Suit could test popularity of Ariz. sheriff

Ross D. Franklin/ap Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio (left) vowed to fight the government lawsuit “to the bitter end.” Helping him do that will be attorneys Joseph Popolizio (center) and John Masterson.

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 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.

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 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 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 and work in chain gangs.

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 said 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.