Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has long battled controversy over his tough stance on illegal immigration but may now face his toughest test as he seeks a seventh term as sheriff of the state’s most populous county.
Twenty four years after he was first elected sheriff of Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix, Arpaio goes to voters facing the possibility of criminal sanctions. Last week, a federal judge recommended that he and three others be prosecuted for contempt of court for failing to comply with an order in a racial profiling case.
Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to charge him with contempt, and Arpaio, 84, is widely expected to win at the primary level on August 30. But the man who styles himself as “America’s toughest sheriff" could be in for a close race in the November general election.
“If I didn’t care, I would say ‘Good,” and would let someone else take over,” Arpaio, a Republican, said in an interview with Reuters. “That’s not how I am.”
A tireless campaigner against illegal immigration, Arpaio drew national attention in 1993 for setting up a tent city outside the Maricopa County Jail, where inmates were housed even in the desert heat. He is also known for making prisoners wear pink underwear.
Arpaio's main competition in Tuesday's primary on the Republican side is from Dan Saban, a former police chief of Buckeye, Arizona who has lost to him twice before.
“Right now, we have an organization built around one person and his image and it’s quite disturbing,” said Saban, 60. “I’m compelled as a citizen to offer the voters another choice.”
By the next fiscal year, county taxpayers are projected to have spent $54 million on the on-going federal racial profiling case.
If Arpaio beats Saban on Tuesday, he will go up against Democrat Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer who narrowly lost to Arpaio in 2012.
Penzone says the public is fed up with what he called Arpaio's antics.
“They are just tired of the nonsense,” said Penzone, 49. “They are embracing the opportunity to move forward with a new, innovative and professional law enforcement approach.”
But Arpaio predicts he will win - as he always has.
“Thanks to the voters and the public, I have always survived and I expect I will now.”
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Andrew Hay)