When Paul Penzone ran for Maricopa County sheriff in 2016, he famously received a $2 million contribution from billionaire George Soros — the liberal philanthropist’s single biggest investment in a local race that year.
The Democratic ex-Phoenix police officer won the race, stopping Republican Joe Arpaio from obtaining a seventh term in office. Now, Penzone is determined to win re-election against whoever wins the Republican primary.
Penzone’s re-election campaign has yet to receive a Soros-sized donation — from the hedge fund mogul or anyone else — but it has gotten help from a cast of other prominent characters.
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 New Times analysis revealed that politicians, CEOs, attorneys, investors, and board members of some of Arizona’s biggest companies have all sought to underwrite Penzone’s 2020 campaign.
The incumbent candidate has also received more high-dollar donations than his opponents. According to recent campaign filings, more than 100 donors gave Penzone over $1,000 and nine donors gave him $6,450, the most an individual can give in an election cycle.
Though Arpaio has amassed more total cash than Penzone — Arpaio has collected $480,000 in campaign donations compared to Penzone's $380,000 — Arpaio has received just 25 contributions over $1,000, and none at the contribution limit.
“It sounds like the establishment is getting behind Penzone,” said Mike O’Neil, a longtime Arizona political pollster who has followed Arpaio’s career.
Penzone’s donors have emerged from all sides of the political spectrum, from sports to public utilities, the food industry and law. Several names on his donor rolls are instantly recognizable — for example, Valley restaurateur Sam Fox and his wife, Emily, each donated $6,450. So did investor Michael Watts and his wife, Cynthia, whose $30 million check to Arizona State University in 2018 led to the renaming of the university’s College of Public Service. And Nicole and Timothy Bidwill — both children of late Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill who still work with the team — donated $1,000 and $500, respectively.
Other donations came from Valley residents who don’t, perhaps, have immediate name recognition but are flush with capital or hold prominent careers. Take Jacquelynn Dorrance, the wife of billionaire Bennett Dorrance, whose grandfather invented condensed soup and later became president of the Campbell Soup Company. Jacquelynn Dorrance gave $1,000 to Penzone’s campaign in October, records show. Meanwhile, Ann Birmingham-Scheel, a former U.S. Attorney in Phoenix who is now chief of administration at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, donated $3,000 to keep her colleague in office.
There’s also Arizona’s former Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who signed a $100 check to Penzone’s campaign in September of last year.
“I think you’ve got to put county over party here, same way you’ve got to put country over party,” Flake told New Times. “I thought this was a way to demonstrate that.”
Several leaders of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility company — which has come under fire for shutting off residents’ electricity during extreme summer heat and failing to disclose past charitable contributions — also gave their support.
Nineteen of 25 leadership team members at APS’s parent company, Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, donated to the sitting sheriff.
The political action committee associated with Pinnacle West also contributed $2,000 to Penzone — though most of its national contributions in recent years have been to Republican candidates.
APS declined to comment on specific contributions from the company or its employees.
“It’s certainly possible company leaders’ contributions were made at a fundraising event, but I simply don’t know in this case, so I don’t have more to offer,” said Jenna Rowell, director of external communications for the company.
Three other special interest groups — the Salt River Project PAC, Arizona AT&T Employees PAC, and Arizona Licensed Beverage Association PAC — also gave to the Democratic sheriff’s campaign in 2019, and did not answer calls for comment. Neither Arpaio nor Sheridan received any PAC contributions last year.
Penzone also received funding from several attorneys in local law offices, including DM Cantor Law Group.
Of the criminal defense attorneys listed on the firm’s website, all but one donated to Penzone in 2019.
Christine Whalin, a partner and managing attorney at the firm, said she can’t speak for others, but she donated because she’s seen conditions improve for inmates since the sheriff assumed office.
“Penzone feeds people three times a day — Sheriff Joe didn’t,” Whalin said. “They’re not being treated the way that they were treated before.”
“We’ve got, you know, Joe-Zo the clown," Whalin said, referring to a painting of Arpaio dressed as a clown. “It doesn’t hide our disdain for Sheriff Joe when he was in office.”
The race is still heating up. While individuals can give no more than $6,450 to a candidate during an election cycle in Maricopa County, PACs have no restrictions.
That’s how George Soros gave so much to Penzone in 2016 — he donated through a PAC called Maricopa Strong (as did Michael Watts).
It's also how at least one new special interest fund hopes to funnel money into Penzone’s campaign this time around. A newly formed PAC, Citizens for Principled Law Enforcement, aims to raise money to keep Penzone in office, according to spokesman Joe Wolf.
Wolf, also a senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign, said he can't comment further about the new PAC's activity.
Penzone didn't return repeated messages left at the sheriff's office or with his campaign. And his campaign manager Sophie O’Keefe-Zelman declined to answer questions about specific donors. But O’Keefe-Zelman did say the candidate is proud to be “Maricopa strong.”
“We know we’re building a diverse coalition of people from all walks and all parties that are proud of the integrity and accountability he has brought back to the office of the sheriff,” she said.