ADL Director Bill Straus

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Bill Straus, the Arizona Regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, is stepping down from his position at the end of this year after 13 years at the helm. Straus looks back at his years running the Arizona ADL, including the murder of Mesa gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi days after the 9-11 attacks.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. For the past 13 years, Bill Straus has served as the Arizona regional director of the antidefamation league. In that time Straus has been visible, vocal, and persistent in fighting against bigotry and for civil rights. Bill Straus is leaving his post at the end of the year. He joins us now. Good to see you again.

Bill Straus: It's always good to see you. I love those adjectives.

Ted Simons: You better, we don't throw them around here lightly.

Bill Straus: No, you don't.

Ted Simons: You're stepping down, why?

Bill Straus: Short attention span. Thirteen years is about as long as I've ever lasted in any of my careers. And it's just time. You get that feeling, and when you get the feeling, I've done it twice before, it's good to act on it. So I'm going to step down, take a deep breath, and see what is next.

Ted Simons: When you took this job to begin with, 13-some-odd years ago, what did you expect and looking back now, did that come to fruition?

Bill Straus: Well, I was coming out of the radio business, and I expected it would have a huge media component. That I would be the face and the voice of an organization that I believed in. And I certainly embraced the mission of -- It became a lot more. There was a time when I remember driving home and thinking to myself, is it possible that I've bitten off more than I can chew? I haven't had that thought very often in my life. But I gotta tell you, there were many more times I got in my car at the end of a day and said to myself, thank god I'm in this position.

Ted Simons: Those times when you thought it might have been getting a little bit too much, what were those times?

Bill Straus: 9-11, you know, ADL, the mission stop to -- The defamation of Jewish people -- 9-11 had a double edge to it. Immediately Jews were blamed for 9-11 in the Middle East, but here in America too, 9-11 prompted -- There was an outburst of patriotism at the same time, we saw groups beginning to form, again, en masse.

Ted Simons: And that has -- The hate crime landscape, let's put it that way, from then to now, obviously we've seen a lot of -- And near Arizona we've seen far too much. Talk to us about what you've seen, how it's changed, how it's developed.

Bill Straus: Well, the big picture?

Ted Simons: Yes.

Bill Straus: Here's somebody that can really appreciate this. Thirteen years ago, debate had a purpose. When you debated, somebody learned, somebody was able to teach, and you were able to exchange those roles. Also, the purpose of debate seemed to arrive at some kind of truth. Today debate isn't productive like that. Debate is all about being right. It doesn't matter what the truth is. And learning and teaching is very little. Very little component of debate in the current world.

Ted Simons: Is that frustrating for you?

Bill Straus: Very. Very frustrating. I enjoy debate my whole life. Now I find it to be extremely frustrating.

Ted Simons: How did we get there? Why is this happening? We see this all the time here on "Arizona Horizon," we try to get elevated discussion, and responsible debate, and I think we do a pretty good job of it, but overall, no one is listening anymore.

Bill Straus: You do a better job than almost everybody. I think one of the problems is, people want easy answers. They want black and white solutions. When ADL issues a position on something, I will always get blowback. Always negative feedback. I've said to myself, nobody can be unhappy with this. I get a phone call in five minutes. The reason is, most of our positions are somewhat nuanced. The ADL lens doesn't show us a world that's black and white. There's lots of -- I used to hate when my mother would say to me, after I got in trouble at school, you've got to recognize there is gray area in the world. It's not all black and white. Like so other things, she was exactly spot-on.

Ted Simons: When you're speaking on panels and at forums, when you were speaking, and when you will continue to speak, what do you emphasize?

Bill Straus: That's a great question. In my role at ADL, I have been able to emphasize something that I really embrace. And that is that all of us have a value. And all of us are pretty much made up of the same DNA. And rather than looking at differences between you and me as an obstacle, which is a lot of people still do, I've been able to really look at it as an opportunity and seize the opportunity and that's a blessing. That's been one of the highlights of 13 years.

Ted Simons: We talked about debate, public debate. When you were speaking at these forums and panels, do you ever look out there and see some eyes widen, brighten, change? Do you think -- Do you know when you're connecting with folks?

