Paul Penzone Can Beat Arpaio, If He Turns Up the Heat
Former Phoenix police sergeant and onetime Silent Witness frontman Paul Penzone rarely shows any doubt that he will be successful in his bid to deny Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio an unprecedented sixth term in office.
He sometimes begins sentences with the phrase, "After I'm elected," and Penzone, 45, has some reason to be confident, with early voting set to begin October 11 and about a month left before Election Day.
A recent poll commissioned by his campaign shows him within six points of overcoming Arpaio. And the octogenarian lawman is beset with frequent reminders of his failures in office, the most serious being the MCSO's neglecting to properly investigate more than 400 sex crimes in El Mirage and elsewhere, a scandal that, despite its age, continues to be fodder for local journalists.
New Times cover story
See a slideshow of Paul Penzone to accompany this story.
The Penzone campaign also has raised more money than any of Arpaio's previous challengers, more than $400,000 to date, enough to afford a smattering of ad buys for commercials attacking Arpaio on the MCSO's El Mirage sex-crimes debacle.
Penzone's garnered a long list of high-profile endorsements from Democrats and Republicans, the latter including such GOPers as former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and ex-U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton. Rich donors, some of them Republicans, have committed to his next big fundraiser on October 9.
Independent expenditure committees, such as Citizens for Professional Law Enforcement and Citizens for a Better Arizona, are operating on his behalf. And the union-funded youth movement Adios Arpaio recently registered more than 20,000 new voters, whom the movement's volunteers will encourage to vote for Penzone.
Add to this a surge in the polls for Richard Carmona, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Arizona, as well as for President Barack Obama, who is trailing Republican Mitt Romney in Arizona by just three points.
Even here in our redder-than-red state, there is deep disenchantment with divisive, hateful Tea Party politics. The 2011 recall of former state Senate President and Tea Party poster boy Russell Pearce, and GOP voters' rejection of him in a Republican primary for state Senate this August, offers the most prominent local example.
Still, the odds are stacked against Penzone. Arpaio has millions in his re-election war chest, and, consequently, has been able to afford a barrage of misleading, feel-good ads about himself, some filled with outright lies — like the ridiculous contention that he was kidnapped while an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
One recent poll shows Arpaio's favorability rating to be under 50 percent. But there's an Olivia Cortes-like spoiler in the mix: Republican-turned-Independent Mike Stauffer, who lent himself $40,000 to pay for help in collecting the signatures necessary to get on the general election ballot.
Perhaps that's why Penzone's absolute certainty about victory occasionally wanes, as it did recently after he appeared before a group of voters at Scottsdale Community College.
I had parked in a different lot, and Penzone offered me a lift back to my car in his black SUV. On the floor were a pair of boxing gloves that he uses during regular workouts with a trainer.
Unlike the roly-poly Arpaio, Penzone is a lean 6-foot-1 and very active. He regularly hikes North Mountain or Piestewa Peak with a friend from the DEA, and he likes to ride bikes with his wife, Veronica, a statuesque brunette who owns one of the most successful high-end beauty salons in the Valley.
She's the one who challenged Penzone to run for sheriff after she overheard him complaining about Joe's antics, a story that's part of his standard stump speech.
I mention to Penzone my annoyance with the U.S. Attorney's Office's recently dropping its criminal investigation against Arpaio. In doing so, the feds not only delivered an election-season gift to the sheriff, they gave him a green light to resume his illegal shenanigans, possibly to perp-walk his enemies on bogus charges in the future, as he's done so often in the past
Which is but one reason the sheriff's race is so important.
In response, Penzone explained how, the other night, he opened a Bible, haphazardly, to 1 Samuel, Chapter 17, the story of David and Goliath and their death battle in the Valley of Elah.
It's an obvious analogy. One that inspires Penzone. He recently posted a black-and-white illustration of the Israelite shepherd, sling in hand, facing off against the giant, battle-hardened Philistine warrior, next to a message board in his campaign office with the reminder "Don't eff it up," written in blue ink.
"I've just got to aim that stone right for Goliath's forehead," he said metaphorically.
In the Bible, Goliath demands a mano a mano contest to determine whether the Philistines become slaves of the Israelites, or vice versa. David, a shepherd boy, presents himself to King Saul, asking to take on the Philistine.
Saul observes that David probably will get killed, but he offers the kid armor nonetheless. David eschews the heavy metal, takes his sling, and chooses five smooth stones from a nearby brook.
The point being that Penzone is the best shot we have of ridding ourselves of an egotistical tyrant whose office is mired in waste, fraud, abuse of power, and outright laziness.
