Twenty Years Of Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Photo by Nick Blumberg.
PHOENIX Twenty years and $7 million; that's how long it's been since Joe Arpaio was first elected sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, and how much money he's raised so far for this year's campaign. This is a look at what's changed over the years, how Arpaio campaigns for an office he's held for nearly two decades, and the strong emotions he generates.
One Sunday this summer, those emotions were on display at two very different demonstrations in Fountain Hills, Ariz.
"What would Jesus do about Arpaio? Arpaio’s the devil!" shouted Dee Dee Garcia Blase, founder of the Tequila Party organization. She was leading a small, loud group of protesters outside the Catholic Church of the Ascension, where Arpaio and his wife Ava attend. Garcia Blase wants the Catholic Church to denounce Arpaio and deny him communion.
The demonstration outraged Gary L'Vov. "Don't go to our churches and come to our town and protest in front of our church!" he said at a counter-protest he organized a short drive away from the church. A fierce Arpaio supporter, L'Vov and his group are standing on the sidewalk asking like-minded drivers to honk. And honk they do.
"The Sheriff gets good reaction everywhere in the world," L'Vov said. "That's why he gets reelected by a landslide each and every time that he runs."
Well, not exactly. Over the years, Arpaio's margin of victory has gotten increasingly smaller.
In 2000, he won 66 percent of the vote. Combined, his challengers won 33 percent. Compare that to 2008: Arpaio, 55 percent, his Democratic opponent, 44 percent. And a poll earlier this year found the lowest-ever favorability rating for the Sheriff.
That's encouraging to Arpaio's Democratic opponent this November, former Phoenix Police Sergeant Paul Penzone. But there's also an Independent candidate, Mike Stauffer, who is causing some heartburn at the prospect of splitting the anti-Joe vote.
Arpaio was first elected in 1992 and initially said he'd only serve one term. Now he's in line to become the longest-serving sheriff in county history. For years, Arpaio was known for green baloney, pink boxers, Tent City. He was a hardliner, but not on illegal immigration.
In a commercial set in Tent City, Arpaio intoned: "If you drink and drive, we've got room for you here. Don't! If you do, expect the max."
In the new millennium, and with a new ally in Maricopa County Attorney Andy Thomas, the Sheriff's stance changed. Illegal immigration became a major focus of the MCSO. And Arpaio became the face of a movement.
"Joe has become known intergalactically," said Tom Bearup, who has known Joe Arpaio since before he ran for sheriff. He was a top aide when Arpaio first took office, and later ran against him.
"It was my goal to make him a household word as 'Sheriff Joe,'" Bearup said. "We accomplished that. The problem is that, I think a lot of that went too far."
Having Sheriff Joe as a household word doesn't bother Jason Rose, a conservative public relations and campaign guru who's previously worked for Arpaio's reelection and remains a big supporter. A Joe Arpaio bobblehead sits on a table in his airy, sun-filled office.
"We criticize elected officials a lot for being inaccessible, and hiding behind PR people, and letting other people speak for them," Rose said. "That will never be said of this Sheriff. He is probably the most accessible elected official we'll ever come across."
Actually, Arpaio declined to be interviewed for this story -- perhaps not surprising, based on this 2008 commercial, where the Sheriff brandished a copy of the Arizona Republic.
"You know, it’s true -- you can never believe everything you read," Arpaio said in the commercial. "So when these are delivered to your house, they belong in the trash."
To his credit, Arpaio does put the newspaper in a recycling bin.
Rose said when he met Arpaio, he'd never seen a candidate who could generate as much enthusiasm, negative or positive. And that translates to "what must be a world record for fundraising. No sheriff I can imagine in America has come anywhere close," Rose said. "You know, money is the mother's milk in politics, and he's certainly got a lot of it."
Rose said money -- and the Sheriff’s unique appeal -- have helped Arpaio successfully fend off challengers over the years. But a huge portion of his donors are outside of the state. Here in Arizona, November still promises to be a fight. That's the aim of people like Randy Parraz, president of Citizens for a Better Arizona.
"He's doing bio ads!" Parraz said. "Here you have a politician -- in our poll, he had 100 percent name ID -- doing bio ads!"
In one of those ads, a deep-voiced narrator concludes: "It's time you met the real Joe Arpaio. Joe Arpaio: a lifetime of service, a man of his convictions."
"In other words, he is scared of who he's become," Parraz said. "He's doing these things, he's trying to -- it's too little, too late. I think he's gonna get hit hard."
"He's going down, it's gonna be good to watch."
But Jason Rose doesn't think Arpaio's foes should be so confident.
"Any candidate on any critique of the Sheriff is going to evaluate what good their BB gun can do when a $4.2 million cannon can come back the other way."
So, Arpaio can spend millions on an ad campaign shifting the focus away from catching undocumented immigrants to catching deadbeat parents, and Parraz and his volunteers will hit the street, trying to get thousands of people to vote early against Arpaio.
If his opponents' polls are to be believed, it's the closest reelection Arpaio's ever faced. He's been slammed over sex crimes that have not been investigated, misspent taxpayer money, a birther investigation, and court cases over discrimination against Latinos.
But even if he loses in November, Maricopa County's 80-year-old top lawman will still be known ... intergalactically.