PHOENIX — Maricruz Ramirez can’t even vote, but she’s doing everything she can to get others to turn out on Election Day to defeat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
An illegal immigrant from Mexico, Ms. Ramirez led a group of immigrant rights activists Saturday as they went door to door, hoping to find young or infrequent voters they could entice to turn out, emboldened by the prospect of taking out the Republican lawman who’s been dubbed “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
This could well be the year.
After cruising to election in his first five races, Sheriff Arpaio barely topped 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2012, and Paul Penzone — the Democrat who was part of that three-way race the last time — is leading the sheriff in the latest polling this year. In fact, it’s not even close: An Arizona State University/Arizona Republic poll released last week put Mr. Penzone at 45.9 percent support and Sheriff Arpaio at just 31.1 percent.
Some analysts have questioned that poll’s sample — and the timing. It was taken just as the Justice Department announced it was pursuing criminal contempt charges against the sheriff, accusing him of continuing racial profiling against Hispanics despite a court settlement that ordered him to cease.
Sheriff Arpaio calls the accusations “a bunch of garbage” and said it wasn’t a coincidence the charges were announced the day early voting started. He said his opponents, ranging from the Obama administration to billionaire liberal crusader George Soros and immigration activists, are pulling out all the stops to defeat him.
“They’ve been after me since Day One for doing my job,” he says in a new campaign commercial. “This is all politics. Hillary gets a free pass, but they’re coming after me?”
The sheriff might have been a juicy target no matter what, but in 2016 — the year of Donald Trump — he’s all the more ripe for the attacks.
Long before Mr. Trump won the GOP’s presidential nominee by staking out a law-and-order stance and vowing to get tough on illegal immigration, Sheriff Arpaio was doing it.
He set up tent cities as jails, even in Phoenix’s punishing summer heat, and issued pink underwear to inmates. He also brought back chain gangs.
On immigration he pioneered a crackdown at the local level, including training officers to enforce federal immigration laws and having his deputies raid workplaces where he suspected illegal immigrants were working under false identities — a violation of state law.
But the federal government nixed its training program, and the sheriff was forced to cancel his workplace raids under pressure from a federal court that said the state laws were likely unconstitutional.
Most recently, a federal judge said the sheriff was thumbing his nose at a court order demanding he take steps to halt his deputies’ racial profiling during their stops. The judge recommended criminal contempt charges, and the Obama administration agreed to pursue those charges earlier this month.
Further deepening the Trump-Arpaio comparison is both men’s work in questioning the circumstances of President Obama’s birth — long after the president released his birth certificate. Sheriff Arpaio in 2012 had his cold case posse dig into the certificate the White House posted online, and as late as this summer, the sheriff said he still had questions about the president’s birth.
When Sheriff Arpaio endorsed Mr. Trump during the GOP’s presidential primary, it seemed to ignite the perfect storm in Arizona.
But Sheriff Arpaio waves off the comparisons, pointing out that he’s been in politics for decades, has a long record to run on and has built up a deep well of support from many of his constituents.
“I’m the lone ranger. I ride alone,” he told The Washington Times as he waited to speak Saturday at a political picnic. “You don’t see people endorsing me. I mean, I could, but I don’t. I go to the people.”
There are hundreds of thousands of voters who have literally never known another sheriff in their lives. The Census Bureau in 1990 — two years before the sheriff’s first election victory — put the county’s population at 2.1 million. Today it stands at 4.2 million, making it the nation’s fourth-largest.
The Hispanic population has grown even faster, from 345,000 in 1990 to 1.3 million now — or nearly a third of the county’s residents.
“Some people in this state have lived their entire lives with Arpaio as sheriff. We are about to knock his ass out,” said Marisa Franco, one of the leaders of Bazta Arpaio, the immigrant rights groups’ effort to unseat the sheriff.
Some 200,000 residents turned 18 since the last sheriff’s election, and this year alone the groups say more than 150,000 Hispanics have registered to vote — nearly twice the sheriff’s 80,000-vote margin of victory in the last election.
“This is the time that the community is fed up. In the past there was a lot of fear; the community didn’t come out. The community has lost the fear,” Ms. Ramirez, one of those preparing to canvas this weekend, said through a translator.
