The same issue that has splashed Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s name across national headlines is the same one that has him in the political fight of his life. Arpaio, who has run foul with the Justice Department for his treatment of Hispanics, is facing a wave of activism that’s pushed Democratic candidate Paul Penzone directly in the way of Arpaio’s re-election.
Arpaio, 80, is seeking his sixth term as Sherriff, a position he’s held for 20 years, according to Reuters. He’s welcomed attention along the way for setting up the controversial “tent city,” where he detains a mostly Latino inmate population held on charges ranging from petty larceny and minor drug offenses to immigration violations.
While Arpaio has become an icon for the Tea Party, he’s also been accused of ignoring 400 sex crimes in his jurisdiction while police officers harass construction and landscaping crews for their documentation.
His methods have even attracted attention from the Justice Department, which is suing him for institution “sweeping” areas thought to house illegal immigrants. Earlier this year the sheriff sent a posse of volunteers to Hawaii to investigate the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. Arpaio has denied the charges of racial profiling.
One of his favorite methods is to dress inmates in pink and using his power to implement female chain gangs, a method rarely employed since the first half of the 20th Century.
“When you try to do your job, and you are a little controversial, some people don't like it. That's the way it is,” Arpaio told Reuters reporters on the sideline of a campaign event.
The sheriff is now running against a groundswell of constituents that have noticed his controversial law enforcement techniques. The New York Times reported that activist groups with names like Adios Arpaio and Joe’s Got To Go have registered almost 40,000 Hispanic voters that have pledged their support to Penzone.
Penzone, a former police officer that spent most of his career working in narcotics, will need the help. The 45-year-old Democrat has a campaign budget of under one million dollars and is up against Arpaio’s $8.5 million war chest. His activist support is made up of students, religious groups, unions and advocacy groups that are all united with the common purpose of deposing the polarizing sheriff.
Arpaio has welcomed the controversy, accepting an interview with Rolling Stone last summer for a profile in “that marijuana magazine.”
“My people said, ‘You’re stupid to do an interview with that magazine,’” he told Rolling Stone. “But, hey, controversy -- well, it hasn’t hurt me in 50 years.”
That appetite for attention is what inspired Penzone to enter the race.
“He has turned that office into a machine for his public image and (it) should be a machine for public safety,” Penzone told Reuters. “I didn't want to stand by any more on the sidelines.”
Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, told the Times that voters are mobilized because so many have been affected by questionable law enforcement techniques.
“He has been in office long enough to have alienated an awful lot of people,” Merrill said. “But the key thing to understand is that nobody here in Arizona knows who Paul Penzone is. This is a race of Joe Arpaio against Joe Arpaio.”