In Arizona’s Most Populous County, There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Red background with textured cacti in the background and the state of Arizona and red-toned images of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio (on the left) and Russell Skinner (on the right) and a blue-toned image of Paul Penzone. In the bottom right corner reads "MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA" in all caps.

In November of 2023, Paul Penzone announced that he was stepping down as Maricopa County sheriff, which became effective in January of this year. (He took a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield.) 

Since Penzone was a Democrat, state law required that the Maricopa Board of Supervisors replace him with another Democrat, in a procedure that hasn’t been used since 1946 when a sheriff died while in office. (The Board is currently majority Republican.) No Democrats applied for the job out of the eight men who applied.

The next day, Penzone’s chief deputy, Russell Skinner, changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and won the spot. He will serve as temporary sheriff until November’s election. The lone Democrat on the five-person board was the only member to vote against Skinner as a replacement. 

Now, Skinner will run as a Democrat, presenting himself as Penzone’s apolitical successor. While there are other Democrats running for the spot in the upcoming election, Skinner, as the incumbent, has the clear advantage. 

This kind of election, one where the incumbent sheriff has resigned and enabled a chosen replacement to take office, subverts the democratic process and shows how sheriff elections, while nominally the voter’s choice, often offer no choice at all.

Penzone became Maricopa County’s sheriff in 2016, ousting the infamous Joe Arpaio. At the time, Arpaio was under court order to reduce racial profiling of Latinos as well as to create a process for investigating wrongdoing by deputies. When Arpaio intentionally refused to implement any changes, a judge held him in criminal contempt, charges for which Donald Trump pardoned the ex-sheriff.

According to his November speech, Penzone is leaving the office over his frustration with the ongoing court oversight that stemmed originally from Arpaio’s tenure, which he called the “one cloud still hanging over this office.” 

“I’ll be damned if I’ll do three terms under federal court oversight for a debt I never incurred and not be given the chance to serve this community in the manner that I could if you take the other hand from being tied around my back,” he said.

Three other men have thus far announced that they plan to run for sheriff. One of those is Jerry Sheridan, who was Arpaio’s chief deputy. In 2020, Sheridan beat Arpaio in the Republican primary and ran for office against Penzone.

When Penzone originally won the sheriff election in 2016, it was a great feat of Democratic organizing despite the strong Republican presence in the county. (Maricopa went for Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.) Penzone was tasked with undoing 24 years of Arpaio.

Penzone’s tenure, however, was by many marks a disappointment. While he certainly did more to restore trust in the community than Arpaio did — closing the infamous “tent city” for example — Penzone continued to struggle to keep up with objectives set by the court monitor to reduce racial profiling. Deputies under his command continued to treat Latino drivers differently than white drivers. Thousands of internal affairs complaints remained unaddressed. The court ordered a Civilian Oversight Committee and Penzone walked out of a community meeting in frustration.

Eventually, the cracks began to show. Penzone continued to allow agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement into the jail to pick up those who might be eligible for deportation. Such cooperation was started by Arpaio, and while Penzone was not as aggressive as Arpaio, the net result continued to be disproportionate deportations of Latino residents. The continued court monitoring cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars with no end in sight. Change in culture was slow and there was low morale among the ranks of deputies.

Maricopa County is an unfortunate example of how sheriff elections do not necessarily represent the will of the people.

In 2022, a federal judge held Penzone in contempt of court for his failure to bring the office into compliance with the court monitor, largely criticizing the lengthy process for internal investigations. The judge wrote, Penzone’s “failure to complete investigations in a timely manner has become so extreme as to render investigations completely ineffectual.”

Yet, because residents of Maricopa County had to fend off the constant attempts first by Arpaio, then Sheridan to reclaim the office, voters were forced to accept Penzone as the alternative choice. The ripples of Arpaio’s violent, illegal and racist policies were still present.

Penzone admitted as much when he explained his reasons for resigning. “There was a political powerhouse that dominated in ways that were not appropriate, that used the platform of this office to intimidate and to influence, and to just control the landscape to the detriment of the people that we serve,” he said, referring to taking office in the shadow of Arpaio.

Skinner, however, is no Democrat. He has been in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office since 1990. After he was sworn in as sheriff, he acknowledged that the department has changed a great deal since Arpaio’s time. 

“I am bipartisan in the sense I am a law enforcement professional and I will do what needs to be done to uphold the law, uphold the constitution and make sure we keep Maricopa County safe and moving forward,” he said after his February swearing in ceremony.

It’s hard to think that Skinner can be trusted to improve upon Penzone although Skinner has promised to continue Penzone’s policy of being extra vigilant for threats and providing extra security for election workers in November. At the same time, it’s an understandable choice for the county leadership to make. They cannot appoint someone who did not apply.

Since Arpaio was permitted to remain sheriff despite — maybe even because of — all of the violence, inept policing and racism he perpetuated in his office, the people of Maricopa County never really got a meaningful choice. They had to elect the person who was “not Arpaio.” As a result, the election failed to bring real substantive change to the office. Even now, Maricopa is still stuck in the “no Arpaio” loop.

Some advocates called Penzone “Arpaio light” to draw attention to the need to see the office as an institution. They pointed to the ways in which Penzone had not changed the office substantively enough nor fast enough. Even if voters in Maricopa County continue to push for change, they cannot impact the institution as a whole at once. Change comes slowly.

Maricopa County is an unfortunate example of how sheriff elections do not necessarily represent the will of the people. In this case, voters elected Penzone, a Democrat, but, because of the rules that allow appointment before an election can take place, they have a Republican sheriff who worked under Joe Arpaio running as their supposed Democratic choice.

Maricopa advocates worked hard for years to get Arpaio out of office and end his policies that were hurting families. Now their choice has been short circuited yet again, with no real options in sight.

Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.