PHOENIX – Joe Arpaio is trying to win back the sheriff’s post in metro Phoenix that he held for 24 years, facing his former second-in-command in the Aug. 4 Republican primary in what has become his second comeback bid.
The 88-year-old lawman, who was unseated in the 2016 sheriff’s race by a Democratic challenger and was trounced in a 2018 U.S. Senate race, has based much of his campaign around his support for President Donald Trump.
He has vowed to bring back things that the courts have either deemed illegal or his successor has done away with — immigration crackdowns, a complex of jail tents and other now-discarded trademarks.
“I’m telling you right now: I am going to do 90% of what I did during my 24 years,” Arpaio said. “That’s the way it’s going to be.”
Arpaio and his former second-in-command, Jerry Sheridan, are considered front-runners in GOP primary. Glendale Officer Mike Crawford and Mesa security guard Lehland Burton also are seeking the Republican nomination.
The winner will go to face Democrat Paul Penzone, who crushed Arpaio in 2016 and is running unopposed in his primary.
Arpaio and Sheridan were forced out of the agency amid heavy criticism for being found in civil contempt of court for disobeying a judge’s order 2011 to stop Arpaio’s traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.
Arpaio said he’s out to prove his 2016 defeat was a fluke. But he has far less campaign money than he used to have and acknowledges some voters don’t even know he’s on the ballot this year.
Sheridan, who said Arpaio backed out a promise to support him, said his 38 years in law enforcement could help turn around a tarnished agency and insisted that he is his own man.
“I would argue with him when I disagreed with him,” Sheridan said. “A lot of the time he would listen to what I said. Other times he would brush me off. I am not Joe Arpaio.”
Mike O’Neil, a longtime Arizona pollster who has followed Arpaio’s career, believes general election voters would vote down Arpaio. But he said it’s an open question whether primary voters — his most faithful supporters — would reject him. “In a Republican primary, it’s anybody’s guess,” O’Neil said.
Over the last seven years, the sheriff’s office has been undergoing a court-ordered overhaul after a judge ruled sheriff’s deputies had racially profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s immigration patrols. The civil contempt findings against Arpaio and Sheridan were made in the profiling case.
Arpaio was later convicted of criminal contempt for defying the order, but he was spared a possible jail sentence when Trump pardoned him. Sheridan wasn’t charged with criminal contempt.
Arpaio and Sheridan vigorously dispute the contempt findings. Sheridan said he was unaware of the highly publicized court order and didn’t run the unit that carried out the immigration patrols.
Taxpayer costs from the case are projected to reach $178 million by next summer. No one in county government can say when the spending will subside or end.
A report on the agency’s traffic enforcement said stops of Hispanic and Black drivers in 2019 were more likely to last longer and result in searches than those of white drivers.
Penzone declined to an interview request.
Crawford, a 28-year police veteran who works as a patrol officer, said the scandals stemming from the profiling case drove him to run. “We definitely need to get rid of those types of behavior in law enforcement,” he said.
Burton, a write-in candidate who hasn’t worked in law enforcement, said the agency’s biggest challenge is its biased treatment of Blacks and Hispanics.
Burton said he can speak credibly to those who have been discriminated against because he’s an outsider to police culture and, as a Black man, has been hassled and mistreated by officers in the past.
Arpaio’s political liabilities have been piling up for years: $147 million in taxpayer-funded legal bills, a failure to investigate more than 400 sex-crimes complaints made to the office and launching criminal investigations against judges, politicians and others who were at odds with him.
His first political comeback attempt ended badly when he placed third in a 2018 U.S. Senate primary, even losing his adopted hometown of Fountain Hills.
Though Arpaio is leading among sheriff’s candidates in fundraising with $1.2 million — most of his donations came from other states — the total pales in comparison to the $10 million he raised at this point in 2016.
Arpaio said he remains mentally sharp and physically healthy. If he were to win and serve the full four years, he would finish that term six months before his 93rd birthday.
He is quick to point out that 77-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden and 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continue to work as they are getting up in age.
“No one is indispensable,” Arpaio said. “If I die in office, then you appoint someone else.”