Chris Nanos says he may have made some mistakes the first time he served as Pima County’s sheriff, but he’s ready to put the uniform back on and unify the department he worked at for most of his adult life.
Nanos is one of three Democrats attempting to win the August primary election. He made his announcement in mid-December, about one year after his main Democratic opponent -PCSD Sgt. Kevin Kubitskey- started to campaign.
In a wide-ranging interview, Nanos told Arizona Daily Independent this wasn’t what he expected to be doing if he’d been asked a year ago to predict the future. But he is proud of the fact he already has enough signatures on his nominating petitions to ensure his name is on the primary ballot and that his candidacy is building steam.
Nanos was appointed as sheriff in July 2015 when Clarence Dupnik stepped down after 35 years. He retired after his November 2016 election loss to Mark Napier, and insists he had no plans to return to law enforcement. He even allowed his peace officer certification to lapse.
After the election, Nanos says he received an occasional “we need you back” call from current and former county employees. But he was retired, Nanos told them, and was enjoying the opportunity to travel and spend more time with Char, his wife of nearly 35 years.
There were also some calls that worried Nanos, calls he says described PCSD as becoming grounded in “a warrior, not a guardian” culture. Then last fall Napier was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the department’s largest union which encourages the current sheriff to not stand for reelection.
Nanos broached the subject of running again but told his family and friends he wouldn’t enter the race without strong employee support of his vision for the department, which had been like a second family to him during his long career.
And then in late November Nanos received news “that sort of changed everything,” he says.
That news concerned a billboard put up near the sheriff’s office headquarters. It read “We need a new leader. We need Nanos.” It’s unclear who actually paid for the billboard, but the disclaimer read “Sponsored by employees of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.”
Nanos announced in mid-December that he was running.
Retirement has allowed Nanos, a longtime Democrat, time to reflect on his overall career and his brief time as Sheriff. Nanos sees now that there was disharmony brewing within the department before he took over.
“I didn’t realize how big the mess was that I inherited,” he said. “I could have done a lot of things differently.”
Among the differences would be his own reaction to some of the frustrations at the time.
“This is a job that requires character and demeanor too,” Nanos says. “And there were times when I’m not proud of how I reacted to some things. There were things I didn’t react to appropriately.”
That retirement-inspired introspection included his 2016 loss in a heavily Democratic county to Napier, a Republican who spent most of his career with Tucson PD. And a key part of that loss involved questions surrounding an FBI investigation of two top sheriff’s officials who reported directly to Nanos.
One of the men was Brad Gagnepain, who served as Nanos’ chief of staff. He killed himself in June 2016 in the midst of an investigation into the misuse of RICO funds.
The other man, Chief Deputy Christopher Radkte, was indicted by a federal grand jury just one month before the election. He signed a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in February 2017 on three counts of theft of federal funds for which he was eventually placed on probation.
Leading up to the election, Nanos wasn’t able to say everything he wanted to about the RICO issue, even as he cooperated with investigators who sifted through thousands of county documents and accounting records. Some of those documents were department policies Nanos himself helped write.
No one else was charged by federal authorities in connection to the RICO funds. Then in June 2017, Napier asked for a state investigation into the matter, citing concerns within the department that “others may have culpability.”
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office hasn’t issued any statements about their investigation except to confirm they were asked to look into the matter.
Nanos adamantly denies any involvement in what Radtke later admitted was a years-long conspiracy. And Nanos insists he had no knowledge of illegal activity until he was briefed by a local FBI agent.
“I wasn’t an actor or a player, and I never had any idea what was happening,” Nanos said. “But I was in charge and as Sheriff I have to accept responsibility for it.”
But Nanos isn’t one to get stuck in the past. He says the most important thing he can do this time as sheriff is to reunify all PCSD staff -deputies, corrections, support, administrative, and volunteers. And he knows that reunification requires making sure everyone knows “their value to the department” and feels respected.
One of his priorities as Sheriff, Part 2, is to ensure the corrections staff in the jail know they are appreciated and are vital to the success of the department. That is particularly important, Nanos says, because many corrections officers are hired when they are too young to become deputies but should be encouraged to apply when they become eligible as it makes them stronger candidates.
He also wants to address why so many academy students don’t graduate, and of those that do, many never make it through to a patrol shift.
“The turnover rate is so tremendous,” Nanos noted, adding that the county ends up paying a lot of money for someone to leave after a few months. “We should be asking what we can do to help make them successful, to help them become the deputy we need.”
Another priority will be reviewing the various internal and community programs offered by the department. Those efforts, Nanos said, need to be not only cost-effective but also provide a “meaningful purpose” other than looking good on paper or in the news.
But first Nanos needs to win the August primary, and then win the general election where he’ll likely face Napier. And while Napier is already talking about the 2024 election -promising to not run- Nanos says it’s important to think about 2020 first.
That’s not to say he isn’t already making campaign promises.
One such promise is that he won’t be spending as much time traveling, particularly to Washington D.C., as the current sheriff.
“There is a lot of work to do here without being in D.C.,” Nanos said.
Another promise Nanos intends to keep is reapplying for an AZPOST certification.
“I think it’s important for the Sheriff to meet the same qualifications as the deputies,” he explained.