Over the past several years, Arpaio, with the help of fired ex-Chief Deputy David Hendershott, swiped $100 million from taxpayer-protected funds to pay for the sheriff's pet projects, which most definitely did not include investigating hundreds of sex crimes victimizing Maricopa County women and children.
Add to that amount the more than $50 million in lawsuit costs, settlements, and payouts because of deaths in Maricopa County jails, the harassment of Arpaio's enemies and critics, and his bigoted policies targeting county Latinos.
And there will be more to come, from legal actions still pending on various cases, from the Tasing and beat-down killing of Army veteran Marty Atencio to the ongoing lawsuit over the death of diabetic jail inmate Deborah Braillard to the $30 million notice of claim against the county by a victim of repeated rape and incest, whose case was shelved by MCSO investigators on orders from on high.
The county can no longer afford the price tag of Arpaio's bread and circuses, his unslakable ego, and his criminal dereliction of duty.
Arpaio repeatedly and arrogantly has violated public trust, the U.S. Constitution, and his oath of office to protect and serve.
Four more years of Sheriff Joe will further empty public coffers. The dead will continue to pile up in his lockups. And the sheriff's backward, Third World mentality will persist in retarding public life in Maricopa County.
One mark of a good candidate is stamina, and Penzone's appearance at SCC demonstrated that he has it.
He'd been up since 6 a.m., when he was scheduled for an interview with an East Coast website. And his day was filled, as it has been since he declared his intention to run, with appearances, fundraisers, meetings and — perhaps most importantly — making calls to prospective donors.
Penzone is seated before the crowd with two other candidates, 6th Congressional District hopeful Matt Jette (on the ballot as a Dem, though recently he declared he's an Independent) and David Ortega, running for county supervisor against Republican Steve Chucri in District 2.
Chucri has sent a stand-in, who, amusingly, cannot answer many of the questions on behalf of his boss. Still, Chucri is one up on Arpaio, who was on the bill but is a no-show.
Arpaio would never appear at the same event with his rival. The contrast between the two men would be too stark.
The sheriff only makes campaign appearances at events where he will be worshipped. To sit next to a younger, more articulate candidate and wait for his turn to speak is something the "shurf" of Maricopa County cannot countenance.
Initially, Penzone looks tired and disinterested, as if skipping the event for a good night's rest would have been a better idea. But after Jette is finished with his opening remarks, it's Penzone's turn, and suddenly it's as if someone replaced his batteries and pushed his "Go" button.
Eight years as the head of the Phoenix Police Department's Silent Witness program, the nonprofit that offers rewards for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of suspects in a host of crimes, from armed robbery to serial murder, has served him well.
He clearly knows how to speak, how to hold an audience with a mixture of anecdotes, pointed remarks, a little autobiography, and the occasional joke. At first, Penzone relates how his Italian-American parents moved to Arizona from New Jersey when he was 10.
"I will playfully tell you that Jersey Shore the TV show does not represent those of us from New Jersey," he offers. "And I will tell you very seriously in the same fashion that our current sheriff does not represent those of us from Arizona."
He discusses his 21 years as a cop, his work as an undercover narcotics officer, and later as a cross-deputized agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, dismantling large drug-dealing organizations with the assistance of federal wiretaps. Plus, he offers a bit of motivation.
Early on in his career, a friend of the family pulled him aside and asked him where his authority as a policeman came from. Penzone replied that the Arizona Revised Statutes and the U.S. and Arizona Constitutions gave it to him.
"He said, 'You're correct, but you're wrong,'" Penzone recalls. "'The reason I say that you're wrong is that the people give you your authority. They're the ones that empower you to act on their behalf.
'"It is a privilege that you must treat with respect and understand that the same person you put handcuffs on or the victim that you care for are the ones that gave you the power to act in that fashion.'"
Penzone's personnel file with the Phoenix PD is testament that he's followed that high-minded advice. His career has been exemplary, his performance reviews glowing. Save for two minor car accidents in his early years, there are no blemishes. There's even a letter from, of all people, Sheriff Arpaio, written to Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, thanking his department, including Penzone, who was then with Silent Witness, for assistance in the capture of a murder suspect and the safe return of two kidnapped children.
Over the years, his supervisors praised him for his crime fighting, his administrative skills, and, interestingly, his compassion.
In one case, while still a patrol officer, he responded to a report of a drunken man who'd fallen in the road and injured his head. The man was supposed to be babysitting an 8-year-old girl, the daughter of the man's girlfriend.