Bill Straus: Yes. And it's the biggest difference between what I do now and radio. Because radio, you never know if you're making the connection. I would get phone calls, and that would be an indicator. But you see it in their faces. But I've done presentations, we did a presentation at the legislature in 2008, where we did three hours on vigilantes, and extremism at the border. We highlighted J.T. Ready, J.T. was in the audiences. We highlighted Chris Simcox. He was in the audience. Looking at groups that have that -- People that have that look, if they could kill you, they would. And that was the feeling I got. That's never fun. And that was always unsettling.

Ted Simons: All right. Let me give you some names, and just a brief response.

Bill Straus: Sure. I used to do this with Barry Goldwater.

Ted Simons: Did you really?

Bill Straus: He was better at I than I.

Ted Simons: You're probably better at it than I am, let's do it anyway. J.T. Ready.

Bill Straus: One of the worst individuals on my radar. He was on my radar, I think the first week at ADL. I was on his radar. That was troubling. But what was really troubling about J.T. was the fact that he was almost able to cross over from that extremist fringe into mainstream politics.

Ted Simons: Russell Pearce.

Bill Straus: Russell Pearce, I met with him one day for an hour and a half. What you see is what you get. That's the good side of Russell. He's denied many things about that meeting ever since. So -- And that's not the only incident of his disingenuousness.

Ted Simons: Joe Arpaio.

Bill Straus: There's an enigma. I've always said, Joe has a very charming side. When people ask me, how is he still popular? He's got a very charming side. I don't think Joe is ever got in this immigration thing for any reason other than the publicity that accompanied it.

Ted Simons: Balbir Singh Sodhi.

Bill Straus: Oh, my god. I never knew Balbir, he was shot four days after 9-11. We reached out to the Sikh community, and I became so enmeshed in that community and particularly the Sodhi family. I said to a family member, I lost my only brother, how knew. And I'm still unforgiving. You seem to be forgiving. He disregarded my comment and said, you lose brother, I lose brother. We'll be brothers. He has introduced me ever since as his brother, his big brother Bill.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something?

Bill Straus: Unbelievable.

Ted Simons: One last name here. Bill Straus.

Bill Straus: You want me to comment on myself?

Ted Simons: Of course I do.

Bill Straus: Throw humility out the window. I think that anybody who knows me knows that I will always shoot straight. I will tell the truth even when it hurts me.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, what are you going to tell your successor at the ADL?

Bill Straus: You gotta make relationships in this town, in any town. It's not just a job of process. It's a job of people. And if you mobilize the people, if you engage and touch emotionally those people that you're working with, it's a pretty tough team to beat, and I've always believed we were on the right side of things.

Ted Simons: So with that in mind, are you encouraged about Arizona's future?

Bill Straus: Oh, I am.

Ted Simons: Why?

Bill Straus: I tell people all the time, and I've told my kids for years, there are more good guys than bad guys. And if there weren't, I would lose hope. The fact is, I've talked to people on an ongoing basis who have plans for the future. I just met your next guest, Scott. He was explaining to me what he's going to talk about. It is so far over my head, but it is so encouraging to hear someone like that who has worked so long, so hard on a project that's going to do so much good. There's lots of that going on. We just aren't all aware of it all the time.

Ted Simons: Were there ever times in the last years where you did lose hope? For the state and its future.

Ted Simons: I think right after 1070 was signed by the governor was my lowest moment. And -- My lowest moment. And what resulted from that moment was a galvanizing of a team I've never known many of the people I met as a result of 1070. The Latino community -- We always -- I grew up here. We always had Latino leaders with a voice. The Latino community itself found its voice as a result of 1070. And it's gratifying. We have communities finding their voice all the time. The gay community, the transgender community, these are communities that are finding their voice now, and to watch it is tremendously satisfying.

Ted Simons: We're going to hear you voice back on radio any time soon?

Bill Straus: I got some ideas that I think might be good for radio, yeah.

Ted Simons: All right. Bill, congratulations, it was quite a run there, and you made some headlines and you made the good headlines and fought the good kind of fight. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Bill Straus: Have me back.

Ted Simons: I think I will.

Bill Straus: Thanks, Ted.

Bill Straus:Arizona Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League;

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