Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 79, will vie for reelection in November. The five-term Phoenix-area sheriff appears to remain the frontrunner, unfazed by a sweeping federal lawsuit filed against his office last week. But he faces five opponents and emboldened opposition from political and civil rights groups.
“He is kind of a 21st century Bull Connor,” said the Rev. Warren Stewart Sr., pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix and chairman of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.
Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor served as public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., during the Civil Rights movement and attracted national attention for his public support for segregation, defiant refusal to carry out court orders and for turning police dogs and fire hoses on protesters. The spectacle of dogs and fire hoses has been described by historians as a catalyst for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“Arpaio doesn’t let dogs out on people," Stewart said. “But he does go after and target people of color. He goes after Latinos and does it often with a vengeance and an arrogance if anyone dares to question him. It’s ‘I’m Sheriff Joe Arpaio and I’m in charge and nobody tells me what to do. I will not back down.’”
The Justice Department last week described Arpaio's tactics as “unprecedented”, "unconstitutional," and part of a "pattern of discrimination" against Latinos. A Justice Department lawsuit filed Thursday accuses Arpaio of directing deputies to “raid” homes, offices and businesses based on occupants limited English skills or appearance. Deputies made so many racially profiled vehicle stops that Latino drivers were five to nine times more likely than others to be the subject of a search, the suit said. Inmates in the county jail who did not speak English were denied access to translators and Arpaio worked to silence judges, lawyers and others he viewed as opponents of his tactics, according to the suit.
Arpaio last week said he would fight federal monitoring of his office "until the bitter end."
"Despite all the best efforts by this Huffington Post and publications such as yours, Sheriff Arpaio is not at all concerned about his reputation or his reelection prospects," said Lisa Allen, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department. "He is absolutely certain that he will be reelected in November and is proud to be the sheriff of Maricopa County and feels his office is doing a very fine job despite the kind of accusations, unfounded as they are, the Justice Department is making against this office."
Arpaio's supporters describe him as an unapologetic law enforcer who has been unfairly branded a bigot by, “a small but vocal group of Latinos,” engaged in a witch hunt, said Shane Wikfors, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party.
“We’re in one of these moments that is very much Arizona versus the feds right now,” said Wikfors. “I wouldn’t agree that he’s a Bull Connor-type authority. I think he sees himself as someone pushing back against the fed government’s politicization of not enforcing immigration law. He is the embodiment of the spear in that battle.”
Until now, the major challenge in unseating Arpaio has been the nature of the suburban Phoenix electorate, said Luis Heredia, the Arizona Democratic Party executive director.
About 37 percent of Maricopa County’s voters are registered Republicans, 27 percent Democrats, and 33 percent unaffiliated, according to the county election board. More than half live inside the suburban Maricopa County cities that ring Phoenix and have their own police departments. That means most voters have not had personal contact with sheriff’s deputies, said Heredia. And many have lived in the area for less than five years.
But the Justice Department lawsuit adds to a steady stream of suits against Arpaio and his department. The litigation has a price tag that is political poison, said Heredia.
During the 16 years Arpaio has served as sheriff, the county has paid about $ 58.4 million in legal fees, settlements and judgments related to suits brought against the sheriff and his department, according to county records. Nearly $20 million of that -– or 35 percent -– has been paid in the last five years. Additional costs have been covered by the county’s insurance fund.
In Phoenix, there has been talk for years of federal criminal and civil investigations of Arpaio, said Randy Parraz, co-founder and president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, a political group that spearheaded the November 2011 recall election that removed Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce.
Pearce was the driving force behind Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law, requiring law enforcement officers to request proof of citizenship from anyone they suspect is undocumented. It also helped to enable Arpaio’s raids. Pearce served as a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy for more than 20 years.
This year, Citizens for a Better Arizona will organize what Parraz described as direct actions to remove Arpaio from office or ensure his defeat, he said.
“There are a few of us who can't be bullied. But you can still walk around here this week and hear even progressives talking about how powerful Arpaio is, how he’s unbreakable,” said Parraz. Parraz said he counts himself among the Arpaio opponents who have been followed and investigated because of public statements about Arpaio and his activities.
Arpaio’s power grew because many in Arizona were unnerved by people entering the state without legal authorization in the last two decades, said Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix-area attorney who is chairman of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.
“Little by little that house of cards is crumbling, said Ortega. “It’s crumbling because the public did not say that we need to do something about the people coming into the country illegally by being downright hateful and operating totally outside of the law.”
There is only dated evidence that Arpaio’s popularity is sinking.
County-level polls are infrequent in the Phoenix area. In January 2010, the percentage point spread between people who said Arpaio is doing a good or excellent job and those who said he is doing poorly slipped to 5 -- down from a 38-point spread Arpaio enjoyed in March 2007, according to an independent poll by Behavior Research Center, a nonpartisan Phoenix-based market analysis firm. After giving the sheriff qualified endorsements in 2000 and 2004, the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, said no to Arpaio's reelection bid in 2008.
The sheriff's campaign fundraising this year appears untroubled, hauling in considerable sums from people living mostly outside the state. In January, he had $3.4 million, after accounting for $2.48 million in expenses, according to his campaign finance records.
Among the five challengers are Jose Waldron, an 18-year-old who said his campaign will not raise more than $500, and Tim Coomer, 40, a Democrat who has done the same. Democrats John Rowan, 48, and Paul Penzone, 45, had not raised any money when the year’s first reporting deadline passed in January. Penzone spent 21 years as a Phoenix police officer, part of it assigned to a special Drug Enforcement Administration task force.
Mike Stauffer, 50, a candidate with no party affiliation, raised a few thousand dollars, mostly from Arizona residents. After expenses, Stauffer had $289 at the end of the January, according to campaign records.
But, the day after the Justice Department lawsuit announcement, Penzone saw the largest one-day surge in online donations to his campaign, said Stacy Pearson, a campaign spokeswoman. Penzone’s campaign war chest topped $100,000, an important milestone because the last Democrat who challenged Arpaio in 2008 raised $160,000 over the entire contest, Pearson said.
“I think that between Penzone’s history of fair and sane law enforcement and the fact that I think that the vast majority of voters are simply tired, just embarrassed by being a national joke, a symbol of crazy, Arpaio is vulnerable,” Pearson said.