Inside Sheriff Joe's Weird, Wild Reelection Race

The bizarre election to take down America's most infamous sheriff, featuring a special guest appearance by Steven Seagal.

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

Carmen Robles has a beef with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. A 15-year-old sophomore at Tempe High School just outside of Phoenix, Robles is a straight-A student and, thanks to C.S.I., an aspiring forensics analyst who chats happily about her trip last year to see a cadaver at Grand Canyon University. She's also an undocumented immigrant, from Tempe by way of Nogales, Mexico, who came to the United States with her mom eight years ago on a tourist visa and never left. Over the last three years, as Arpaio's stepped up his crusade against undocumented immigrants, they've started to feel the squeeze: "She's giving taxes to the government and they're still trying to take her away," Robles says.

So Robles has decided to get even. A few months ago, she joined Adiós Arpaio, a union-backed effort aimed at registering Latino voters in Maricopa. Hanging out at shopping malls and low-rider car expos, Robles and her 300 fellow volunteers—almost all Latino high school students—have registered more than 34,000 voters. Now Robles spends most school nights in navy blue nurse scrubs and Chuck Taylors, going door to door in Tempe housing developments to make sure people send in their ballots.

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Since winning office two decades ago on an anti-corruption platform, Arpaio has never been reelected by fewer than 12 points. But thanks to a handful of wrongful death lawsuits, allegations of massive civil rights violations, a quixotic birther investigation, and $100 million in misspent funds, Democrats and activists in Maricopa County believe they finally have the votes to throw out America's most controversial lawman. As Daria Ovide, Adiós Arpaio's communications director, puts it, the difference between this election and the last one is "we've had four more years of the sheriff making an ass out of himself."

With five days to go until the election, the race is slated to go down as one of the most expensive sheriff’s races in American history, largely on the basis of Arpaio's $8 million war chest. But against any other candidate, Democratic challenger Paul Penzone's $530,000 would have been a state record. And anti-Arpaio groups have built a ground game from scratch with help from national groups like the AFL-CIO and UNITE Here ($500,000 in seed money), and found a candidate with compelling credentials who can appeal to Latinos and white suburbanites alike.

Penzone, a 45-year-old veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, is in many ways a natural foil for Arpaio. Trim and young-looking with close cropped black hair, he draws a natural contrast with Arpaio, a 80-year-old with an expanding paunch and a comb-over that looks glued-on. The policy differences are just as stark.

While Arpaio's office was publicly shamed for mishandling 400 sexual abuse cases—many involving women in predominantly Latino neighborhoods—and forming a Cold Case Posse to investigate President Obama's birth certificate, Penzone earned his stripes tracking down child molesters and reopening actual cold cases as part of the region's Silent Witness program. Like Arpaio, Penzone has a fondness for television cameras, regularly appearing as a law enforcement analyst on cable news programs.

"I've never had a problem with him personally, but professionally I just felt that his practices were more about sensationalism than law enforcement," Penzone says during an interview at Leisure World, a sprawling Mesa retirement community where he was campaigning. "It's gotten to the point where he misrepresents what law enforcement stands for and does a disservice to all those people that put their lives on the line to protect others."

Penzone says that Arpaio's budget mismanagement would leave him no choice but to keep the county's infamous Tent City jail open, but he'd overhaul its operations to crack down on abuse (according to a federal lawsuit, Arpaio's guards use terms like "Mexican bitches" to refer to Latino inmates). He says he'd put less of an emphasis on immigration raids and pay more attention to violent crimes, like human trafficking. "We used less force to catch drug dealers who had weapons, money, and drugs, than the sheriff does when he goes to a restaurant or a maid service to arrest a few workers who are undocumented," Penzone says.

A poll of the race commissioned in October by his campaign put Penzone just 5 points behind Arpaio, with the incumbent lagging below the 50 percent mark and 8 percent still undecided. But there was a wrinkle: 3 percent were supporting an independent candidate—a Scottsdale police lieutenant named Mike Stauffer.

Stauffer's candidacy has raised alarm bells among Arpaio's biggest critics, who warn of a Nader effect—or worse, a nefarious Republican plot. Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts calls Stauffer "the sheriff's best friend." The Campaign for Arizona's Future, the parent group of Adiós Arpaio, dismisses him as a "mall cop." Citizens for a Better Arizona, another union-backed group, dubbed him "Olivia Cortes on steroids"—a reference to a Republican plant whose candidacy in a 2011 state Senate recall election, it was later revealed, was designed to divide Latino voters. The Phoenix New Times calls Stauffer a "stooge."

Last week, I made the long drive up to Cave Creek, where the Phoenix metropolitan area gives way at last to desert, to check out Stauffer's campaign operation. Using the address provided on his website, I found it, in a small shopping center off the main drag. It's a small and windowless space with not so much as a telephone line going in. That's because Stauffer's listed campaign headquarters is a UPS mailbox.

"Our office is everywhere we need to be," said West Kenyon, Stauffer's campaign manager and sole staffer. (At that particular moment, it was a Starbucks.) "We don't have an office. We decided to keep the money that we have for better things." But it's not clear that Stauffer has spent his money on anything. There are no television ads or radio spots, no direct mail, no paid staff (Kenyon works for free), and no voter lists. There's also not really that much money to speak of. All told, Stauffer has raised about $8,000, not counting the $40,000 he loaned his campaign.

Stauffer, in an interview the next day at a Phoenix coffee shop, dismissed Democrats' criticism of his campaign, making scare quotes around words like "electability" and "money."

"When they call me a stooge for Arpaio, I laugh at that," he said.

