Latinos in Maricopa County want a new sheriff in town.
And they’re hoping retired police officer Paul Penzone will be the one to stop Joe Arpaio, “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” from obtaining a sixth term in Arizona’s most populous county.
In the months leading up to election day on Tuesday, activists have gone door-to-door registering Latinos and advocating for the Democratic candidate that continues to poll behind Arpaio. Penzone, 45, has campaigned against the 80-year-old Republican Sheriff citing his actions concerning undocumented immigrants as publicity stunts that prevent him from focusing on public safety issues.
When Penzone was a teenager, his parents, of Italian descent, moved the family from New Jersey to Arizona. In 1988 he joined the Phoenix Police Department, during his 21 years as an officer he worked in drug enforcement and managed the Silent Witness Program, which rewards individuals who help the police solve cases, according to The New York Times.
Three years after leaving the police department, Penzone is going head-to-head with one of the most well-known and controversial figures in the state. On his campaign website, the former police officer questions the priorities of the current Sheriff:
The Arpaio of today is not the same man this county elected 20 years ago. He lost his way. Paul Penzone will usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He will restore integrity. And he will make public safety the highest priority – above posturing, politics or publicity.
According to the Spanish newswire Efe, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is the only law enforcement agency in Arizona to raid businesses in search of undocumented workers.
"I think the only purpose of these operations is to get the attention of the media,” Penzone told Efe. “In no way is it fighting crime."
Polls place Penzone between 5 and 15 percentage points behind Arpaio according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and an October poll for Project New America, “a Denver based research group with Democratic ties,” reported that 40 percent of those surveyed didn’t know who Penzone was.
“You know what my secret is? They are,” Arpaio told Bloomberg Businessweek as he motioned towards the crowd at a Mesa Community College Republicans’ candidate rally on October 27. “They can go after me from the president on down with all their garbage, but it is them -- them -- that get me elected.” (Watch video above)
Reuters reported Arpaio’s campaign collected $8.5 million, due in large part to the popularity the Sheriff holds with the Phoenix-area Tea Party conservatives, while Penzone raised $527,000. Despite the Democratic candidate’s lower financial support and his struggle with name recognition, Penzone hopes the Latino vote will help him win on November 6.
Over the past six months high school students, labor unions, religious groups, and advocacy organizations, like Adiós Arpaio and Joe’s Got to Go, have united to register 34, 327 Latino voters in an effort to end Arpaio’s 20 year career as Sheriff of Maricopa County, according to The New York Times.
Many Latinos against the Sheriff’s reelection cite Arpaio’s civil rights violations against the Hispanic community as a reason to rally against a sixth term. Earlier this year, Arpaio’s controversial tactics against undocumented immigrants brought about a class-action civil rights trial and a federal lawsuit that accused him of racial profiling.
"When you try to do your job, and you are a little controversial, some people don't like it. That's the way it is," Arpaio told Reuters recently on the sidelines of a rally in Phoenix.
Arpaio has retaliated against Penzone with ads pointing to a domestic violence altercation in 2003 between him and his ex-wife. The ad vividly portrays the Democratic candidate as having assaulted his former spouse and says that, despite Penzone’s attempt to explain the incident, “there’s no excuse for hitting a woman.”
In a police report, Penzone declares that it was his former wife who struck him with a hockey stick. The incident occurred during a custody battle over their son but, according to The New York Times, there were no charges or reprimands. Still, the judge declared him “a credible threat to the safety” of his ex-wife and ordered him to give up his weapons.
Penzone’s own ads attack the Sheriff for the 400 sex crimes, including reports of child molestation, between 2005 and 2007 that the Associated Press reported in December as inadequately investigated or ignored.
"Mommy told me there were a lot of kids like me that Sheriff Joe didn't help," the voiceover in the ad says. "He says he's tough on crime, but I don't believe him. My uncle could come back."
At the time Arpaio’s office denied to comment pending an internal investigation of the accusations.
"I don't think it's right to get into it until we get to the bottom of this and see if there's disciplinary action against any employees," Arpaio told the Associated Press.
Latinos continue to canvass voters for the Sheriff’s opponent as the two parties’ campaigning winds down. Penzone says he recognizes that fear of deportation has translated into a fear of the Sheriff’s Office on the part of the Latino community and among the children and relatives of undocumented immigrants.
"It's time for a change. I feel that the forces of order represent something extraordinary in our society,” Penzone told Efe. “The community should have confidence in our police officers and I think that is lacking in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office."