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Why The Race for Maricopa County Sheriff Could Be About More Than Sheriff

Young volunteers with the Campaign for Arizona's Future.
Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
Young volunteers with the Campaign for Arizona's Future.

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PHOENIX -- One theory for why California became a solid blue state in the 1990s is because of a surge of Latino voters.

Political analysts credit a backlash against Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative supported by former Republican Governor Pete Wilson that would have denied public benefits to undocumented immigrants.

The initiative was struck down in the courts, but the proposition's lasting legacy, according to some political scientists, is politically activated Latinos who vote Democratic.

Given that enforcement of the final provision of SB 1070 is taking effect, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's continued hard line stance on illegal immigration, some left-leaning activists are wondering if Arizona could be poised for its own backlash that would reverse the trend of low-Latino turnout in the state.

After all, Arpaio -- who has recently been the focus of high profile allegations of discrimination against Latinos -- is on the ballot in the state's most populous county this November.

While challenges from both an Independent and a Democrat could very well split the anti-Arpaio vote, some grassroots efforts are hoping widespread anti-Arpaio sentiment could drive some first-time voters to the polls.

Already the controversial sheriff is motivating teams of teenage volunteers from immigrant backgrounds to put on 'Adios Arpaio' t-shirts and register new voters in heavily Latino neighborhoods. The campaign is backed by the Campaign for Arizona's Future PAC (which is supported by the union UNITE HERE), and calls itself the largest Latino voter drive in Arizona history

On Thursday, the campaign announced they had registered more than 20,000 voters at a boisterous press conference in front of the Sheriff's office.

"Our whole campaign is largely modeled to the response to Prop. 187," said Brendan Walsh, the PAC's director, referencing the California fight. "Our belief is that when there is an attack like this, people will stand up and fight it."

What following the California model means to Walsh is not only registering new voters, but forming a labor-friendly grassroots movement. And the way to get that rolling, he said, is by grooming a new generation of activists, and taking on local political races that are winnable.

Following the passage of SB 1070 in 2010, there was no notable backlash at the polls in the governor's race. In fact, Governor Jan Brewer's easy victory that year suggests just the opposite.

Walsh says his campaign is building on the momentum of 2011. In addition to a recall of Russell Pearce, the former state Senator who sponsored SB 1070, progressives victories in the city of Phoenix benefited from record-level Latino voter participation.

Famously, Danny Valenzuela's successful bid for city council involved boosting Latino turnout in his precinct exponentially. Voters also elected a Democratic Phoenix Mayor.

Walsh admits this county-wide race is more challenging than a city election. But triumphing in this particular sheriff's race isn't necessarily the point.

"In the end it is not about Arpaio," said campaign organizer Daria Ovide. "If Arpaio is reelected, we haven't lost. Because we have already registered 20,000 more people to vote. All of these are Latino, and would not have voted otherwise, and should be voting."

The passion driving the campaign's energy at the grassroots level was on display last month at a gathering of the teenage canvassers. One high school student named Martin stood up and spoke about worrying his mother could get stopped while driving and wind up deported.

"When she goes grocery shopping, when she goes to the store, I live with that fear that one day I will never get to see her again."

He explained that is what brought him out to register voters.

"I don't want to be home on a Saturday night hoping things, when I could be here taking action and doing something for my community," he said.

Then a middle school student named Emily took the mic and fought back tears when she explained her fear of a family member being deported.

"We hope that Joe Arpaio can get out of here forever and he can stop what he is doing because what he is doing is not right." she said. "And we want justice!"

By some estimates, there are between 300,000 and 400,000 eligible Latino voters in the state who are unregistered.

That is a significant number, especially considering that GOP presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain won the state with a 200,000 vote margin over Barack Obama in 2008.

That means significant changes in voter registration and participation could shake up the politics in Arizona -- beyond just the race for Maricopa County Sheriff.

That fact of course isn't lost on organizer Ovide.

"I personally have hopes that the number of people we register and turn out will make a big difference in some of the other races in the state," Ovide said. "In the end, it is always about the next thing we can win."

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.