Young and Arrestless

Law enforcement neophyte narrowly fails to make ballot; will continue write-in campaign against Arpaio

Tim Coomer woke up September 11, picked up his morning newspaper, and thought he'd scored a miracle.

A short article headlined "Write-in pops up to challenge Arpaio" that ran in the Arizona Republic's "Election '96" special section reported Coomer had received enough write-in votes in the primary to put his name on the ballot against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the November general election.

"The guy didn't spend any money," an incredulous Arpaio was quoted as saying at election central. "Nobody knew who he was. How do you do that?"

It turns out, however, that Coomer didn't do it.

Yvonne Reed, executive assistant to the Maricopa County recorder, says Coomer received 1,845 write-in votes in the primary election, or almost 400 votes short of the 2,215 he needed to get his name on the ballot as a Democratic challenger to Arpaio, a Republican. Reed said her office did not even begin to tabulate the write-in votes for county sheriff until last Wednesday morning, hours after the Republic story came out.

Coomer, who ran a sporadic, "no budget," one-man campaign to get on the ballot, said he was "obviously sorry to hear it" when he learned through a New Timesreporter of the mistake. But, he said, his spirits had been bolstered by dozens of strangers who called after seeing the article to offer help with his campaign.

"I still plan to run as a write-in candidate in the general election," says Coomer, 24. "I didn't really think I'd get more than 100 votes in the primary, so there's no way I'm going to give up now."

Coomer says he also plans to ask the division of elections for a re-count. Coomer's wife Robyn says she wasn't surprised by her husband's decision to run for sheriff. "I expected him to eventually do something like this," she says. "He's always yelling at the TV."

During a recent interview at his modest north Phoenix home -- which he shares with Robyn and their two-month-old daughter McKenzie Kyla -- Coomer said he made running against Arpaio his 1996 New Year's resolution.

"Let's face it -- our sheriff is a walking publicity stunt. Pink underwear does not reduce crime."

Although he works two jobs -- at a Paradise Valley bakery by day and a pizza joint at night -- this spring Coomer started gathering signatures in his spare time, stumping for signatures outside Valley grocery stores and public libraries.

"I averaged five to ten signatures an hour," he says.

Coomer says he campaigned primarily in north Phoenix. He wanted to hit the Tempe Arts Fair in May, but the starter went out on his car that week. And an attempt to collect signatures at a concert by San Francisco ska band Skankin' Pickle did not go well. "I had people telling me 'I wouldn't want anyone in office who goes to a Skankin' Pickle show.'"

Even though Arpaio thought he was running unopposed in the primary and general elections, he plastered the county with 2,000 "Support Sheriff Joe" campaign signs, which Coomer cites as another example of "Arpaio's self-serving penchant for excess."

Coomer says his campaign strategy for the general election is rather limited: "I can't afford to spend much. I plan to put up a few signs at key locations and challenge Arpaio to a series of public debates."

Asked for his platform, Coomer readily ticks off a five-point program:

"First, eliminate the sheriff's publicity department. [Arpaio] has a four-person publicity team on the county payroll that costs us a quarter of a million dollars a year. Their job is to get him photo ops, and that's a waste of public money.

"Second, scale back the posses. I see the need for the original posses -- the search and rescue volunteers -- and I think I would keep some of the mall patrols, but I would probably phase out the rest of that program. The money spent training these guys is simply not worth the benefit to the county. I mean, $400,000 on bullets alone? That money could be better used.

"Third, I would put a stop to people being brutalized and killed in Maricopa County jails. Look at that guy [Scott] Norberg -- 26 burn marks on his body, including his testicles? That's torture, plain and clear."

Coomer says Maricopa County jails also need to be better prepared to deal with addicts going into withdrawal. "In this county, you are going to have inmates who get dangerously sick from withdrawal, and you need to deal with that reality.

"The jails also need to get rid of those overhanging structures that inmates hang themselves on," he adds.

In August, two inmates hanged themselves in the Madison Street Jail. The deaths came after the U.S. Department of Justice had issued a report warning the Sheriff's Department that it was not doing enough to prevent suicides.

Fourth, Coomer says, he would do away with prisoner chain gangs.

"I'd also get rid of that ridiculous . . . pink neon 'Vacancy' sign outside Tent City. Sell it to a hotel or something and use the money more wisely."

Finally, Coomer says he would direct county law enforcement officers to concentrate less on "victimless crimes," especially misdemeanor drug possession.

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