If I were a tinfoil hat wearer, I'd swear Scottsdale police Lieutenant Mike Stauffer's quixotic campaign to be Maricopa County's top lawman was dreamed up in a backroom by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his flunkies as a way to ensure that Arpaio earns four more years in November.
But I'm not conspiracy-minded, and such a plot would have required an enormous amount of advance legwork. Stauffer declared his intention to run against Arpaio as a Republican more than two years ago, then decided in late 2011 to run as an Independent. This, before former Phoenix Police Sergeant Paul Penzone officially jumped into the fray as a Democrat.
Early on, Penzone quit his job at a local nonprofit, committing himself wholly to the crusade to rid this county of the corrupt criminal who currently runs the MCSO. By contrast, Stauffer only recently has promised to exit his day job at the Scottsdale Police Department.
So far, Penzone's dedication and work ethic have paid off.
He's scored a slew of endorsements from well-known Democrats and Republicans.
Signs advertising Penzone as "the new sheriff" are up countywide, in part because of the efforts of an army of more than 300 volunteers, many of them so-called DREAM Act students, determined to drive Arpaio from office.
And he's raised $224,000 and counting, cash that's allowed Penzone to do his first major ad buy on cable TV, for a commercial blasting Arpaio for the 400-plus botched sex crimes on his watch.
Sure, that $224K is nowhere near the $4.2 million Arpaio has on hand, but it's light years ahead of the $50,000 Stauffer's taken in since the beginning of 2010. And remember, $40,000 of that $50K was a loan from Stauffer himself, money he used to pay a local signature-gathering service to help put his name on the November ballot.
So after more than two years of campaigning, what does Stauffer have to show for it? A Facebook page, a website, an unpaid campaign manager, $10,000 in contributions, and few actual volunteers.
Tellingly, Stauffer has attempted to turn this lack of viability into a positive. As I noted in a recent column, he publicly scoffs at the suggestion that a lot of volunteers and a war chest are needed to capture the hearts and minds of some three-quarters of a million voters — what it likely would take to beat Arpaio ("Mike Stauffer's Third Wheel Bid," July 12).
Yet, without the $40 grand, Stauffer's name would not be on the ballot. Guess money occasionally does come in handy.
When Penzone trekked to San Francisco this month for a fundraiser hosted by former Mesa police chief and current San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Stauffer posted an amateurish YouTube video featuring campaign manager and fellow Republican West Kenyon reading a script bashing Penzone for "jet-setting across the country" to engage in "partisan politics."
Instead, Stauffer was "staying right here," raising zero funds, a recipe for disaster.
The reality is that Penzone will need every dollar he can wrangle from contributors to beat Arpaio. The San Fran fundraiser shows hustle, a quality Stauffer holds in contempt.
Former Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban has challenged Arpaio twice, once as a Republican and most recently, in 2008, as a Democrat. Though he flirted with the idea of running once more, he eventually opted not to put himself through that ringer again and now is supporting Penzone.
Why Penzone? Because Penzone has the best shot of retiring Arpaio. Simple as that.
"Penzone's raising the money, and he's got the network in place that you've got to have," Saban explained to me recently. "The boots on the ground in a grass-roots effort are critical."
Saban says he has a lot of respect for Stauffer's experience and for what he's achieved in his career, but he thinks Stauffer should withdraw as a candidate rather than risk a three-way race that could return Arpaio to power.
"I totally respect Mike Stauffer's desire to run," Saban said. "I get it. A true professional can't sit back and watch this carnage [of Arpaio's victims] and not want to step up and help.
"But after being involved in this process for nine years of my life, my opinion is that you've got to take Arpaio on head-to-head, give the voters just two choices."
In 2008, despite numerous handicaps, smears by the Arpaio camp, and a Democratic Party that abandoned him, Saban pulled 42 percent of the vote, or 558,176 votes to Arpaio's 730,426.
Remember, Arpaio was more popular in 2008 than he is now and ran as a team with now-disbarred County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Saban's achievement was significant. He pulled more votes than any Arpaio enemy in recent memory and demonstrated that a win over Arpaio was not as impossible as folks had thought
There was a third candidate in that race, Libertarian Chris A.H. Will. She had no law enforcement background and even less name recognition, pulling just 35,425 votes.
It's possible that Stauffer also will be a nonentity in November. But if the race turns out to be close, Stauffer's draw could mean the difference in the outcome. Also, his candidacy will offer a constant distraction, making Penzone compete for the earned media that a Joe foe must score to stay competitive.
This is why a lot of luminaries with the best interests of the county at heart would like Stauffer to withdraw by September 7, the last possible day his name can be removed from the ballot, according to county elections director Karen Osborne.
Powerhouse attorney Mike Manning recently approached Stauffer directly on behalf of an august group of Arpaio critics, including former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, ex-Arizona Attorneys General Grant Woods and Terry Goddard, former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, and ex-Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
Manning tried to set up a meeting, and Stauffer asked what it would be about. Manning leveled with him, telling Stauffer his group wanted to convince him that he must step aside.
Basically, Stauffer told Manning to go pound sand.
"He said that under no circumstances would he withdraw and that if he did withdraw, he would not endorse Penzone," Manning told me. "He tried very hard to convince me that he had a very good shot of beating both Penzone and Arpaio."
Manning chatted with him a bit, asking how he would feel if he got to, say, mid-September before realizing that he could not win. The answer from Stauffer was the same.
I asked Manning whether he thought Stauffer actually believed he could prevail in the general election.
"I'm afraid his certainty was sincere," he said. "Doesn't make it non-delusional, but it was sincere."
Thing is, Stauffer would engender a great deal of goodwill if he withdrew. He would be a hero, and he could take that goodwill with him into a future run for political office.
Otherwise, Stauffer is fated to be an also-ran, as quickly forgotten as the Libertarian mentioned above, or the object of ridicule.
"I admire his reasons for running," Saban says. "But if you want to make a difference in Maricopa County, with the public safety issues we're all faced with, then you have to make a choice."
And the choice for Stauffer must be getting out of the race before it's too late — before he becomes known as the stooge who squashed our best chance at ending a tyrant's reign.