Joe Arpaio, Longtime Maricopa County Sheriff, Faces 2 Challengers Who See Opening To Take Him Down

PHOENIX -- Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio held a press conference earlier this month to announce the results of an investigation far outside the realm of his duties: A "posse" he assembled found evidence that President Barack Obama's birth certificate could be a fake.

Those kinds of fishing expeditions and political stunts have garnered Arpaio notoriety and publicity beyond what is typical for a sheriff. They’ve also provided the sheriff's opponents in Maricopa County, Ariz., an opening to remove him from office in November.

Arpaio is being challenged for sheriff by an independent and a Democrat, both of whom say he’s become an embarrassment to their county and Arizona in general. He has held the office since 1992, when he ran as a veteran law enforcement officer and promised to go after drug traffickers.

When he first became sheriff, Arpaio pledged that he wouldn't run for re-election. ''You might call that a weakness," he said back then about his lack of political experience. "But on the other hand, I'm not going to run for re-election, so I don't have to worry about being re-elected. I don't have to worry about politics."

Nineteen years later, at the age of 79, Arpaio is still in office, but his occupancy of the political spotlight has come at a cost.

Following the recent slate of scandals -- the birther investigation; a finding that the sheriff's office neglected 400 sex crimes; and a rebuke from the federal government for violating civil rights, among others -- more national groups are calling for him to step down.

Despite being courted by Mitt Romney in 2008, the presidential candidate didn't seem to want the sheriff's endorsement this time around, and conservative groups have called for him to leave the party. National Review, a conservative magazine, posted an editorial online Wednesday bemoaning the Republicans who associated with Arpaio's "political mental word" and birther "flim-flam."

He's also been targeted by national organizations that want him out of office. National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia said in February that it is time for Arpaio to resign from his post as "America's Worst Sheriff." Another national Latino group, Cafe Con Leche Republicans, has also called for him to resign and leave the GOP.

Arpaio's campaign did not return a request for comment.

One of Arpaio's challengers, a long-time Republican who is registered as an independent, said last month that the sheriff is neglecting his work in law enforcement.

"I'm a little befuddled as to how he's been able to pull the wool over people's eyes this long," candidate Mike Stauffer said of Arpaio's reelections. "I think it's a lot less now that people are convinced that he's doing a good job. I think you're seeing more people becoming skeptical."

The latest Arpaio gambit only heightens this line of attack. In an interview with the Huffington Post at a Phoenix coffee shop, Stauffer called the investigation into the president's birth certificate "a joke.”

Arpaio’s birth certificate investigation comes at a time when there numerous other cases demanding attention. Arpaio's team mishandled more than 400 sex crimes, either minimally investigating them or ignoring them entirely, during the three years leading up to 2007, the Associated Press reported in December 2011. This study came years after the East Valley Tribune reported that the sheriff's office had failed at times to respond quickly or investigate sexual assaults and other crimes in favor of pursuing undocumented immigrants.

Those failures have also put him under siege from Democrats within the state. Progressive organizer Randy Parraz, a former Senate candidate who helped oust S.B. 1070 author and then-state Sen. Russell Pearce, is one of several figures who has now turned his attention toward removing Arpaio from the sheriff’s office

"Here you are unable to investigate sex crimes ... you use our tax dollars to investigate an out-of-state birth certificate?" Parraz said.

Under the self-applied title of "America's Toughest Sheriff," Arpaio led immigration efforts that have been the subject of intense legal wrangling, investigations and reprimands. He is famous for keeping prisoners in "tent cities" outside, sometimes dressing them in pink underwear as a tactic of humiliation.

The Justice Department rebuked Arpaio in December 2011, saying the sheriff engaged in racial profiling and discrimination against Latinos, among other civil rights violations. Later that month, a Latino inmate named Ernest Atencio died in the Maricopa County jail, allegedly during a scuffle with sheriff's deputies.

The tactics have earned him applause among the more hard-line conservatives. But Democrats have long insisted that they are a waste of resources, often made more costly by the lawsuits they produce and the police work they make more difficult. Paul Penzone, a law enforcement officer who is challenging Arpaio as a Democrat, said that sweeps by the sheriff's office often scare undocumented immigrants who could otherwise serve as witnesses to crime.

"He commits considerable resources for the sake of sensationalism to arrest two or three people, where I could use two or three deputies and have the same exact outcome safely," Penzone said during a recent meeting in Phoenix.

Penzone said he did not want to disparage Arpaio's career as a civil servant, although they disagree on many issues. Various frustrations about Arpaio's use of resources made him finally decide to run, he said. But he said he thinks things are shifting against Arpaio in Maricopa County.

"People are more aware of what's occurring behind the scenes as opposed to what's occurring on TV," he said. "Over time, much like a bad relationship, you realize it's unhealthy."