Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio Faces a Criminal Charge and a Community Working to Unseat Him

According to local activist Alejandra Gomez, racism and xenophobia allegations have trailed Arpaio for years.

Arpaio is running for his seventh term as sheriff, and earlier this week he told the Arizona Republic he expects to be re-elected. However, recent polling information suggests the race will be close. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

After federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that they will file a criminal contempt charge against Arizona’s notorious Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, for violating a court order stemming from a 2007 racial profiling case, the sheriff told local media the charge was “strictly a political attack” on his campaign.

Arpaio told the Arizona Republic he did nothing wrong. He said, “I am not going to surrender. I am going to fight this all the way.”

News of the impending charge came the day before early voting was set to begin in Arizona. Arpaio is running for his seventh term as sheriff, and earlier this week he told the Arizona Republic he expects to be re-elected. However, recent polling information suggests the race will be close.

A poll from Sherpa Public Affairs conducted earlier this month, October 2-5, found Arpaio is “losing among men (38%-55%), independents (38%-53%) and voters age 50-64 (45%-51%).” And last month, an Arizona Republic poll of registered voters in the state found that a little more than half of voters view Arpaio unfavorably, especially in Maricopa County. Fifty-seven percent of Maricopa County respondents expressed an “unfavorable opinion” of Arpaio, with 54 percent statewide expressing the same. The poll also showed that the sheriff is viewed least favorably by women and college-educated voters, and is “extremely unpopular” with Democrats, Latinos, and young voters.

Arpaio’s challenger in this election is Paul Penzone, a retired Phoenix police sergeant who nearly beat the sheriff in 2012 and is currently polling better than Arpaio. The Democrat has vowed not to conduct raids on undocumented communities, saying in a 2012 meeting with activists, “There’s only so much money that can be spent to address deportations. I am not going to waste those dollars on people who are here pursuing citizenship or job opportunities and other things and not involved in criminal activities.”

Meanwhile, Arpaio has been accused by federal prosecutors of intentionally violating a court order resulting from a lengthy class-action lawsuit filed against the sheriff in 2007. In the case, Melendres v. Arpaio, a group of Maricopa County Latinos say they were targeted by Arpaio’s deputies for “illegal-immigration sweeps” during traffic stops, as Mother Jones reported:

In 2011, Snow ordered Arpaio and his deputies to quit detaining suspected undocumented immigrants who had not broken any state laws. In 2013, Snow ruled that Arpaio and his deputies had discriminated against Latinos and also that Arpaio had violated the 2011 order in part to bolster his popularity during the 2012 election.

In May this year, Snow ruled that Arpaio had continued to arbitrarily detain Latinos based solely on immigration suspicions and held him in civil contempt, which left the door open for a criminal contempt referral that took place on August 19.

During that hearing, Snow said that Arpaio and his chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, “have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case.” Snow also said there was “probable cause” to believe that “many if not all of the statements” made by Arpaio under oath “were made in an attempt to obstruct any inquiry into their further wrongdoing or negligence.”

Now that an official charge by federal prosecutors is pending, Arpaio could face up to six months of jail time. The trial is slated to begin December 6 and the sheriff’s attorney told the Arizona Republic that if charged with criminal contempt, Arpaio intends to plead not guilty.

According to local activist Alejandra Gomez, racism and xenophobia allegations have trailed Arpaio for years. In a phone interview with Rewire, Gomez, who is on the board of People United for Justice, the coalition behind the Bazta Arpaio campaign working to unseat Arpaio, said she was “called into action” as an organizer in 2008. At this time, Arpaio was grabbing headlines for making those imprisoned wear pink underwear and work in chain gangs. But it was when the sheriff’s department began engaging in workplace raids that Gomez knew she had to get involved.

“I just remember him calling news crews to televise the raids. He had moms being filmed being put in handcuffs and loaded into buses to be deported,” the organizer said.

But for Gomez, it was more than just a political issue; it was personal, because of her mixed-status family. Gomez’s father was undocumented when in 1994, her family left California for Arizona, fleeing Proposition 187, a successful ballot initiative proposing a state-run immigration system. The measure, which hasn’t been enforced due to a permanent injunction, also prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining public education and accessing non-emergency health care.

“Proposition 187 was basically just an earlier version of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010,” Gomez said, referencing one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws to ever emerge in the country. Arpaio was one of the law’s biggest supporter.

“Arpaio has been the perpetrator of this in our community for so long. He has been racially profiling an entire community and he’s created such deep fear,” she said.

Even if Arpaio is unseated, Gomez continued, it will take Latino and immigrant communities in Maricopa County years to recover from his time as sheriff. People of color distrust the justice system and are afraid to call the police, Gomez said, and undocumented community members are afraid to report crimes committed against them. For example, more than 400 sexual assault cases reported to Arpaio’s office from 2004 to 2007, including dozens of child molestations, were not only poorly investigated, but sometimes not worked at all, according to a 2011 Associated Press report. A retired police official told the AP that many of the victims were children of undocumented parents.

Much like how her family fled California, Gomez said that as a result of SB 1070, there were entire neighborhoods in Phoenix that felt like ghost towns. “Entire neighborhoods were scared out of the state, and that tore a lot of families apart,” she said.

But SB 1070 also mobilized Latino communities in the state and they turned their fear into action, Gomez said.

When canvassing neighborhoods, volunteers with Bazta Arpaio tell community members that if they were ever personally hurt by anti-immigrant policies, if their families or neighbors were, voting is a way they can fight back.

Not everyone in Maricopa County is receptive to their message, however. Gomez said that the reason Arpaio has been re-elected six times is because many voters believe the narrative that the sheriff has spun: undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals that need to be deported. This is a narrative also pushed by the GOP, which invited Arpaio to speak during the Republican National Convention.

What is often overlooked in anti-immigrant conversations, Gomez told Rewire, is that the demographics of Arizonaand the United States—are rapidly shifting. The Center for American Progress estimates that 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year. Given that Arizona has one of the highest Mexican populations in the country—a population increasingly mobilized to vote against those spouting anti-immigrant sentiments—the odds may be stacked against such elected officials.

“[On Wednesday], it was late at night and I was still at the office and it just kind of hit me,” Gomez said. “This is really happening. The community is fighting back because they’re enraged by everything that is happening in this election. I realized we really have a shot [at voting Arpaio out], and I haven’t felt that [confident] in six years.”