Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-described “toughest sheriff in America,” is facing Arizona voters for the first time this fall since his state became ground zero in the national debate over immigration reform, following passage of Arizona’s hardline anti-immigration bill that was gutted by the Supreme Court in June.
Arpaio has made a national name for himself by making the issue of illegal immigration the centerpiece of his administration, replete with high-profile, televised raids on suspected undocumented workers in his jurisdiction. Arpaio’s tactics have led to accusations of anti-Hispanic racial profiling and charges of political grandstanding.
Democrat Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer, has emerged as the incumbent sheriff’s biggest challenger. 80-year-old Arpaio seeks a sixth term while fending off two lawsuits alleging racially biased policing. But Arpaio, speaking at the Republican National Convention this summer, rejected the idea that his style of law enforcement has driven a wedge between Republicans and America’s growing Latino population.
No reliable independent polling has been conducted in the race, but Arpaio’s name recognition and fundraising prowess are expected to benefit him as voters go to the polls today. Arpaio's fame (or infamy) and funds may serve as much-needed firewall against Penzone’s surging campaign and ramped up criticism from local and national Latino groups.
Arpaio, a favorite of state and national conservatives, stepped into the brouhaha over the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate this summer. He launched an investigation into the president’s citizenship status. According to the sheriff, he turned up evidence that Obama’s birth documents have been forged.
Penzone has accused Arpaio of taking on issues to raise his national profile and failing to address the issues he was elected to solve. Penzone has tried to garner support from area liberals and Latino voters fed up with Arpaio’s hyperfocus on immigration, promising to return the sheriff’s office to a responsible law enforcement unit.