Longtime Cop, Political Newcomer Steps Up to Challenge Arpaio
June 19, 2012

Courtesy of West Kenyon
Mike Stauffer on the campaign trail in Phoenix. He's staking his campaign on the belief that politics can -- and should -- be separate from law enforcement.

PHOENIX -- Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces re-election this fall at what might be his most vulnerable point -- he’s currently battling the Justice Department and fending off criticism for years-old sex-crimes cases that were not properly investigated. It’s clear there are national repercussions for his controversial style, but is there also enough local backlash to unseat him from office?

Arpaio sounds so much like a certain Hollywood cowboy that people have actually posted videos on YouTube comparing his cadence to that of the actor, John Wayne. The men discuss Gunsmoke and getting elected with almost identical inflection.

The man who’s been running the longest campaign to unseat the incumbent sheriff is nothing like a cowboy. Mike Stauffer is a cop -- first in New York City, now in Scottsdale. He likes tech and Twitter and teaching Constitutional Law at the state’s academy for police officers. And, he loves his plans.

He’s got plans for everything from Arpaio’s infamous Tent City (“Closed -- it’s not worth the lawsuits and the gang activity that goes on there”) to Arpaio’s equally infamous posses (“They’re going to have an academy and they’re going to look different than the deputies who are working”) to Arpaio’s even more infamous pink underwear (“Until someone can show me how they reduce the crime rate, they’ll be phased out”).

Fortunately for Stauffer, Arpaio’s approval ratings have never been lower -- one recent survey puts them at 46 percent. Unfortunately for Stauffer, he’s not Arpaio’s only challenger. There are two Democratic candidates who will face each other in a primary this August.

Stauffer’s running as an independent. He’s staking his entire campaign on the idea that there are enough voters in Maricopa County who make their decisions based on things like policy instead of party affiliation or political ideology.

“They’ve got to think about who has the best plan. Who’s got the best plan?” Stauffer said. “They’ve got to look at their candidates and really think about what’s best for Maricopa County, instead of just the D and the R and I after the name.”

There are two reasons the candidates’ party affiliations are not revealing. The first is that all three men running against Arpaio are former Republicans. The second is that political party membership is down -- way down -- all across the state. Maricopa County voters are in line with this statewide trend: As of May, 37.7 percent are registered Republican, 33.9 percent independent, and 27.5 percent Democrat.

Stauffer knows he needs more than just the independent vote -- so to this end, without any party email lists or introductions, he is constantly scouting the county for people who will talk to him.

Courtesy of Mike Stauffer
Mike Stauffer, with his family, after graduating from the Phoenix Police Academy in 1991.

One fall night this quest takes him to an unincorporated part of the county, near Mesa, with a proliferating meth house problem. Stauffer shows up in a suit -- with his sunglasses on, he looks like a Secret Service agent -- and takes a tour with Ernest Johnson, a resident who says he’s long complained to sheriff's deputies about all the “tweakers." Deputies have, apparently, ignored him.

“We come up with license plates, descriptions, everything,” Johnson tells Stauffer.

Stauffer tells him, “That’s a gold mine for the beat officers.”

Johnson nods, exasperated. “And it’s like, some of these officers just don’t care.”

On another night, Stauffer goes to a fancy party filled with conservative retirees in the City of Surprise. Again, he wears a suit. Again, he sticks to his plans which impresses at least one former Arpaio supporter, Eugene Nygoff.

“He has a good grasp of what he wants to do,” Nygoff said. “He has an agenda, but his agenda appears to be service to the people. I put money where my mouth is. And I just did.”

It’s unclear how many more voters will be similarly convinced -- especially in a county that’s now quite accustomed to a sheriff defined as much for his media savvy and spectacle as for his positions on illegal immigration and the limited role of the federal government.

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Read the profiles of John Rowan and Paul Penzone, the Democratic candidates in the Maricopa County Sheriff race.

Analysts were impressed that Stauffer’s earnestness garnered him more than 29,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot this November -- but they’re skeptical anyone can beat Arpaio in a three-way race.

Anti-Arpaio pundits are begging for someone to drop out. Stauffer says it’s not going to be him.