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Taking on Sheriff Joe: On the ground with Maricopa County’s anti-Arpaio activists

PHOENIX—Here in Maricopa County, Arizona, the political scene is starting to get pretty interesting. The state, which has voted reliably Republican for the last few presidential cycles, is getting some serious Democratic attention in the week before Election Day: Both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine will be appearing in Phoenix over the next couple of days. And beneath all the headlining presidential speculation are a series of local races that have nonetheless taken on national significance, including the reelection campaign of Maricopa County’s now infamous sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio has become a hero of the hardline anti-immigrant right by using his office to target, imprison and humiliate undocumented immigrants and Latino residents under his jurisdiction. Arpaio’s “Tent City” jail, in which inmates are forced to endure the sweltering Arizona heat, is the most well-known of his abuses. His department enthusiastically practices racial profiling and proudly defies court orders from a federal judge to cease the practice. Earlier this month, Arpaio was slapped with a federal contempt charge for disobeying those orders, and Maricopa County has spent tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money defending Arpaio as he refuses to cease persecuting undocumented immigrants.

All these factors, combined with Republican unease over Donald Trump (an enthusiastic Arpaio supporter) have emboldened Democrats and local activists, who think Arpaio is more vulnerable than he was in 2012, when he won reelection by 80,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast. Some sporadic polling data indicate that they may be on to something and that Arpaio could be in trouble. I spent a day here in Phoenix talking to representatives of one of the activist groups leading the organizing efforts against the sheriff, Bazta Arpaio (“Enough Arpaio”), to get a sense of what they’re doing and what they hope to accomplish on November 8.

Tania Unzueta, the field director for Bazta Arpaio, said that the sentiment motivating the group and its organizers is one of urgency. “Their homes have been raided by Arpaio, their family members have been deported,” she said. “And so seeing this as a chance, it’s urgent.”

There’s also the Trump factor, which Unzueta believes is helping people see Arpaio for who he really is. “Arpaio and other people often get away with talking about criminalization [of undocumented immigrants] as ‘safety’ and as ‘protecting communities,’” she said, “and I think Trump has just taken [it] so far to the extreme that it’s more clear that that’s coded language.”

While the organization’s primary goal is to unseat the sheriff, there is a longer-term strategy in place to create a stronger, more organized grassroots network that will mobilize to change county law enforcement policies. “Any sort of electoral campaign goes easily to the people who are the higher-propensity voters,” Unzueta told me. “To us it’s also developing a voter base and a base of people that hasn’t really been reached out to within the electoral or within the grassroots context.” This strategy will be implemented regardless of which candidate walks away from the election holding the office of Maricopa County sheriff.

To that end, the organization pointedly does not make an active case on behalf of Arpaio’s opponent, Democrat Paul Penzone. Its message is strictly anti-Arpaio. The group maintains that posture because it understands that even if Arpaio loses, the policies he leaves behind will still have to be changed, and that will require putting pressure on Penzone to change the culture of law enforcement in Maricopa County.

I tagged along on a Bazta Arpaio canvassing trip one week out in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria. Leading the trip was Ernesto Lopez, a burly, soft-spoken activist who moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix in the mid-2000s and was appalled by Arpaio’s brutal tactics. Ernesto collects a vanload of students from the local high school and drops them off at strategically chosen locations throughout the area — neighborhoods with names like New River Ranch and Sun Air Estates that boast row upon row of taupe-shaded houses on gravel plots.

Today, Ernesto and his volunteers are looking to nudge people to mail in their ballots ahead of the deadline and, if possible, find out if those votes are for or against Joe Arpaio. They all have a data collection app called MiniVAN installed on their phones telling them which houses to visit, who lives there, their registration status, and other info. The people in their target universe are newly registered voters, people who have disengaged from the electoral process, and other non-reliable voters that major political campaigns tend not to prioritize.

Throughout the afternoon, Ernesto gives two of his volunteers, Adrian and Octavio, a lesson in how to canvass. He continually feeds tips and pointers to the two students as they move from house to house: what to say to get the attention of a resident, what to do when the person they’re looking for isn’t home, how many times they should knock or ring the doorbell, where to stand so that people can see them through their peepholes. “Confidence, people smell confidence,” Ernesto tells them.

“What if they think we’re cops?” Octavio asks as he warily taps on the door of one of their target houses.

“This is a nice neighborhood,” Ernesto says. “Cops don’t come out here that much.”

The immediate goal of these canvassing operations is to contact 150,000 voters in and around the Phoenix metro area and urge them to get involved and vote against Joe Arpaio. Ernesto said about 30 percent of the people they’ve contacted have already mailed in their ballots, a number he’s pleased with. Suburbs like Peoria are where Bazta Arpaio is hoping to do some damage to the sheriff’s base of support.

Convincing urban voters and Latinos to mobilize against Arpaio is a bit easier because those voters react more strongly to the sheriff’s racially divisive rhetoric and authoritarian tactics. Out in the wealthier (and whiter) suburbs, the anti-Arpaio message requires some more finesse.

“They don’t care so much about [Arpaio’s] racism,” Ernesto says of Maricopa County’s suburbanites. “They care about his money-wasting.”

When he makes the anti-Arpaio pitch to targeted voters here in Peoria, he always makes sure to note how many millions of dollars Arpaio’s legal troubles are costing voters.

For the final week of the election, Bazta Arpaio is planning to ramp up canvassing operations and put together a massive push to mobilize voters and get them to the polls. On Election Day, Ernesto and his associates plan to be in areas that are heavily Democratic, as well as in predominantly Native American and Latino neighborhoods, to help people find their polling locations, encourage them to stay in long lines, and hand out bottles of water.

Defeating Arpaio would, of course, be a massive victory for the immigrant rights activist community. It would send a message to other law enforcement agencies and elected officials that anti-immigrant hostility does carry electoral consequences, and it would speak to the increasing power of the growing community of Latino voters. It would also be the first step in repairing a thoroughly dysfunctional relationship between Maricopa County’s law enforcement officials and the community they’re supposed to be protecting.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon’s political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

Simon Maloy.

Source: Salon: in-depth news, politics, business, technology & culture > Politics

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