When Penzone checked on the girl, he found her alone in an unlocked apartment with no food and with easily accessible adult medication lying around. The girl's mom could not be located.
According to the commendation in his file, Penzone contacted Child Protective Services, "and arranged to foster the little girl temporarily."
His supervisor found the way he spoke with the child "exceptional."
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
2016 Charles Schwab Cup Championship
TicketsWed., Nov. 9, 9:00am
"He thoughtfully explained the problem to the little girl, and she was very responsive to him," his sergeant wrote.
Later, when Penzone mentions that one of his favorite films is the 2004 thriller Man on Fire, with Denzel Washington playing a former CIA agent who takes a job as a bodyguard to a 9-year-old portrayed by Dakota Fanning, I can see why.
Like many of the better cops out there, Penzone has aspired to be a protector who keeps the weak and innocent from harm.
As a detective and later a sergeant, Penzone won plaudits for more complex law enforcement duties. A 1997 commendation describes how he led an investigation into a criminal organization of meth-dealing white supremacists, authoring a 60-page wiretap affidavit, which led to the conviction of 19 suspects on federal drug-trafficking charges and the eradication of two underground meth labs.
In 2001, a year after being promoted to sergeant, he received a citation for "outstanding supervisor" from then-Police Chief Harold Hurtt for Penzone's command of a police pursuit and capture of three suspects involved in a quadruple homicide. According to one report, the investigation also led to "the rescue of another three victims, who were moments away from being executed by these suspects."
Penzone's organizational and leadership skills caught the attention of Cactus Park Precinct Commander Richard Groeneveld, who recruited Penzone to be his administrative sergeant after noticing how well Penzone handled a scene's perimeter, where a suspect had barricaded himself in his apartment.
Groeneveld told me how an administrative sergeant reports directly to his commander and is responsible for everything that keeps the precinct running, from personnel issues and schedules to the management of supplies, ammunition, and automobiles.
Back then, Groeneveld recently had been assigned to the Cactus Park Precinct, and there had been conflict between the previous administrative sergeant and the officers and supervisors.
"At that time, we had over 200 officers and civilian personnel out of that precinct," Groeneveld said. "I recruited Paul to come in with the explicit purpose of mending those relationships with the people at the precinct."
Penzone was "instrumental in improving morale" and in the smooth operation of the precinct, Groeneveld said.
The former commander no longer is with the PPD. He teaches leadership skills to law enforcement executives nationally and internationally, and he supports his ex-admin sergeant's bid for elective office.
"I'm absolutely convinced that there are two components required for good, effective leadership in a law enforcement organization: competence and character," Groeneveld said. "He'd bring both those things to [a sheriff's office] that is in desperate want and desperate need of them."
After about a year and a half under Groeneveld's command, Penzone was ready for another challenge. He applied to be the supervisor and face of the Silent Witness program, around since 1979, beating out several other sergeants for the position, which seeks the cooperation of the community in solving crimes.
The program was in a rut, but Penzone quickly turned it around, increasing its exposure and developing a Spanish-language component, an increasingly important element, considering Phoenix's burgeoning Latino population.
Within two years of taking over, Penzone was lauded by top brass for a dramatic increase in calls received and resulting arrests. Penzone profiled suspects and described their crimes on countless local and national TV shows.
Penzone, his staff's work, and the resulting tips called in are credited with helping solve the Baseline Killer and Serial Shooter cases. His review for 2007 observed that Silent Witness "helped in solving more crimes than at any time in the program's history."
As a result, he was named the Phoenix PD's Supervisor of the Year, and he nabbed an international award for Program Coordinator of the Year by Crime Stoppers International.
The well-spoken police sergeant became a regular presence on talk programs, such as the syndicated Maury Povich Show and Headline News' Nancy Grace, where he sometimes was asked to comment on high-profile or celebrity cases.
"It was a trade-off," Penzone admitted. "They would ask me to cover cases from around the nation, and, in turn, I could bring a local case and try to solve it.
"The thing that stunk was that sometimes I'd have to talk about something like Lindsay Lohan's [DUI arrests]. It's not fun, but you can't say 'no' if you want to cover the cases that have relevance to the issues you're dealing with."
Such appearances were sharpening his communication chops and increasing his media savvy, which would help him after he resigned from the PPD in 2009 and went on to represent such organizations as the national nonprofit Child Help, which advocates for the prevention of child abuse and assists in its treatment.
After ChildHelp, Penzone worked with the anti-drug outfit notMYkid, which he quit at the end of 2011 to devote himself full time to running for sheriff.
Former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, who supports Penzone's campaign to replace Arpaio, said Penzone's role at Silent Witness was good preparation for the battle ahead.
"It was really a position that required a lot of political skills," Harris said, "in dealing with all the folks at Silent Witness and in dealing with folks in the media."
But what about the criticism that Penzone lacks experience heading a large organization like the MCSO, with more than 3,000 employees, about 3,000 posse members, 7,500 to 10,000 inmates a day in the jails it supervises, and a jurisdiction that covers an area larger than Connecticut?
Also, there's the low point that the MCSO has sunk to under Arpaio.
"Any shortcomings he would have for not being at the top of an organization, those are learned skills," Harris said. "Good judgment is what is going to be the most critical quality, and attitude."
Early on in his campaign, Penzone revealed the details of a 2003 domestic dispute with his ex-wife, which resulted in dueling orders of protection during a difficult divorce, orders later dismissed by the judge in the case ("Arpaio Challenger Comes Clean," July 5).
Detractors made hay online over the issue, and Stauffer, a former Scottsdale Police Department lieutenant whose quixotic bid for office increasingly is seen as an attempt to divert votes from Penzone, mischaracterized the incident in a campaign statement.
It's also anticipated that Arpaio may use the altercation in attack mailers or TV ads.
However, Penzone already has neutralized much of the concern over the matter with his forthrightness. I spoke with female supporters who aren't concerned about the incident, after learning from the Glendale police report that it was Penzone who informed law enforcement about it and that it led to no arrests or prosecutions.
"Does it bother me?" asks Julie Erfle, a Penzone supporter and pundit whose blog, Politics Uncuffed, offers a moderate, independent take on local politics. "No, not really. I think all of us have some incidents in our life that we'd rather forget."
Christina Martinez, a public affairs consultant who recently organized a successful fundraiser for Penzone in Scottsdale, took a similar view. She said she read the police report online and believes both Penzone and his ex-wife bear some responsibility.
"There are a lot of emotions surrounding a child," Martinez told me for this story. "Tensions got high. It was just a bad day."
The fact that the judge in the divorce granted Penzone and his ex joint custody of their then-11-year-old son and the fact that no other such incidents have come to light from Penzone's past bolster Martinez's opinion.
"I don't think Paul Penzone is a bad guy," she said. "I don't think he believes in violence or resorts to violence. I don't believe that at all."
From Scottsdale to Sun City, many of the same questions and comments come up when Penzone meets the public.
Although initially hesitant to address Arizona Senate Bill 1070 head on, he's now emphatic in declaring the immigration law to be "poorly written, with bad intent." And he acknowledges that it places cops in a difficult position regarding its enforcement.
"It was a temporary response to a permanent need," Penzone said of the outdoor complex, which began housing detainees in the early '90s.
"But we're stuck with it for now because $100 million of taxpayer money that was designated to go toward enhancing the detention centers and staffing them properly was misspent."
That's a reference to one of the many scandals of Arpaio's administration in which the sheriff ripped off funds dedicated to jail improvements so that he could bankroll anti-immigration sweeps and witch hunts against his political enemies.
There's no dearth of malfeasance and wrongdoing by Arpaio and his minions for Penzone to draw upon.
Consider the absurd investigation of President Obama's birth certificate, the deaths in MCSO jails, the lawsuits, the racial profiling, the demonizing of Hispanics . . .
All of it unacceptable, but none worse than the reality of the 400-plus victims in El Mirage and elsewhere whom the MCSO neglected.
"For me, this is a passion I have, to restore integrity to law enforcement," Penzone told the crowd at SCC. "Where the focus is exactly that, giving everyone the service they are entitled to and knowing that our children and our families are safe.
"Because we can't allow for any community to see women and children victimized by sex offenders and for law enforcement to turn their backs and forget about them like what occurred in El Mirage."
More than once, I've heard those gathered to hear Penzone express the frustration that if more people could see and hear him, minds could be changed.
But because of limited resources, the Penzone camp so far has been able to buy only a smidgen of air time for a couple of commercials, a very effective one attacking Arpaio on the sex-crimes catastrophe and a generic one introducing Penzone to the public.
Meanwhile, Arpaio's media guru, Chad Willems of Summit Consulting, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a throw on a series of slickly produced ads.
Moreover, Arpaio has campaign money to burn — $3.8 million, according to his last finance report.
