In any other place, the publicity Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has received recently would be seen as, well, horrendous:
• His supporters launched one of the sleaziest TV political ads ever against his political opponent in the November 4 election, Dan Saban, resulting in a backlash that drove the ad off the air (see Sarah Fenske's column this week).
Sheriff Joe Arpaio
• Accreditation for the Maricopa County jail, which Arpaio's lawyers had used as an example of why critics who complained about bad conditions in the jail were wrong, was revoked.
• A surveillance video surfaced of a violent beating death that took place in the jail, revealing tragic flaws in the security and control of the facility.
• The sheriff raided municipal buildings in Mesa in what appeared to be nothing more than a blatant political maneuver against Arpaio's perceived enemy, Mesa Police Chief George Gascón.
As a public safety effort, the pre-dawn October 16 incursion into Mesa City Hall and its library was laughable — it netted just three undocumented workers. A couple of former county Superior Court judges criticized Arpaio's action in the East Valley Tribune, with former chief judge of the court Colin Campbell calling the raid "bizarre" and "extraordinary."
Whether these October surprises have influenced anyone to vote for Saban over Arpaio, though, is another story. Except for the groups that have been protesting Arpaio regularly at the county Board of Supervisors meetings and in front of the Wells Fargo building downtown, where the sheriff's headquarters are on the 19th floor, it's difficult to tell how the public is reacting to the outrage.
The local offices of the Democratic Party did not return a call before press time. Dan Saban can't seem to find the resources or the right sound bites to capitalize on Arpaio's multiple misadventures. The conservative-leaning Goldwater Institute didn't want to weigh in on what the events mean, if anything, for Arpaio's fourth bid for re-election.
Pollster Earl de Berge of the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center says he believes the criticism of Arpaio hasn't been aimed well enough to make a crucial difference.
While Arpaio pounds away on immigration, he may be getting in trouble with voters for not enforcing other areas of the law. Trouble is, news outlets haven't fully explored the possibility that he's letting more serious crimes go as he targets illegal aliens, de Berge says. A five-day series in July in the Tribune, which dinged Arpaio's office for late responses to emergency calls, came close, but the paper doesn't have widespread influence, de Berge says.
Still, "the general mantra that he can't be defeated, I think, is baloney these days," the pollster says.
De Berge notes that voters aren't expected to be kind to incumbents in the upcoming election. Independents and swing-vote Republicans concerned that Arpaio misuses his resources by sending "60 troopers in the middle of the night to arrest three janitors" just might put Saban over the edge, he says.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith was visibly angry during a news conference last Thursday about the raid on Mesa government offices.
"The citizens of Mesa, Arizona . . . This is their City Hall," Smith said. "[It] was, in my belief, violated by another government agency. I don't believe that's proper protocol, and I also believe that [it] crosses the line as to what proper law enforcement should do."
Smith seemed ready to pick up the flag and keep running on Friday. But by that afternoon, he had canceled a news conference and put out a press release on the issue before taking off early for the Mogollon Rim. In the release, Smith stated he had offered to meet with Arpaio, and Arpaio had accepted.
"During our meeting," Smith wrote, "I intend to discuss how the City of Mesa and the Sheriff's Office can work to resolve differences that have arisen from the challenges of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities within the city."
Yet here's how Arpaio characterized the meeting, expected to take place October 24, to a TV news reporter: "[Smith's] coming to my office, and, boy, he's going to get an earful."
You'd think, with all the outrage shown by the mayor last Thursday, it would be the other way around.
And surely, the Mesa raid was, at best, a waste of public resources to support Arpaio's re-election campaign and stick it to Chief Gascón, who's made numerous critical statements of Arpaio in the press.
At worst, the raid put the lives of citizens at risk, as Smith said in his October 16 news conference, because Mesa authorities weren't warned of the enforcement action.
Earlier that day, well before dawn, dozens of deputies outfitted for combat operations gathered at Pioneer Park in downtown Mesa. Reports show that when a Mesa police officer came upon the group and asked what was going on, he was told it was a police dog training event. The deputies soon stormed City Hall and the library, looking for illegal immigrants who worked for Management Cleaning Controls, which the Sheriff's Office was investigating for violating the state's employer-sanctions law.
Mesa officials say the deputies arrested just two people in the library and one in the library's parking lot, all three of whom turned out to be undocumented workers. Deputies say they also arrested 13 other suspects at their Valley homes.
Months earlier, the MCSO had received a tip about undocumented workers employed on the city's cleaning crew. According to Mesa spokesman Steve Wright, a "disgruntled" computer technician who was about to be fired because of an e-mail prank tipped off Arpaio's office.
The technician, Chuck Wilson, had also told a Mesa police lieutenant, Wade Pew, about the issue in May. Pew and another city official later met with a representative of the cleaning company, which made assurances that all the workers were legal. Despite the warning, city officials then dropped the ball by failing to verify the identities of workers who had access to sensitive areas.
Arpaio took the opportunity to stage an invasion of Mesa government rather than work with city officials on a civil level.
It was a troubling exercise of authority for some Valley residents, no doubt. But no general cry and hue went up from other Valley mayors or city council members, whose city halls could be violated next.
Arpaio's antics this month have been broadcast far and wide, but not in a positive way.
The New York Times took notice of the Mesa raid, publishing an op-ed column condemning it last week. Worse for Arpaio's national image was the horrific video of the jail beating death, first broadcast last week by Channel 5 (KPHO) and since aired in New York, Denver, Seattle, and other major cities.
The video seems to support allegations that the jail is plagued by gangs and poor security. Pete Van Winkle, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, has been charged in the murder.
Robert Cotton, the inmate who was beaten to death, wasn't a gang member or even a violent criminal — he was in jail on charges of auto theft. As the video clearly shows, no guards rushed to help Cotton, until it was too late. Though the beating was taped, sheriff's officials admit no one was watching the monitor at the time.
Cotton's family is suing Arpaio for $2 million. The lawsuit is one of more than 2,500 filed against Arpaio, federal and county court dockets show. Payouts of taxpayer funds because of county jail deaths and injuries during Arpaio's tenure already top $43 million.
A few weeks before the video of the beating surfaced, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which performs the only third-party oversight of the Maricopa County jails, yanked the facilities' accreditation. The national group says jail conditions are poor and that sheriff's officials did not provide them with correct information for an audit.
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It would seem that none of this is healthy publicity for Arpaio, de Berge says. But Dan Saban, Arpaio's competitor for the sheriff's seat, hasn't taken full advantage of the onslaught.
The former Buckeye police chief did go after Arpaio following a sleazy, primetime ad that recalled bogus allegations of rape against him and also mentioned Saban's courtroom admission that he once masturbated on county time. In a retaliatory ad, Saban called Arpaio a "lying coward."
Yet de Berge says Saban's counterattack, as well as other statements Saban's made, come off as too personalized "when he really ought to be talking about law enforcement."
Saban's still got a few days to make his case. And if the past three weeks are any indication, Arpaio still has time to keep making a strong case for why he should be defeated at the polls.