Among other things, he notes that he helped blow the whistle on the case of Marty Atencio, the Latino Marine who died in Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) custody last fall—not the type of thing one would do if he were in the tank for Arpaio. He'd originally sought to challenge Arpaio in the Republican primary—and collected most of the necessary signatures to do so—but switched his party affiliation to independent because he didn't want to be seen as partisan. For good measure, he emphasizes that he declared his candidacy two years before Penzone. "I had a good shot," he said. "I had a very good shot at upsetting Arpaio."

Emphasis on "had."

Although Penzone's spokesman, Stacy Pearson, brushed aside the idea that Stauffer might be a secret Arpaio agent, the candidate himself has been happy to keep things ambiguous on the campaign trail. When a man at Leisure World asked him point blank if he believed Stauffer was working for Arpaio, Penzone played it coy. "A vote for the third candidate is a vote for Joe Arpaio," he said. "Did anyone put him up to it? I don't know."

Arpaio, meanwhile, has conducted his campaign more or less the same way he's run the MCSO for 20 years—occasionally absent, punctuated by frenzied bursts of activity, and an enormous appetite for spending money. He's refused Penzone's offer to debate. His campaign website is Spartan. His campaign's listed phone number is actually the number for an insurance company (the site is out of date), which in turn directs you to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which, finally, refers you to the Summit Group, a Phoenix consulting firm run by a longtime confidant, which Arpaio's campaign has paid $1.8 million over the last year. In one of his television spots (another attacked Penzone for a 2003 domestic complaint), Arpaio fidgets, unsmiling and uncomfortable, as his wife, Ava, explains why her husband shouldn't retire.

His nominal campaign office, like Stauffer's, is all but nonexistent, housed in a strip mall in Scottsdale, next to a cash-for-gold franchise. It shares the same address as Starworld, a travel agency to which Arpaio's campaign pays $1,200 per month to rent space. Essentially that means that Arpaio is paying himself, since he launched the agency with his wife in 1981. (In 1985, Arpaio and Starworld sold flights to space for $52,000 on a 57-feet long, 20-feet wide spaceship called Phoenix E, designed to launch on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America; Starworld never sold any tickets, and the plan fizzled out after the Challenger disaster.) A sign on the door directed all mail to be sent to Edward Jones, the investment firm next door, where a receptionist said she had no idea there was a campaign office nearby.

Just as I'd given up hope, I found Arpaio. He was speaking at a rally, hosted by the Arizona Republican party, on a practice field at Mesa Community College, along with a slate of local candidates. Flanked by "Fire Obama" yard signs and a hundred or so supporters in handmade T-shirts with his face on the front above the phrase "True Grit," Arpaio reflected on why his wife was so eager to keep him out of the house: "I have no hobbies!"

He cited his years as a young DEA agent, where he was called into Mexico to heal a relationship with a local power broker. Arpaio feted his counterpart with blueberry pie and whiskey. "It's about personal relationships," he concluded. "It's not just the big stick."

Afterwards, for $50, attendees could have their photo taken with Steven Seagal, the Under Siege star who has reinvented himself as a sheriff's deputy in Maricopa County and far West Texas.

In March, Seagal and Arpaio were sued by a Phoenix man who alleged that the duo had killed his dog during a raid on a cockfighting ring in his house—in which Seagal drove through the front gate in a tank.

I asked Seagal if he was aware of the recent wrongful death lawsuit that had been filed against Arpaio, by the family of a mentally ill man who had died after being tasered in custody. He responded with a question: "Have you seen the film of that?" I told him I had not. "Well, neither have I. But I'd sure like to. And once I've seen the film, then I'll have an opinion." (Happy with his answer, Seagal turned once more to greet his fans.)

When I approached Arpaio, he'd just finished asking Matt Salmon, a former Republican congressman who's running again in the state's newly configured 5th District, to lobby for Seagal as the next Homeland Security secretary, provided he made it to Washington. ("He'd have that border cleaned up in one week," Arpaio said.) He was much less enthusiastic to talk about his own political future.

I noted that the polls appeared to show the race tightening. "Do you know about my poll?" he asked. He was referring to two polls commissioned by the Arpaio campaign, which showed him with double digit leads, albeit still beneath the 50 percent threshold and with about a quarter of the electorate undecided. "Two big polls!" The sheriff looked to his supporters with a mix of amazement and disbelief. "Fifteen percent!"

"I make believe I'm losing," Arpaio told me. "I always pretend I'm losing."

Throughout our short, tense exchange, Arpaio emphasized that he had no intention of discussing the sheriff's race. "I very seldom give interviews on this race, but for you, since you're a well-known publication…" He dismissed allegations of wrongful deaths and mismanagement as "garbage" and lamented that national reporters never "talk about the good things we do."

"I've been doing it for 20 years," he continued. "I keep getting reelected. This is my sixth time running. And I just keep getting reelected because the people—who are my bosses—know who I am. I don't ask for endorsements, although everybody who's running for president asked for my endorsement. I just do my job. That's it."

At least one Arpaio supporter I spoke with suggested that Penzone's problem wasn't that he was unqualified; he just needed to wait his turn. After all, Arpaio turned 80 in June and would step down sooner or later. So, if he wins in November, would this be his final term?

"What do you mean, if I win?" Arpaio asked. "I think I'll make a prediction that I plan on winning." But at last, Arpaio decided he'd found a question he liked.

"I think there's gonna be a lot of interesting things after I'm reelected," he said. "I've always got something planned."

And with that, America's most loved and hated sheriff turned away to sign some autographs.

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