An illegal immigrant who’s been in Maricopa County for 15 years, Ms. Ramirez said her family has had its own run-ins with Sheriff Arpaio. She said a relative was working at an auto mechanic’s shop when deputies raided it. Most of the employees ran, but her relative hid out for more than a day, sleeping in his hiding place to avoid being nabbed.
Fernando Lopez, 25, said he himself was picked up by deputies and put into deportation proceedings under Sheriff Arpaio’s old agreement to help enforce federal immigration law. Mr. Lopez was eventually released on bond and, after four years, had his case closed — though he’s still here without status, and does not have a work permit.
He said the Arpaio race is a chance for his community to flex its muscle.
“With this movement, we want to prove we can take him down,” Mr. Lopez said.
Where a decade ago illegal immigrants were likely to remain in the shadows, hundreds of thousands have stepped forward, protected by Mr. Obama’s deportation policies, and made their voices heard.
Led by young illegal immigrants, dubbed the Dreamers, they’ve taken spots in the first lady’s box at the State of the Union, have protested on the streets outside the Capitol and have fought in the courts for legal protections.
“For so long people tried to be invisible, keep your head down. But when they go after you, nobody notices. That happened for too long. When the Dreamers started to come out, that took a lot of courage, but that created a narrative,” Mr. Lopez said.
Immigration has bedeviled the GOP for years, and Arizona is no exception. Even as Sheriff Arpaio pushed for a crackdown and the state legislature passed laws testing the limits of enforcement, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, led the push for the 2013 immigration legalization bill in Congress.
Mr. Trump’s candidacy has deepened the rift. Mr. Flake never backed the billionaire businessman in the presidential race, and has in fact been one of his more vocal critics from Congress. Mr. McCain, who is running for his sixth term this year, backed Mr. Trump earlier in the general election, then withdrew his support after a tape emerged of Mr. Trump bragging in 2005 about unwanted groping of women.
Mr. Flake attended Saturday’s political picnic and shook hands with Mr. Penzone, though he did not appear to exchange words with Sheriff Arpaio. Mr. Penzone, the Democrat running for sheriff, even slipped his business card to the senator.
Afterward, several Republican women came up to Mr. Flake to tell him they were upset he wasn’t backing the GOP team, and insisting they won’t vote for him in 2018, when he’s up for re-election.
Worse yet for Republicans, Democrats say the state is on the verge of becoming purple — one of the perennial swing states.
Hillary Clinton is making a major push to win Arizona, including running a full slate of commercials attacking Mr. Trump as unfit for office. A cash-strapped Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is not on the air — though an outside group has started running ads attacking Mrs. Clinton.
Dominating the airwaves, however, is Sheriff Arpaio. It’s impossible to watch the local news and not see several Arpaio ads. The most prominent one touts his deputies’ work in going after deadbeat parents, but the campaign has also added a new one with the sheriff complaining about the Justice Department’s attacks.
All of that is fueled by the sheriff’s prolific fundraising. As a national figure, he’s able to tap donors across the county, and had raised more than $12 million as of late September. Mr. Penzone had raised about $540,000.
“The sheriff’s going to spend more on advertising than the national candidates,” said Richard Herrera, a political scientist at Arizona State University.
Almost forgotten for many of the sheriff’s critics is the man who would replace him, Mr. Penzone, a former Phoenix Police Department sergeant.
He has vowed to end what he calls Sheriff Arpaio’s “extracurricular nonsense” — and particularly the court battles over civil rights violations. Through 2015 Sheriff Arpaio had racked up $142 million in legal fees, settlement payouts and court costs, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.
“A lot of his decisions have been based off of trying to promote his own notoriety, or creating political leverage to keep him in office,” Mr. Penzone says of his opponent. “There is no place for politics in law enforcement. Law enforcement should be nonpartisan.”
Mr. Penzone said the anti-Arpaio effort is “an obvious wind to my sails,” but said he’s seen evidence voters also know more about his own record as challenger, compared to 2012, when he first ran to unseat the sheriff.
“When I go to events now, it’s so much more common for people to come up and say, ‘I’ve done my homework, I know who you are, I am a Republican and I used to vote for Joe, but I’m done with him, and I believe in you because I think you’ll do a good job,’” the challenger said.