Sheriff Joe Arpaio may be up against a real challenge in his 2016 re-election, but the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” remains steadfastly committed to his brash, unapologetic tough-on-criminals reputation even as he faces down a legal battle that could jeopardize his re-election prospects.
In his six terms as sheriff, Arpaio has pushed the boundaries of civil liberties for both those inside his jails and in the community. To manage overcrowding in jails, the Republican Arpaio set up tent camps in the early 1990s that were surrounded by barb-wire fences. Arpaio himself, according to the Phoenix New Times, once referred to them as “concentration camps,” and temperatures soared above 140 degrees inside tents on hot days.
Arpaio’s Maricopa County Sheriff Department has been accused of profiling Latinos and mistreating inmates. According to a tally by the Arizona Republic, “since Arpaio first took office in 1993, cases involving him or his office have cost taxpayers $142 million in legal expenses, settlements and court awards.” Exposes have been written. And, somehow, every time, Arpaio wins re-election without a hitch.
His latest legal battle – being held in civil contempt for defying an order to stop racially profiling Latinos – is giving Democrats some hope that Arpaio may be beatable this time around.
“I think it is going to be a very competitive race heading into November,” said Jason Rose, a Republican strategist who has been a longtime ally to Arpaio and previously advised him. “I think the sheriff would benefit from being or taking an approach that is more humble and more contrite. He has never been one to say, ‘Look, I may have made a mistake here.’ That could go a long ways in terms of humanizing him a little more.”
A decision on the case was expected to be handed down at the end of May, but U.S District Judge Murray Snow delayed it, hinting further investigation may be necessary. In the May 13 ruling, however, Snow wrote that Arpaio and deputies “have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of this Court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct,” according to Buzzfeed.
While Arpaio’s most conservative constituency isn’t expected to abandon a man who has become a national icon for taking immigration reform into his own hands, the campaign of his expected Democratic challenger is optimistic they will be able to pick off moderate and independent voters who are disillusioned by Arpaio’s prioritization of immigration enforcement at any cost. They also are confident that the combination of Trump and Arpaio on the ticket could mobilize Latino voters against them in an unprecedented way.
“Law enforcement should not be about sensationalism,” Paul Penzone, the man trying to knock off Arpaio, told TPM in an interview. “He’s made a show out of the office.”
No independent polls of the race have been conducted. An internal poll released by the Penzone campaign showed him leading Arpaio by 4 points, a number still within the margin of error, but a signal there may be an opening to pick Arpaio off of his perch. (The Arpaio campaign told TPM the poll was a ”media stunt.”)
Penzone served two decades as a Phoenix police officer and finished six points behind Arpaio in 2012, one of the closest finishes for a competitor in years. Penzone was the face of the “Silent Witness” program, an anonymous tip line in Phoenix, and has tried to paint himself as a candidate devoted to ensuring service, decreasing emergency response times and helping the department refocus on crimes in the country rather than national debates on immigration.
But Penzone has his own liabilities as well. Money is a big one. Arpaio has raised more than $10 million for his re-election and has more than $4 million cash on hand, while Penzone’s campaign says it has raised roughly $150,000.
Penzone has also faced tough attacks from the Arpaio campaign that highlight a 2003 domestic dispute between him and his now ex-wife. Arpaio’s campaign released an ad during the 2012 campaign that alleged Penzone was a domestic abuser. Penzone’s campaign fervently refuted the claims, telling a local CBS affiliate that no charges were ever filed in the incident.
The reality is that Arpaio has always had liabilities, too. He led an effort calling President Obama’s birth certificate a forgery, has arrested reporters who’ve crossed him, been accused of not investigating hundreds of sex crimes including those against children of undocumented immigrants, and been accused of misusing money.
Then there is the matter of Trump. The mogul has embraced Arpaio’s hard immigration stance and could perform well in Republican-leaning Maricopa County, home to more nearly 4 million people and covering 9,200 square miles. But in a tight race like the 2012 Arpaio-Penzone matchup, Trump’s presence could mobilize Hispanic voters in a way they weren’t four years ago.
In his signature style Friday, Arpaio–a sheriff who has long required inmates to wear pink underwear and brought back so-called chain gangs–announced he’d be distributing prison uniforms to inmates on the Fourth of July adorned with the American flag.
“The American flag is a symbol of freedom and liberty,” Arpaio said,
according to a report from the Arizona Republic. “My hope is that
incarcerated inmates feel a sense of pride and honor when wearing the
The question now is if a contempt charge and Penzone will be enough to take down the “toughest sheriff in America.”