Could Sheriff Joe Arpaio Be the Last Man Standing?

Could Sheriff Joe Arpaio Be the Last Man Standing?

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PHOENIX -- The recall of Arizona anti-immigrant Republican Sen. Russell Pearce this month has energized both political and immigration activists here to push for the removal of another infamous figure, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But in the battle to take down immigration hardliners in the state, Arpaio could be the last man standing, unless there is federal action.

Yet, an army of Arpaio’s strongest critics, empowered by Pearce’s recall, thinks the sheriff’s political days are numbered. America’s toughest sheriff is more vulnerable than ever.

“There's nothing like an idea whose time has come, and I think that's the same for Arpaio,” said Chad Snow, chairman of Citizens for a Better Arizona (CBA), the coalition that worked on the Pearce recall.

This Monday, CBA announced the creation of a “Citizens’ Posse” to ensure Arpaio is not re-elected, arguing that he needs to change his priorities from immigration to providing citizens’ protection and putting an end to misspending. But Arpaio is not the only target; they are also trying to get public input on the idea to recall Republican Governor Jan Brewer.

Brewer became prominent after signing SB 1070, a state law that made it a crime to be in Arizona without documents. Again CBA, the group that recalled Pearce, says this is not about immigration or SB 1070. They want to hold Brewer accountable and, among other things, make her apologize for her unsuccessful attempt to remove the head of the state redistricting commission, tasked with redrawing political maps as mandated by the Arizona voters.

The group is not planning a recall effort against Arpaio, because he is up for re-election next year.

“We are going to work together to make sure this is the last year that Sheriff Arpaio [will] be sheriff in Maricopa County,” said Randy Parraz, one of the founders of CBA.

Grand jury investigates Arpaio

For years, Arpaio’s political machine used Pearce’s anti-immigrant laws like SB 1070 and their interpretation by County Attorney Andrew Thomas to emerge as an immigration hardliner. Thus, Arpaio secured his popularity among Arizona voters who bought into the trio's propaganda that illegal immigration has ties to terrorism and is responsible for a rise in crime, which FBI statistics have refuted.

When Thomas left to run for attorney general in the middle of an Arizona State Bar investigation for unethical behavior, Arpaio lost one of his strongest allies. Thomas failed in his election bid against Republican Tom Horne, another supporter of SB 1070.

According to political observers, Thomas could soon lose his attorney's license if the State Bar doesn’t offer him immunity due to his higher office. The local case has ties to an ongoing grand jury investigation of Arpaio and Thomas for alleged abuses of power and retaliation against political enemies and critics.

If the State Bar decides that there was misconduct on the part of Thomas, the results could heighten the pressure for the federal government to take action against Arpaio.

Besides the three year old criminal federal investigation, Arpaio has taken a hit for misspending $100 million in county funds that were supposed to be used for the jails, but instead were spent on crime sweeps and the public corruption unit connected to the abuse of power case. He recently had to fire three of his top deputies for misconduct that is tied to the abuse of power case, and he still faces a civil rights probe on alleged racial profiling related to a separate lawsuit.

Despite all of that, the 79-year-old sheriff said he is not concerned.

“I’m not going to stop what I’m doing as long as the law is there. I will not back down,” said Arpaio, who has as much as $6 million in donations for his campaign. The sheriff said his message to CBA is that they should come to his office and “at least I’ll have a chance to talk to them and rationalize what they’re doing.”

But, a recent mailer he sent asking people to donate because of what he incorrectly alleged was an effort to recall him suggests he may be concerned about his political future.

Support for Arpaio shrinking

Since he was first elected in 1992, Arpaio has been one of the most popular figures in Arizona politics. He built his popularity by crafting an image of himself as a tough-on-crime law enforcer, and later found renewed support from voters by taking a hard stance against illegal immigration. Some political observers agree that Arpaio continues to enjoy support among a generation of loyal voters – many elderly who are fearful of a growing Hispanic demographic in the county.

Yet, Arpaio has steadily lost support from Maricopa County voters, and in his last re-election, won 55 percent of votes – the lowest level of support he has ever received.

Critics like attorney Antonio Bustamante, who has been outspoken about Arpaio’s immigration sweeps and the treatment of prisoners in his jails, say they don’t believe that voters will turn against him. And that Arpaio could take pride in being the last man standing if the federal government doesn't do anything.

“I don’t trust the electorate,” he said. “They love him.”

He believes Arpaio will leave office only if pressured by federal action on the grand jury investigation, or if there are significant findings on the racial profiling case against him.

Members of CBA didn’t want to discuss their political strategy, but the group’s Snow says he believes they will have to fight on all fronts, by both educating the voters against Arpaio and pressuring the federal government to take action.

“We’ve been told through different channels that they [federal government] are not going to do anything in an election year. In my mind, they are playing politics in the same way Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio are,” said Snow. “We’re going to hold them accountable to and say: ‘Do your job. Justice delayed is justice denied.’”

Snow, who is a Republican, believes that similar to the Pearce recall there is a segment of the party that is dissatisfied with Arpaio’s performance, and they will join the call to oust him through the polls or by calling for his resignation. Immigration no longer resonates as the top concern for voters, and Pearce's recall is a testament to that, said Snow.

“People are saying, immigration is not number oneoin our to-do list. He’s hidden for too long behind this real hardline immigration stance for too long,” Snow said. “He’s used this as a smokescreen to hide the fact that he’s just horrible at law-enforcement.”

No endorsement

Parraz said that CBA wasn’t endorsing a specific candidate in the same way they did when they first launched the campaign against Pearce.

So far, Mike Stauffer, a Republican lieutenant in the Scottsdale police department, has emerged as a candidate against Arpaio.

CBA is not the only group that is launching an effort against Arpaio. The newly re-organized PUENTE movement also announced that they would continue pressuring the sheriff’s office through protests and actions of civil disobedience.

Some longtime political activists like Rosie Lopez believe that Pearce and Arpaio share the same Achilles’s heel.

“They became over-confident, they think that they’re invincible,” said Lopez, founder of the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum. “We’ll show them [they’re] not true.”