous moves -- or infamous, depending on whether you're a critic or supporter of Arpaio's policies -- is the erection of his tent city, basically a canvas incarceration compound set up outside the Maricopa County jail.
This tent city has earned praise from supporters who say that the tough living conditions might inspire inmates to reconsider committing crimes once they are released. Critics, though, say that the conditions inside the tent city are often inhumane, especially when the Arizona temperatures rise and the heat inside the tent city soars past 120 degrees.
Toftoy said that his choice for speaker has created a buzz surrounding the Kendall County Republican Central Committee's annual picnic. Toftoy, of course, is aware of the controversy that has surrounded Arpaio. He says that security will be in place during the picnic.
"So many people have asked how I was able to get this done," Toftoy said. "Well, I'm persistent. That's how I am."
Although critics accuse Arpaio of relying on racial profiling to arrest illegal immigrants, Toftoy says that the sheriff has no problems with Hispanics or any other minority ... as long as in they are in the country legally.
"People who say Joe is against Mexicans are wrong," Toftoy said. "He's against people who break the law to get into this country. If you cross the border illegally, you should be arrested."
The Republicans' Annual Family Picnic will be Aug. 27 from 3 to 6:30 p.m. at the Kendall County Fairgrounds in Yorkville. Those interested in attending should contact the Kendall County Republican Central Committee to purchase tickets.