And there remains the very serious problem of Stauffer. Just by being on the ballot, he's sure to siphon votes that otherwise would have gone to Penzone. A recent poll has him pulling in about 8 percent, just behind "none of the above." But those eight points are enough to ensure a victory for Arpaio.
Worse than a three-way race is that some of those with the money to donate to a challenger like Penzone, or to an IE committee targeting Arpaio, believe Penzone's is a lost cause and may withhold their dollars.
There's evidence this already has happened. Democratic state Representative Ruben Gallego, co-chair of Citizens for Professional Law Enforcement, said his group got a late start and is only just now setting up fundraisers in and out of state.
"There have been people we have called for fundraising who are concerned that Stauffer is the Olivia Cortes of this election cycle," Gallego said. "It's made it more difficult for [Penzone] to win the race, and they are hesitant to give money."
In other words, Stauffer's candidacy is having what many believe to be its intended effect.
Why did Gallego's group start so late, just weeks before early voting was to begin?
Seems many were waiting for a similar anti-Arpaio IE to materialize. When it didn't, Gallego and Republican operative Carlos Sierra jumped into the fray.
Other independent groups, such as Citizens for a Better Arizona and Adios Arpaio, have devoted themselves to the ground game. That is, to registration, education, and a massive get-out-the-vote effort.
But it's a big county. During the last presidential election, about 1.3 million people voted in the sheriff's race, with Democrat Dan Saban pulling an impressive, if still losing, 42 percent.
Saban's campaign was hobbled by various factors, and Arpaio was much stronger in 2008 than he is today. Then, he was running as a team with now-disbarred ex-Republican County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
Penzone doesn't have the same troubles that weighed Saban down. And Arpaio has been wounded by rampant scandals and his showboating descent into birther madness.
Additionally, Latinos are mobilized like never before and are expected to vote in record numbers this year in Maricopa County, largely because Arpaio is their community's very real bogeyman.
Still, it may not be enough to deny Arpaio a sixth term.
Phoenix political consultant John Loredo is one of the savviest strategists on the Democratic side here in Arizona. A former state representative who despises Arpaio, Loredo would love to see Penzone prevail. But as things currently stand, he's pessimistic.
"You have to have money to go on the air, you have to have money to do mail," he said. "This is going to be a campaign where people have to be persuaded, and it takes money to persuade people."
Even assuming Penzone and his allies will have the resources to punch back against the Arpaio ads, Loredo believes that Stauffer is a deal-killer.
Many have come to the same conclusion, and yet, I think Arpaio still can be bested. Though certain things must happen to change the game.
In many respects, Penzone is a superb candidate. But every day he is not on TV and radio is a day lost. He needs to get as much earned media as possible, as often as possible.
For every dumb ad Arpaio runs, there should at least be a press release ripping it to shreds.
In fact, the Penzone camp needs to produce at least one or two press releases and e-mail blasts a day.
Whenever a negative story about Arpaio in the press gives Penzone an opening, he should hold a press conference.
Penzone and his staff constantly must look for ways to lambaste Arpaio's failed policies. Every press release from the MCSO or campaign statement from Arpaio's side should be met with a response.
Penzone has to go on the attack and stay on the attack. Seek out Arpaio's victims to make statements for the press. Law enforcement figures backing him should be seen prominently speaking out against the sheriff.
When Arpaio pulls a media-friendly raid on a workplace, Penzone has to go to the press and criticize it as a stunt in the strongest terms possible. I would go as far as to make appearances outside Arpaio's made-for-TV raids, denouncing them as distractions from real police work.
Be willing to take risks. Show up where you are least expected, and always be putting Arpaio on the defensive, forcing errors from him.
It's not like this would be remaking the wheel. These are standard tactics for a challenger, and they merely scratch the surface.
Penzone is a seasoned communicator, but he needs a series of talking points and catchphrases to use with the media. Some may see this as trite, but there's a reason politicians do it: It works.
Finally, there's a challenge for all of us. Despite the presence of Stauffer in the race, Penzone is a strong, earnest candidate who is 5.5 points behind Arpaio in the polls with a month to go. We do not have the luxury of apathy, nor should we concede victory to Arpaio because he's convinced a gazillion alter kocker wing-nuts out of state to send him $25 apiece.
Tyrants don't last forever. Look to Libya and Egypt for extreme examples of this. You think Hosni Mubarak foresaw the catastrophe that enveloped him? He did not, any more than the Goliath of legend foresaw his. Ditto Russell Pearce, for that matter.
Let's not leave it to the Grim Reaper to remove Arpaio. Let's vote in record numbers and help Penzone land the final blow on November 6.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.