Joe Arpaio Has a Challenger; Maricopa County Sheriff Race Heats Up

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The electrical worker’s union hall in Central Phoenix celebrated Labor Day with breakfast and speeches by union officials and election candidates. Babies rested or fussed in parents’ arms, while older children squirmed in their chairs or while eating burros. Their parents sat with them or stood nearby in conversation about the cost of gasoline, diapers and milk. Into this milieu came a lean man dressed in a black suit and dark blue shirt, sporting a gold pin with police symbols and the American flag. His appearance quickly energized the crowd, who came over for a handshake, photo op or to speak in hushed tones. Paul Penzone, the newest challenger to longtime Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 20-year tenure, had arrived.

Penzone, 45, a 21-year veteran Phoenix police officer and onetime manager of the anonymous tip service Silent Witness is poised to provide the biggest challenge to the entrenched—and at times, embattled—80-year-old Arpaio in years. He’s also garnered support from a diverse group of officials and communities, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and local Natives weary of being targeted by “Sheriff Joe’s” immigration sweeps and alleged racial profiling.

Shaliyah Ben, a Diné who lives in Phoenix, is one of Penzone’s Native supporters. “One thing I've found personally frustrating is the treatment the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office exerts towards American Indians who incidentally are often treated like they are illegal immigrants,” said Ben, 28. “I find the whole notion of proving who we are as the first Americans truly absurd to these so-called professionals who truly should know the difference, or at least treat people with dignity, while figuring it out.“

Union member Linda Winters, 52, recounted a recent incident involving a Hispanic friend. “My friend was driving to pick his daughter up from Carl Hayden High School [a high school in the West Valley, which is heavily populated by Hispanics],” said Winters. “He got pulled over by a cop. When the cop asked him for his I.D. and registration, my friend asked, ‘What did I do wrong? My daughter is waiting for me at school and she’s probably getting worried where I am.’”

Winters added that her friend noted that “the fact that he spoke good English took the policeman by surprise.” After checking the man’s I.D., registration and insurance, the officer came back and told the man he was free to go. “My friend asked again what he did wrong, and the cop finally replied, ‘You didn’t have your blinker on long enough.’”

Penzone himself noted that Arpaio’s longtime legal woes, including more than $60 million in lawsuits filed against the MCSO, a $150,000 fine levied against the Arpaio reelection campaign in 2010 after he was found culpable of violating campaign laws when he sent out mailers attacking a county attorney candidate and neglecting more than 400 reported cases of child sex abuse in El Mirage, a heavily Hispanic West Valley community, and other reported abuses of power have made the sheriff vulnerable and says it’s time for a change.

“If [the sheriff’s failure to investigate the abuse cases] happened in Scottsdale [an affluent, and largely white, suburb of Phoenix], we’d be outraged. We should equally be outraged that this happened in El Mirage,” said Penzone, who’s currently the vice president of prevention programs at Childhelp, a local nonprofit that works to prevent and address child abuse.

Penzone also expressed concern about the state of the office, which includes 3,400 employees and sworn officers to patrol the nation’s fourth-largest county. “The deputies, officers and detention officers in the Sheriff’s Department haven’t seen a raise in six or seven years,” said Penzone, who served in two police unions during his time with the Phoenix police. “Training and equipment are in short supply. I hear from these people who actually do the work in the department, they ask me ‘How are you going to help us?’ While the Sheriff surrounds himself with highly paid supporters, these people are going without the support they need to do their jobs appropriately and safely.” Penzone promised to give the deputies and detention officers the tools they need to do their job.

Also, Penzone noted that he would handle illegal immigration differently than his opponent, who’s become a national celebrity after a series of immigration sweeps that oftentimes sweep in Natives, who allege they are targeted because of their brown skin. “We can’t arrest ourselves out of the immigration issue,” said Penzone. Instead, he would focus on the criminal operations in human and drug trafficking. “We have only limited time and money; we have to choose between spending that time and money between dealing with criminal organizations or cooks and maids.”

And Penzone noted that he has already been meeting with local tribal leaders to learn how the MCSO and tribal law enforcement could partner to address the thorny issue of on-reservation violence inflicted upon Native women by non-Native men.“

Unlike Arpaio’s support, which his last campaign finance disclosure revealed overwhelmingly comes from out-of-state contributors, Penzone’s supporters almost always have Arizona addresses. He’s also amassed an impressive slate of supporters, including some prominent Republicans like former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and Paul Charlton, the former U. S. attorney.

"I know there are four candidates in this [primary] race," the Phoenix New Times quoted Stanton during an August 3 press conference where he announced his support for Penzone. "But...based upon my personal experience working with Paul Penzone as a Phoenix Police officer, based upon his leadership of Silent Witness, I know he is the best candidate to bring the highest level of professionalism to the sheriff's office."

Although Penzone faces an uphill battle—Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times noted that Penzone is “a newbie taking on the local, political equivalent of Godzilla;” Penzone’s war chest lags behind Arpaio’s seven-figure campaign kitty; and independent candidate Mike Stauffer is considered a possible spoiler by many Arizona election watchers—local politicos agree that Penzone could well unseat Arpaio in November.

The canny old sheriff is taking no chances, and is already waging a spirited campaign; he recently started airing television commercials, a strategy he’s not had to engage in for many years.

Penzone’s words inspired Ben to volunteer to work on the Penzone campaign; “If we don't act or demand a change, then we really do deserve Arpaio and his antics.

“Penzone gives me a sense of hope that you can be part of change. Take a look at who’s here today,” said Ben; “we have people of different generations and ethnicities.”