Longform

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.

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.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons