Carmen Robles has a beef with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. A 15-year-old sophomore at Tempe High School just outside of Phoenix, Robles is a straight-A student and, thanks to C.S.I., an aspiring forensics analyst who chats happily about her trip last year to see a cadaver at Grand Canyon University. She’s also an undocumented immigrant, from Tempe by way of Nogales, Mexico, who came to the United States with her mom eight years ago on a tourist visa and never left. Over the last three years, as Arpaio’s stepped up his crusade against undocumented immigrants, they’ve started to feel the squeeze: “She’s giving taxes to the government and they’re still trying to take her away,” Robles says.
So Robles has decided to get even. A few months ago, she joined Adiós Arpaio, a union-backed effort aimed at registering Latino voters in Maricopa. Hanging out at shopping malls and low-rider car expos, Robles and her 300 fellow volunteers—almost all Latino high school students—have registered more than 34,000 voters. Now Robles spends most school nights in navy blue nurse scrubs and Chuck Taylors, going door to door in Tempe housing developments to make sure people send in their ballots.
Since winning office two decades ago on an anti-corruption platform, Arpaio has never been reelected by fewer than 12 points. But thanks to a handful of wrongful death lawsuits, allegations of massive civil rights violations, a quixotic birther investigation, and $100 million in misspent funds, Democrats and activists in Maricopa County believe they finally have the votes to throw out America’s most controversial lawman. As Daria Ovide, Adiós Arpaio’s communications director, puts it, the difference between this election and the last one is “we’ve had four more years of the sheriff making an ass out of himself.”
With five days to go until the election, the race is slated to go down as one of the most expensive sheriff’s races in American history, largely on the basis of Arpaio’s $8 million war chest. But against any other candidate, Democratic challenger Paul Penzone’s $530,000 would have been a state record. And anti-Arpaio groups have built a ground game from scratch with help from national groups like the AFL-CIO and UNITE Here ($500,000 in seed money), and found a candidate with compelling credentials who can appeal to Latinos and white suburbanites alike.
Penzone, a 45-year-old veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, is in many ways a natural foil for Arpaio. Trim and young-looking with close cropped black hair, he draws a natural contrast with Arpaio, a 80-year-old with an expanding paunch and a comb-over that looks glued-on. The policy differences are just as stark.
While Arpaio’s office was publicly shamed for mishandling 400 sexual abuse cases—many involving women in predominantly Latino neighborhoods—and forming a Cold Case Posse to investigate President Obama’s birth certificate, Penzone earned his stripes tracking down child molesters and reopening actual cold cases as part of the region’s Silent Witness program. Like Arpaio, Penzone has a fondness for television cameras, regularly appearing as a law enforcement analyst on cable news programs.
“I’ve never had a problem with him personally, but professionally I just felt that his practices were more about sensationalism than law enforcement,” Penzone says during an interview at Leisure World, a sprawling Mesa retirement community where he was campaigning. “It’s gotten to the point where he misrepresents what law enforcement stands for and does a disservice to all those people that put their lives on the line to protect others.”
Penzone says that Arpaio’s budget mismanagement would leave him no choice but to keep the county’s infamous Tent City jail open, but he’d overhaul its operations to crack down on abuse (according to a federal lawsuit, Arpaio’s guards use terms like “Mexican bitches” to refer to Latino inmates). He says he’d put less of an emphasis on immigration raids and pay more attention to violent crimes, like human trafficking. “We used less force to catch drug dealers who had weapons, money, and drugs, than the sheriff does when he goes to a restaurant or a maid service to arrest a few workers who are undocumented,” Penzone says.