PHOENIX • The careers of most politicians would crumble under the heavy scrutiny that the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America now faces.
But despite a mountain of legal troubles, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio remains popular with voters and has more than $3.4 million in the bank for his November re-election campaign.
The Justice Department sued the five-term sheriff on Thursday on allegations that his officers racially profile Latinos — a move that has his critics saying that voters will finally be turned off and his supporters saying the development will only make him more beloved among voters who want a tough sheriff who doesn’t back down from anyone.
"He’s the new Wyatt Earp," said Tom Morrissey, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party in a reference to the Arizona lawman made famous by the gun fight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone. "The guy’s legendary.
"What he stands for resonates across the country," said Morrissey, also a retired chief U.S. Marshal. "Hundreds sometimes thousands of people cheer this man, give him standing ovations everywhere he speaks. That speaks volumes."
He said Arpaio’s hardline stance on illegal immigration and his tough talk have driven his popularity.
"He tells it like it is. He’s not polished, and a lot of times you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth," Morrissey said. "The truth has a certain ring and Joe Arpaio speaks in that realm."
Even as the Justice Department brought the lawsuit down against Arpaio, saying that he abused his power and violated the Constitution, the sheriff himself held a news conference and showed no signs of backing down.
"I will fight this to the bitter end," a visibly angry Arpaio said, adding that the case will give him a chance to finally see what evidence authorities have to back up claims. "I’m very happy that we are being sued because now we can make them put up."
He said nothing is going to affect his chances of winning in November.
"They know that I’m going to get elected. It’s a national issue," he said. "I’m the poster boy. The national press is picking this up again ... I can get elected on pink underwear."
Arpaio has built his reputation in part by making inmates wear pink underwear, work in chain gangs and jailing them in tents.
His profile got even bigger when pushed for a stronger role for local police to enforce immigration law, launching 20 patrols looking for illegal immigrants since January 2008.
Thursday’s lawsuit comes as part of efforts to enforce a federal law that bans police from systematically violating constitutional rights.
Justice Department officials first leveled the allegations against Arpaio in December, saying a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights prevailed at his office.
Arpaio denies wrongdoing and dismisses the case as a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration.
Arpaio’s office is accused of punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish and launching some patrols based on complaints that never reported a crime but conveyed concerns about dark-skinned people congregating or speaking Spanish.
The lawsuit also says that Arpaio’s office has virtually no policies or procedures designed to prevent or address discriminatory policing, and has no system in place to track any alleged misconduct by deputies during traffic stops, arrests or complaints.
State Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said the lawsuit eventually will shed light on corruption within the sheriff’s office.
"It forces Arpaio to go into a courtroom and explain a lot of these accusations," Gallardo said. "You’re going to see the true Sheriff Joe Arpaio."
Gallardo said that it may take a few years, but "at the end of the day, once the public sees the truth ... I think the public will give a big thumbs down to Sheriff Joe."Next Page >
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