PHOENIX (AP) — Sheriff Tony Estrada has been a familiar face in law enforcement for more than five decades along the Arizona-Mexico border. But after seven terms in office, and becoming the longest-serving sheriff in Arizona, Estrada will retire in January when the person whom voters in Santa Cruz County elected on Nov. 3 to replace him takes office.
Estrada congratulated successor James Hathaway, a former sheriff’s deputy and former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency office in Nogales, whom Estrada narrowly beat in 2016. Estrada and Hathaway are both Democrats, the Arizona Republic reported.
After 53 years in law enforcement, including more than 27 years at the helm of the Sheriff’s Office, Estrada said it was time to step down.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve been very blessed,” Estrada said. “And I think I’ve accomplished most of everything I wanted, to include that new building that we have, that we moved in 2011.”
The new public safety complex building, a $45 million project, bears Estrada’s name, a symbol of his law-enforcement legacy in Santa Cruz County. He started his career with the Nogales police and retired after 25 years. The following year, in 1992, voters elected him sheriff, a title he has held ever since.
As the lone Democratic sheriff along the Arizona-Mexico border, and the only Latino sheriff in the state, Estrada was an immediate critic of President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration and border policies, particularly as they pertained to border communities such as Nogales.
Estrada was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. His family moved to the Arizona side of the border when he was 1 year old. He frequently cites his experience as an immigrant to advocate for greater compassion in immigration policy. Estrada continues to oppose the construction of physical barriers along large parts of the Arizona border, including barriers going up now in Santa Cruz County.
Even before Trump took office, Estrada has tried to combat the misconception that border cities are dangerous and crime-ridden. That could not be further from the truth in Santa Cruz County, he said, which is among the safest in Arizona.
“More than a politician, I always considered myself a diplomat and an ambassador for the profession, and that’s the way I looked at it,” Estrada said. “And I think that’s why people supported me all the time, because they saw that I was looking after them and looking after this border community.”
His replacement, Hathaway, said he will seek to emulate Estrada’s stewardship of the county’s relationship with Mexico when he takes office in January.
Voters in Santa Cruz County elected Hathaway by a wide margin. He won with nearly three-quarters of all votes against several independent candidates. Democrats swept all races up and down the Nov. 3 ballot in Santa Cruz County, including the presidential race, which Democrat Joe Biden won in the county with 67 percent of the vote.
Hathaway was born and raised in Nogales to a ranching family that has lived in the area since Arizona was a territory. He said he has known Estrada ever since he was a child and shares many of the same views about the border, including opposition to border wall construction.
“He has also been one of the only sheriffs in Arizona that has kind of championed the relationship with Mexico. He knows how important it is, the economic and cultural relationship with Mexico, and I want to continue that legacy,” Hathaway said.
Hathaway is intimately familiar with law enforcement complexities along the border. He worked for the two sheriffs who preceded Estrada before joining the Drug Enforcement Administration. He has worked eight posts around the globe, before ending up as chief of the agency’s Nogales office.
Over time, he’s built relationships with other federal agencies and has even served on the Border Patrol’s civilian advisory board, he said. As sheriff, Hathaway said he would build on those relationships.
At a time when local policing nationwide has come under increased scrutiny, Hathaway said he aims to increase transparency at the Sheriff’s Office.
“One of my main proposals for my campaign was to have a civilian advisory board for the Sheriff’s Office that could meet regularly,” Hathaway said. “But it would be a two-way communication where the community could also tell the Sheriff’s Office their concerns, what things are they seeing that need to be addressed.”
For his part, Estrada said he’s happy to take a back seat and looks forward to spending time with his children and grandchildren. But he signaled he won’t stay put for long, and will become involved with the community in other ways.
And he’s urging Hathaway to do the same.
“Having had that opportunity to hold this prestigious office for so long, in my wildest dreams I never imagined, I never thought about that,” he said. “The doors opened up on me for one reason or another. I was meant to be there, I guess, never took it for granted, always accepted it gracefully, and did the best I could, so I want to thank everyone.”