Is opinion turning against Joe Arpaio in Arizona?

The sheriff, a hero of conservative immigration activists, is facing possible charges for criminal contempt – and a close upcoming general election.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, seen here at a 2013 press conference, may soon face federal contempt charges for ignoring a judge's orders regarding his treatment of Latinos.

A federal judge has asked the US Attorney’s Office to file criminal contempt charges against Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, accusing Mr. Arpaio of ignoring court orders in connection with his office’s racial profiling of Latinos.

District Judge G. Murray Snow wrote that the sheriff had “a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case,” according to CNN. The judge added that there existed probable cause to believe that Arpaio and a deputy had lied under oath to obstruct investigations into further wrongdoing. 

The sheriff's heavy-handed approach to undocumented immigrants at one point made him a hugely popular figure who sailed through re-election with two-thirds of the vote, but as demographics in his county have changed, his popularity has begun a precipitous slide.

The request for criminal contempt charges echoes an earlier ruling, also from Judge Snow, in which Snow found Arpaio’s office had defied a 2013 order in another case regarding racial discrimination against Latinos.

If Snow’s latest request to the US Attorney's Office is honored, Arpaio could face fines or jail time.

It comes as the sheriff’s approach toward immigration violations – which coupled harsh, often humiliating punishment with a kind of zany Americana – enjoys a national renaissance in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who has stumped with Arpaio on the campaign trail.

But Arpaio, who has served as sheriff for more than 20 years, has seen his popular support slowly erode since 2000, when he won reelection with 66 percent of the vote, according to the Arizona Capitol Times. In 2016, he may be facing his toughest challenge yet.

In a independent poll of 348 likely voters, Arpaio led his challenger by a 5-point margin – which is also the poll’s margin of error. Two weeks before, a Republican poll gave his opponent, Democrat Paul Penzone, a 3-point lead in the race.

Arpaio’s popularity among residents of Maricopa County has also slipped in more general terms. A May survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that 50 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably, compared to 44 percent who favored him. “Whether that actually translates into electoral vulnerability this fall remains to be seen,” the firm wrote, “but he clearly isn't exactly a beloved figure with his constituents.”

Part of the decline in popularity comes from the changing demographics of Maricopa County, which has taken in some 148,000 people from other states and 53,000 from other countries since 2010, according to the Arizona Republic

Retirees, who have long favored the county's dry climate, no doubt make up a major portion of the new residents. But Phoenix and its suburbs, where voters are often younger and more politically liberal, may look less fondly upon Arpaio.

In 2012, Michael O’Neil, chief executive of the public-opinion research firm O’Neil Associates, told the Capitol Times that Arpaio’s election victory that year could be his “last hurrah,” pointing to losses in some majority-Republican districts in and around Phoenix, where voters tend to be affluent and better educated.

“He was the most popular guy in the state, but he’s been on a long slow ride down,” O’Neil said then. “The question was, ‘Could he hang on this one last time?’ And he only won by a hair.”

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