Two Democrats Take Aim At Sheriff Joe Arpaio
June 20, 2012

Photo by Nick Blumberg
John Rowan, Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Sheriff, outside his home in Buckeye, Ariz.

PHOENIX -- Even with the lowest approval rating he’s ever faced, it’s quite probable that Joe Arpaio will win a seventh term in November as Maricopa County Sheriff. That would put him in line to become the county’s longest-serving top lawman in history.

Reporter Devin Browne profiled an independent candidate, Mike Stauffer, who wants to end Arpaio’s streak. But he's not the only one -- there are also two Democrats in the race.

Anyone with even a casual knowledge of politics can guess that a race against Sheriff Arpaio is inevitably going to be long, loud, and bloody -- a lot like a boxing match. On a recent Saturday night, that’s exactly where John Rowan found himself.

Rowan spent two decades with the New York Police Department, including serving for noted chief William Bratton. He moved to Arizona in 2006 to work for the Goodyear Police Department, where he says he was fired in retaliation for testifying about a controversial internal investigation.

Photo by Nick Blumberg
John Rowan climbed into the ring to make his pitch during the intermission at an Iron Boy Promotions boxing match in Phoenix.

Between boxing matches at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, Rowan literally climbs into the ring to address the largely Latino crowd about his candidacy for Maricopa County Sheriff.

"My name is John Rowan, and I’m engaging in the toughest fight of my life, and I need your help to win."

He isn’t kidding. Maricopa County hasn’t had a Democratic Sheriff since the 1980s. If Rowan breaks the trend, he says he would do a top-to-bottom audit of the Sheriff’s Office, fire any detective who failed to properly investigate a case, and do what he calls "keeping the good guys good."

"As sheriff, that makes me the highest law enforcement authority in Maricopa County. I can investigate any misconduct in any police department anywhere in this county," Rowan said. "I think it’s time we put the 'good old boy' form of government to bed and we start holding law enforcement accountable."

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Paul Penzone, Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Sheriff, addresses the Mesa Baseline Rotary Club in Mesa, Ariz.

But just like a boxing match has several rounds, so too does this election, meaning Rowan will have to knock out an opponent in the primary.

The loud hip-hop music filling the air around John Rowan was a stark contrast to a roomful of folks singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" inside the Mesa Country Club, where the other Democratic candidate, Paul Penzone, addressed the Mesa Baseline Rotary Club.

"Remove [Arpaio's] face and his name, and put the track record there and ask yourself, 'If I owned a company and this was my CEO, would I be okay with that track record?'"

But if this sounds like an easier crowd than a boxing match, this club is in Legislative District 18, the district once represented by Russell Pearce, now by Jerry Lewis; not a hardliner on immigration, but still a plenty conservative Republican. And many people at the Rotary Club aren’t exactly lefties.

Ken Johnson owns a local security company. He says he hasn’t decided for whom he’ll vote this year, but that he’s supported Arpaio for years.

"[Arpaio] is tough on crime, and that’s the perception that’s out there," Johnson said. "There are some things he probably could do better. But it’s going to take someone that’s going to bring that same tenacity to the position to unseat somebody that has a firm entrenchment like that."

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Signs and brochures promoting Paul Penzone's candidacy.

Penzone thinks he’s got that tenacity. He’s a retired Phoenix Police Sergeant who ran the Silent Witness program for years, dealing with the public, community leaders, and media. Penzone doesn’t identify as a Republican, Independent, or Democrat, but as a public servant. If he wins, he says he'll focus on law enforcement's key responsibilities:

" keep a community safe, to hold criminals accountable, and to be effective investigators," Penzone said. "If politics plays a part in influencing that in any way, we’ve already failed."

But internal politics will make it harder for the Democrats to beat Arpaio. Penzone is running with the blessing of the Maricopa County Dems, Rowan is not. And neither candidate is doing what longtime Democratic strategist Bob Grossfeld says they need to do -- tip their hat to Arpaio:

" going, 'You know, the Sheriff has devoted so much of his life to Maricopa County, and he’s done this, and he’s done that, and that’s really helped us in the fight against crime, but it’s time to enhance those things. It’s time to come up with some new ways of deterring crime,'...blah blah blah blah blah," Grossfeld said.

Even though both Democratic candidates are former Republicans, they don’t seem terribly interested in that route.

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Read the profile of Mike Stauffer, the independent candidate in the Maricopa County Sheriff race.

"The sheriff’s record is one of disappointment, and the community will not allow him to buy his way out of that," Penzone said.

"He is not tough on crime, he is incompetent on crime. It is time to retire Sheriff Arpaio," Rowan said.

Paul Penzone and John Rowan will face off in the primary on Aug. 28. The winner advances to the general election Nov. 6.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said John Rowan served as a Deputy Chief in the NYPD. According to Rowan's campaign, he was loaned from the NYPD to the State of New York to serve as Deputy Chief of Investigations.