He tried twice to unseat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and lost both times. But former Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban is going to try again, saying Monday he believes he can pull off an upset in his third run for the office.
Saban told Heat City he gave the county notice of his campaign last week after being overwhelmed by calls to get into the 2012 race despite losses to Arpaio in 2008 and 2004. “I just got bombarded with emails,” Saban said.
Unsure whether he would ever return to politics after the last election, Saban said he spent the first five months of this year on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, helping train the nation’s police force there. When he returned to Arizona in late May, he discovered his supporters were already organizing for a 2012 race. The momentum was too strong to pass up.
“I came back to this groundswell of support that I didn’t even know was going on,” he said, pointing to a Facebook page with more than 1,400 fans calling for him to run. “It’s a fight worth being in — trust me.”
In an email late Monday, Arpaio’s campaign manager, Chad Willems, said the sheriff welcomes all challengers to the race. “Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a strong supporter of the right to free speech and the right of those who want to enter the political process as a candidate for office,” he said.
Saban, who ran as a Republican in his first race and as a Democrat for the second, said he is sticking with the Democratic Party this time. He cited the fact that he finished with more than 550,000 votes in the last election — about 42 percent of the total — as proof of having strong support from the party as well as from other voters.
“That’s half a million people who want change,” Saban said.
But the path to victory this time, just like before, is not an easy one.
Arpaio and his fellow Republicans have savaged Saban’s reputation over the years, largely using unsupported allegations of seedy behavior to go after him.
In 2004, for example, Arpaio’s office opened up a criminal investigation into 30-year-old allegations by Saban’s adoptive mother. The case was handed over to another agency and eventually thrown out but not before it was leaked to the media by Arpaio’s office.
Saban lost the Republican primary that year, taking just 44 percent of the vote. Arpaio won with 56 percent.
Four years later, after Saban became a Democrat, the state Republican Party funded a television ad that repeated those same allegations and added a few more. One allegation was based on an investigation the Mesa Police Department launched after a friend of Saban’s told an off-color joke about him at a party. That investigation was also dropped for lack of evidence, but it was nonetheless included in the ad.
The TV spot also brought up testimony Saban gave during a 2005 lawsuit against Arpaio. In it, he admitted to masturbating at home once while on lunch break from duty as a volunteer for the sheriff’s office in the 1970s. Because of the graphic language in the ad, some TV networks would only air it after 9 p.m.
Asked why he would want to open himself up to the same kinds of attacks for a third time, Saban waved off any concern. He said he hoped to make the race about issues, not innuendo.
“He’s never once attacked me on my professional experience,” said Saban, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, most of it at the Mesa Police Department.
Perhaps an even bigger problem for any challenger, however, is the reality that Arpaio has become a campaign fund-raising powerhouse since winning his fifth term in 2008 with 55 percent of the vote.
With two years until the next election for sheriff, Arpaio has already shattered every fund-raising and campaign spending record in Maricopa County history. He has put together at least $3 million and already spent more than $1 million of it to raise more cash and try to help his allies in this year’s elections.
This year alone, the sheriff has been raising money at a pace of more than $50,000 a week. By comparison, Saban raised a total of about $160,000 for his 2008 run.
But all is not rosy for the sheriff, either. He has come under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury looking into allegations that he abused his position as sheriff for political gain.
The investigation stems from a long-running feud between the sheriff and numerous officials in Maricopa County leadership. At one point in December 2009, Arpaio’s office was investigating all five elected county supervisors, the top two appointed county administrators and at least three judges, all of whom had other conflicts with the sheriff.
Arpaio’s popularity rating dipped as low 39 percent in January as a result of the feud. But it appeared to pick up later in the year as immigration become the state’s top issue and he contemplated running for governor.
For Saban, however, the fund raising and past polls mean very little. He is confident voters will see him as the right candidate for the job this time.
He is already starting to raise seed money and plans to have his campaign fully operational within the next several weeks.
“I can fix this mess,” Saban said. “He obviously underestimates my resolve.”