PHOENIX (AP) — Volunteers set up a table outside a music festival one day last month to gather signatures for a drive to oust the notoriously polarizing sheriff of metropolitan Phoenix. The venue, with its largely liberal crowd, seemed the perfect place to drum up support.
But it didn’t take long for fans of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to show up and deliver a heckling. “Free handouts for illegal immigrants,” one of the sheriff’s backers intoned as other sign-carrying supporters raised their voices to try and drown out those of Arpaio’s opponents.
The recall group walked away with only 100 signatures, compared with the 500 gathered in the same spot a day earlier when the sheriff’s supporters weren’t there.
The confrontation underscores the feisty ground campaign being mounted on both sides — but also the increasing difficulty that Arpaio critics face in getting enough signatures to put a recall before voters.
The recall effort began just weeks after the 80-year-old Republican sheriff started his sixth term in January.
Organizers argue Arpaio should be booted because his office has failed to adequately investigate more than 400 sex-crimes cases and has cost the county $25 million in legal settlements over treatment in county jails. Two pending lawsuits also accuse the agency of racial profiling while conducting immigration patrols.
The sheriff, his critics insist, is more focused on getting publicity for himself than protecting the people.
But recall organizers face long odds. They must gather more than 335,000 signatures by May 30, at a time when they’re running short on money, aren’t attracting deep-pocketed donors and are relying on volunteers rather than paid professionals to sign up supporters.
They also are mounting a campaign against a politician who has a base of devoted supporters and emptied $8 million during the last election cycle, nearly 14 times as much as his closest challenger spent. Arpaio warned in one recent fundraising email that he could lose his post if he’s forced into a recall election.
“We will not be intimidated,” said recall campaign manager Lilia Alvarez. “We are doing work that’s legal and constitutional.”
Nevertheless, big-money donors seem disinclined to support the recall effort. David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said some will likely disapprove of a recall so soon after the November general election, making the prospect of ousting Arpaio a long shot.
“I don’t see this attracting a lot of money for the recall people,” Berman said.
The recall group acknowledged a month ago that it was having difficulties raising money and had to rely on a mostly volunteer work force. Organizers also said they haven’t found big donors to help ease their money problems but believe they can reach their goal through smaller contributions. Others noted that big-money donors aren’t likely to contribute to a cause that may never reach the ballot.