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Arizona Sheriff Facing Civil Rights Suit Says Obama Is Using Him

May 11, 2012

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photographer: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photographer: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Joe Arpaio says he’s angry.

Standing at the podium before a roomful of reporters in his Phoenix office yesterday, the 79-year-old sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, called a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination by his agency an election-year ploy by President Barack Obama to win Latino votes.

“They are using me,” the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” said as he outlined what he called the suspicious timing of the lawsuit and complained about Latino activists he says demonstrate against him wherever he goes.

“They are getting their political message out right now, just before the election,” he said. “They want to send a message that they are taking on the sheriff.”

Arpaio’s claims echo sentiments of fellow state Republicans, including Governor Jan Brewer, who say Arizona is under siege by the Obama administration over its approach to fighting illegal immigration. It’s also part of a strategy that has helped Arpaio hold onto his elected post for 20 years through inmate deaths, tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements, abuse-of-power allegations and the disbarment of a former county attorney who had been a key ally.

Arizona is already in the middle of the presidential campaign. The federal government is challenging its crackdown on illegal immigrants in a case that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Mitt Romney, who along with Obama is vying for Hispanic votes, has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

‘Just a Patriot’

Now up for re-election in what may be the toughest campaign of his career, Arpaio has turned to the same rhetoric he’s used in the past, says Rodolfo Espino, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“This is the card he’s been playing: He is the victim who is defending the work of Americans, that he is just a patriot doing the work that no one else does,” Espino, who focuses on race, politics and political behavior, said in a telephone interview. “It is the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard from him over and over again.”

Arpaio, a career law-enforcement officer with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, won election in 1992 on a pledge to bring professionalism to the police agency in Arizona’s largest county, which includes Phoenix. He cultivated a popular tough- on-crime image by putting inmates in pink underwear, housing them in tents through desert heat and organizing chain gangs -- with the international media often in tow. As he won fans, he also faced accusations of abuse in his jails, which became the focus of Justice Department scrutiny in the mid-1990s.

Drawing His Ire

Rick Romley, a Republican who served as Maricopa County attorney from 1989 to 2004 and again temporarily in 2010, quickly became embroiled in high-profile disputes with Arpaio. He said tensions grew after he blocked as unconstitutional an Arpaio plan to stop cars entering the county in search of drugs. Later, Romley said he drew the sheriff’s ire for prosecuting officers for the death of an inmate who had been strapped to a restraint chair and for not pursuing charges in a high-profile prostitution sting in which Arpaio’s volunteer posse members engaged in sexual activity to make the busts.

“The way Joe maneuvered through those things -- he was very good,” Romley said. “Rather than focus on the death of the inmate or the abuses in his jail, every time something came up, he’d characterize it through the media as a personal feud between Arpaio and Romley.”

Deflecting Scrutiny

“It is the pattern and the way that Joe has been very successful in deflecting any real scrutiny on his conduct,” said Romley, whom Arpaio helped defeat in the Republican primary for county attorney in 2010, in a telephone interview. “For some reason, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of issues that the public can get behind him on.”

As immigration began to dominate voter concerns in Arizona, Arpaio organized “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, which made him a hero to groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.

Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party, said Arpaio is “the point of the spear” in what many people in the state see as a battle over the border and states’ rights between Arizona Republican leaders and the Obama administration.

“The federal government has targeted Arpaio as a way to personify what they are fighting against,” Wikfors said. “We believe the Obama administration is using the Department of Justice to turn Arpaio into a target or essentially a bogey man for the Hispanic community to go after.”

While Wikfors said Arpaio will handily win re-election in November, as he has in his past five contests, he said the federal suit could become a bigger challenge this election.

Going after Obama helps him with his base, Wikfors said.

“Everyone knows Joe loves to be the center of attention,” Wikfors said. “He loves the opportunity to take on the Obama administration. He loves being in the spotlight. And this may be his biggest battle.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Amanda J. Crawford in Phoenix at acrawford24@bloomberg.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at

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