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Does Underdog Sheriff Candidate Jerry Sheridan Have a Shot Against His Old Boss?

Jerry Sheridan, a republican candidate for Maricopa County Sheriff and former chief deputy at the office.EXPAND
Jerry Sheridan, a republican candidate for Maricopa County Sheriff and former chief deputy at the office.
www.sheridan4sheriff2020.com

This is the third story in a three-part series on money in the 2020 Maricopa County sheriff’s race. Part one, a look at Republican candidate Joe Arpaio’s campaign financing, is available here. Part two, a peek at incumbent Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone’s major donors, is available here.

You may not recognize the name of the candidate with the third-largest pile of campaign cash in the Maricopa County’s sheriff’s race — but he insists you will soon.

“Things are picking up for me,” says the Republican candidate Jerry Sheridan, a former chief deputy to the longtime Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Both Sheridan and Arpaio now are fighting to win the Republican nomination in the 2020 sheriff’s race.

Sheridan hopes voters will view him as a welcome alternative to Arpaio, who became notorious over his 24 years in office for his extreme tough-on-crime policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sheridan is confident his differences from his former boss will help him prevail in the GOP primary election on August 4 — even though his name recognition and campaign funds are decidedly lacking.

For this series, Phoenix New Times mined roughly 3,000 individual contributions and hundreds of pages of 2019 campaign filings, reviewing the names, addresses, and donation amounts for all contributors who gave the candidates more than $50 in 2019.

The analysis revealed that Sheridan has raised about $45,000 for the upcoming race, hundreds of thousands of dollars less than either of his top two opponents, Arpaio and incumbent Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone.

That total doesn’t include in-kind donations — money from people affiliated with the campaign, which for Sheridan has amounted to some $10,500. And it doesn’t include an additional $15,000 or so that Sheridan tells New Times he’s raised so far in 2020. Still, compared to Arpaio’s $480,000 in contributions from donors in 49 states, Sheridan’s campaign funds are pocket change.

Sheridan, though, is choosing to view his lack of national notoriety as a strength.

“I am not Joe Arpaio,” Sheridan said. “I am not in this for the media attention. I don’t enjoy getting in front of a camera like Arpaio did. He lived for that. I don’t.”

Sheridan said he feels his more understated presence and his tendency to bring people together, rather than tear them apart, will influence voters who are tired of Arpaio’s high-jinks.

“I am a consensus builder,” Sheridan said. “Arpaio tended to alienate others in law enforcement in the Valley.”

That said, as second-in-command to Arpaio for the last six years of his tenure, Sheridan was also in leadership at a time when the sheriff’s office was plagued with controversy. According to Paul Bentz, the senior vice president of research and strategy at the public affairs consultancy firm High Ground, that could hurt him as a candidate.

“In some ways, you can paint them with the same brush,” Bentz said. “They’re sort of responsible for the same things but also under the same criticisms. Where does the separation lie between the two?”

In fact, when Arpaio was found in contempt of court in 2016 for violating a judge’s 2011 order to stop his immigration patrols, the court ruled Sheridan also knowingly disobeyed the order. (Unlike Arpaio, Sheridan escaped a criminal charge because he was outside the statute of limitations.)

Sheridan did not run the unit responsible for immigration sweeps, and he maintains his innocence in the whole ordeal. The Associated Press reported that Sheridan should have known at the time about the judge’s preliminary injunction to stop the patrols, since a court-appointed investigator found he attended a meeting where the order was discussed. But he told New Times, as he previously has told other publications, he did not know about the order until years later, since he never opened the original email about it from Arpaio's attorneys.

It’s still unclear how Sheridan’s association with his former boss will affect voters’ decisions in the primary — two local political experts who spoke with New Times said they aren’t aware of any polling for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s race yet.

But those experts, both longtime pollsters, say Sheridan has a steep hill to climb in what most are presuming will be a runoff between Penzone and Arpaio.

“I have to admit to you, I didn’t know who he was,” said Mike O’Neil, an Arizona pollster who has followed politics in Maricopa County for decades. “He’s a 1 percent recognition guy.”

When Republicans go to vote in the primary, O’Neil added, “they’ll see Joe Arpaio’s name and some guy they’ve never heard of.”

Arpaio could have yet another advantage, according to Bentz, because the Republican primary will likely bring out a high volume of older voters, many of whom have supported him in the past.

Of course, it's not a death sentence for a candidate to fall behind in fundraising. Also important, according to Bentz, will be how well Sheridan campaigns in the coming months.

“It’s not going to be enough for him just to be, ‘I’m not Arpaio,’” said Bentz. “He’s going to need people to have a reason to vote for him, not just against Arpaio.”

At least one Sheridan supporter agreed that Sheridan will need to distinguish himself from his former boss — and said he’ll be voting for him because of his 40 years of experience at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is going to give the voters an opportunity to compare and contrast,” said Jeff Gentry, an MCSO lieutenant who worked under both Arpaio and Penzone before retiring in December 2019. “Jerry was in a leadership position at the office before Joe Arpaio ever became the sheriff.”

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The recent retiree added he’s eager for an alternative to the office’s current leadership. “I would still be there if Paul Penzone hadn’t been elected,” Gentry noted.

But whether or not the long-shot candidate Sheridan has any chance of beating his old boss in the Republican primary, challenges lie ahead for either candidate facing the sitting sheriff in the general election, according to O’Neil.

Penzone has built a relatively nonpartisan, uncontroversial facade over an office that had long been mired in scandal — and that strategy may just carry him through to another term, according to O’Neil.

“I think this race is Penzone’s to lose, frankly,” he said.

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