The same Arizona group that took down the state's leading immigration hard-liner is now gunning for its best-known lawman.
Fresh off a successful drive to oust Republican state Senate President Russell Pearce this month, leaders of Citizens for a Better Arizona announced this week that they plan to form a "citizens posse" to challenge Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in his 2012 re-election bid. Sheriff Arpaio, who has carved out a national reputation for his no-nonsense treatment of lawbreakers in his county and for his running battles with the Obama administration and immigration advocates, is serving his fifth four-year term.
The group also is considering a recall election against Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, although organizers said they will do so only if at least 5,000 volunteers sign up online to circulate petitions.
"The main focus right now is Joe Arpaio. We're looking at a bunch of different options to get rid of him," said Chad Snow, chairman of Citizens for a Better Arizona.
The targeting of Sheriff Arpaio is the latest salvo in the state's fierce political wars over the immigration issue. Both Mr. Pearce, who lost a recall election Nov. 8, and Sheriff Arpaio are known far beyond Arizona's borders for their opposition to illegal immigration and efforts to tighten border security.
Mr. Pearce sponsored legislation enacted in 2010 that requires Arizona police to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants. Mrs. Brewer signed the bill and rode its popularity to re-election in 2010, but the law has since been tied up in court with a series of lawsuits, including one filed by the Justice Department.
Sheriff Arpaio said in an interview that he wasn't worried about the effort to unseat him. He said he has raised $6 million for his re-election bid, far more than the norm for a county sheriff's race.
"This group, they've been coming after me for three years. Instead of going to the media, why don't they come visit me?" said Sheriff Arpaio. "We could have a nice talk. First, I'd tell them that I'm not going to change, but I'd try to explain the rationale for what I'm doing."
He also accused Citizens for a Better Arizona of harboring political motives. The group, which gathered the necessary signatures to force the Pearce recall, says on its website that it opposes the "extreme politics" of certain elected officials — all of whom are Republicans.
"All of these people [at Citizens for a Better Arizona] are Democrats," said Sheriff Arpaio. "So I happen to think that this is a political issue. ... Why are they targeting the three of us and saying it has nothing to do with illegal immigration?"
Foes of Sheriff Arpaio say he is vulnerable: The sheriff received 55 percent of the vote in his 2008 campaign, the lowest total of any of his re-election bids. Even so, political analysts said, defeating Sheriff Arpaio in a general election would be significantly more difficult than ousting Mr. Pearce.
"My first reaction is that it's an uphill struggle. Arpaio has been a Teflonish figure for many years," said Arizona political analyst Mike O'Neil. "It bears watching, but initially I'd say he's a very popular figure. And you'd have to run a Democrat against him because it's not recall rules, and you'd never defeat him in a Republican primary."
No primary race was held for the Pearce recall, allowing opponents to run a Republican challenger against Mr. Pearce in the GOP-leaning district. Assuming Sheriff Arpaio won the 2012 GOP primary, he would face a Democratic opponent in the general election for sheriff.
Mr. Snow, also a Republican, said the group likely will form an independent expenditure committee to counter Sheriff Arpaio's re-election campaign. The only candidate to enter the race so far is Mike Stauffer, a Scottsdale police lieutenant.
"Joe Arpaio is really good at public relations. Our job would be to combat that and get the truth out there," Mr. Snow said.
He said the group also would push the Justice Department to wrap up its 3-year-old investigation into suspected civil rights violations by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
"We've heard they might postpone it until after the 2012 elections. We're encouraging the Justice Department to finish the job — either serve the indictments or say the investigation is done," said Mr. Snow. "But don't just put it off for political reasons."
Taking on the governor is another matter entirely. Recalling Mrs. Brewer would require collecting more than 432,000 valid signatures and assembling the resources to run a statewide campaign, a far larger undertaking than the Pearce recall.
"We're just gauging interest in that. She hasn't been quite as egregious — she's more pragmatic than Arpaio or Pearce," Mr. Snow said.
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson noted that the governor was re-elected overwhelmingly in 2010, and has served in public office for more than 20 years.
"The governor's focus is on leading the state of Arizona, and this talk of recall is just a sideshow," said Mr. Benson. "The voters have always supported her. We're not worried about it."
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Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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