PHOENIX — The longtime sheriff of the metropolitan Phoenix area is facing his toughest political race ever to try to keep his job, with top aides under investigation for misconduct and the lawman himself facing possible criminal charges for defying an order to put an end to traffic stop patrols targeting people in the country illegally.
Joe Arpaio is now 84 but says he's not ready for retirement, insisting his ties with Maricopa County voters who elected him six consecutive times will overcome a cascade of negative publicity from his legal troubles and give him a win against two retired law enforcement challengers and a fourth candidate in an Aug. 30 Republican primary.
He has raised nearly $10 million in campaign cash aimed at helping him keep his grip over law enforcement one of the most populous counties in the country, much of it from people living outside Arizona.
"There is some unfinished business that has to be done," Arpaio said in an interview this week. "I will stand around to defend this organization, and that's the way it is."
Arpaio became nationally famous and infamous for his heavy-handed immigration crackdowns and for jailing prisoners in a tent city surrounded by barbed wire and issuing them pink underwear.
But he has seen his popularity wane in recent elections and faces criticism for racking up multi-million dollar legal bills to unsuccessfully defend his immigration crackdowns.
Two retired police officers who are among Arpaio's Republican challengers call him an egoistic media monger and promise to bring more professionalism and less self-promotion to the job.
They have an uphill battle in trying to beat Arpaio in the primary. But he is more vulnerable in the general election face-off on Nov. 8 against the race's only Democrat, retired Phoenix police Officer Paul Penzone, said Mike O'Neil, who heads the O'Neil Associates polling firm in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.
O'Neil said some voters who have supported Arpaio in the past may have grown tired of the hefty taxpayer bills for lawsuits challenging his immigration enforcement efforts and jail conditions.
"Law and order works unless you step over the line," O'Neil said.
Former Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban, the leading GOP challenger who was beaten by Arpaio in two previous elections, said the sheriff's promotion of himself in the media and willingness to drive up legal costs are finally catching up with him.
"Joe Arpaio has created a myth for himself that he is the toughest sheriff in America when he is the most costly sheriff in America," Saban said.
Arpaio's worst legal defeat was the racial profiling case, which morphed into a contempt-of-court proceeding in late 2014 after Arpaio was accused of violating court orders by continuing immigration traffic stops after they were banned and withholding police video evidence from his 2012 profiling trial.
That led to bruising critique of sheriff's office internal investigations into possible wrongdoing by employees and managers. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow said in mid-May that the investigations had been manipulated to shield sheriff's officials from accountability.
Snow has already found Arpaio and his second-in-command in civil contempt of court.
On Friday, Snow ruled that he wants another judge to decide whether Arpaio should be held in criminal contempt-of-court for ignoring court orders in the racial profiling case.
A former prosecutor has been appointed by the judge to re-investigate a dozen internal affairs probes deemed inadequate — including allegations that sheriff's office managers ignored orders to stop immigration crackdowns and that Arpaio's special anti-immigrant smuggling squad pocketed items including drivers' licenses, a big screen TV and purses during the traffic stops and raids of suspected safe houses for people smugglers.
The legal costs for the profiling case along are projected to reach $54 million by next summer for taxpayers from Maricopa County, which has about 3.8 million residents and more land than the U.S. state of Vermont.
The financial hemorrhaging is likely to continue until the sheriff's office comes in full compliance for three straight years with court-ordered changes aimed at preventing profiling.
Snow has also complained that Arpaio has been slow to make ordered changes, finding that Arpaio's agency by June was in compliance with 63 percent of new law enforcement policies ordered but just 40 percent in enacting changes mandated for how deputies do their jobs.
Arpaio insisted in an interview that his office has made good progress complying with the changes ordered nearly three years ago — but gave no firm prediction on when his agency would be in full compliance.
"I am saying it takes time to comply," he said. "And we are making progress, but these kinds of situations take years."
The $9.9 million in campaign money raised by Arpaio far exceeds his opponents' fundraising. Penzone has raised $160,000.
In the GOP contest, Saban has brought in $30,000. Retired Sheriff's Deputy Wayne Baker has raised $10,000 and former sheriff's volunteer Marsha Hill took in $18,000.
Penzone, who lost to Arpaio in 2012 by six percentage points, said getting the sheriff's office off court supervision can be accomplished doing things he says Arpaio hasn't — meeting deadlines and holding sheriff's officials accountable when they miss them.
"Every lost day is a lost dollar," Penzone said. "And every last day goes to undermine our ability to meet the expectations of not only the federal court but also this community at large. It's shameful that we have even gotten to this place."