By FERNANDA SANTOS - Published: November 2, 2012
Paul Penzone, who is challenging Joe Arpaio in the race for Maricopa County Sheriff, speaks during a campaign event in Mesa, Arizona on October 25.
PHOENIX — This election year, community activists working to get more Latinos to turn out and vote have enlisted the help of an unwitting ally: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the brash-talking embodiment of the battles over illegal immigration in Arizona and beyond.
When they knock on doors — trying, at first, to persuade Latinos to join voter rolls, and later returning to make sure they cast their ballots — the activists resort to the same question to drive the conversation: Don’t you want Sheriff Arpaio out of office?
¶Then, they deliver their pitch — Have you heard of his opponent, Paul Penzone?
¶The activists, organized under catchy names like Adiós Arpaio and Joe’s Got to Go, are a motley mixture: members of religious groups, labor unions and advocacy organizations, as well as high school students who are mostly too young to vote. They were brought together by timing, circumstance and a common goal that, to a lot of them, rings awfully close to home.
¶Felix Trejo’s father was deported to Mexico three years ago, after he was caught driving without a license by Sheriff Arpaio’s deputies. In 2010, Yaraneth Marin’s father was also deported, after deputies acting on a court order rounded up several of her relatives at home. Jacqueline Garcia’s grandfather, who had been raising her and her brother, was deported in May, after deputies arrested him for some type of traffic violation that she could not describe.
¶“I know how it feels,” Jacqueline, 15, often tells the prospective voters she meets on the hours she spends canvassing. She knocks on doors every evening after classes at Carl Hayden Community High School, where she is a sophomore.
¶By their count, the activists registered 34,327 Latino voters over the past six months. Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said the sheriff’s race and a Senate contest featuring Richard H. Carmona, a Hispanic Democrat, are expected to drive up turnout among Latino voters.
¶Other signs already pointed to a hard-fought election for Sheriff Arpaio, 80, whose jurisdiction is Maricopa County. Just this year, he has been on trial over allegations of civil rights violations against Latinos, who accused him of targeting them in raids and traffic stops. The Justice Department sued him on the same grounds, and other lawsuits have been filed, by inmates and inmates’ families, claiming mistreatment in the county jails.
¶Throughout his tenure — he was first elected in 1992 — Sheriff Arpaio has welcomed the criticism brought by his directives, like outfitting inmates in pink underwear, creating a female chain gang and unabashedly using the powers vested in him by the laws of the state to pursue illegal immigrants.
¶“He has been in office long enough to have alienated an awful lot of people,” Mr. Merrill said. “But the key thing to understand is that nobody here in Arizona knows who Paul Penzone is. This is a race of Joe Arpaio against Joe Arpaio.”
¶Mr. Penzone, 45, a Democrat, retired from the Phoenix Police Department three years ago after 21 years on the force, much of it working as an undercover narcotics officer and as a manager to its Silent Witness program, which offers rewards to people who help the authorities solve crimes. He is, however, very much a stranger among many voters.
¶When Yaraneth, 16, asked a woman on whose door she had knocked about Mr. Penzone, the woman replied, “I don’t know much about him.”
¶He has been working to introduce himself to voters bit by bit. He has hosted events in Fountain Hills, where Sheriff Arpaio lives, and in El Mirage, where the sheriff’s officefailed to properly investigate a number of sex crimes.
¶A few weeks ago, Mr. Penzone spoke to 50 voters in Sun City, a retirement community just outside Phoenix and one of Sheriff Arpaio’s staunchest strongholds. Last week, he spoke to a group of voters who had helped start the effort to recall Russell K. Pearce, a former state senator who was the primary sponsor of the state’s controversial immigration bill. Mr. Penzone’s Web site prominently features a “Republicans for Penzone” link.
¶“The plan is to stay strong in our message, to define who I am and to ensure there’s honesty in the sheriff’s message,” Mr. Penzone said in an interview.
¶Sheriff Arpaio does not engage in traditional campaigning. He speaks or makes an appearance wherever he is invited, his campaign manager, Chad Willems, said. The invitations come often: the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation Ride for Kids in Phoenix on Oct. 21, the Real Estate Securities Symposium in neighboring Scottsdale on Oct. 22, the Fall Festival apple pie contest in Anthem on Oct. 27, and the dedication of a new Elks Lodge building in Mesa on Oct. 28. And those are just the ones he mentioned on his Twitter feed.
¶“He’s in high demand,” Mr. Willems said.
¶He also has a lot of money — $8.5 million at last count, way more than any other candidate vying for local elected office in the history of the state. His ads are all over television, portraying him as a devoted husband, highlighting his experience before his election to sheriff (he worked for years for the Drug Enforcement Administration) and telling voters about a piece of Mr. Penzone’s past that they may not have known — a domestic violence incident involving his former wife that resulted in orders of protection issued against both.
¶Mr. Penzone said she struck him with hockey sticks. She told the police that he pushed her against the door. A judge found Mr. Penzone to represent “a credible threat to the safety” of his ex-wife and ordered him to surrender his weapons, according to court documents.
¶In the interview, Mr. Penzone played down the episode, saying that it happened “more than 10 years ago” and that “there were no charges” or reprimands against him from that time, when he was still a police officer.
¶He and his supporters have labored to counter the barrage of Arpaio campaign ads over the past month with boots on the ground. Teams of volunteers fan across Latino enclaves every day; sometimes they get doors slammed in their faces, though other times they get to come in and help someone fill out a ballot received by mail. (Early voting is expected to account for roughly 60 percent of all votes cast in Arizona.)
¶Small victories charge them up. One afternoon, on the courtyard of a public housing development in South Phoenix, Yaraneth high-fived Mr. Trejo as they got one man to commit to casting a vote against Sheriff Arpaio.
¶“Jan Brewer, she’s next,” said Ms. Marin, referring to the state’s Republican governor, who has been tough on illegal immigration.