By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) – Veteran Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, a Republican who gained national prominence for his hard-line stance against illegal immigration, conceded defeat on Tuesday in his bid for a seventh term as the sheriff of the state’s most populous county.
Unofficial results showed that Arpaio, self-proclaimed as “America’s toughest sheriff,” lost to Democratic challenger and former Phoenix police officer Paul Penzone by about 10 percentage points in the race for Maricopa County sheriff.
With 71 percent of precincts counted, Penzone had 563,059 votes to 459,683 for Arpaio.
In a statement, Arpaio, 84, thanked the people for their faith and support over the years and the hard work and dedication of his employees.
“Tonight, the people have spoken,” he said. “And while (wife) Ava and I are disappointed in the results, we respect their decision.”
Penzone, who narrowly lost to Arpaio in 2012, said the election results made a statement that could be heard nationwide.
“No matter where we come from or what we look like or what our beliefs are, we’re all entitled to respect,” Penzone told supporters in declaring victory. “I want to restore that respect, that transparency and that confidence to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.”
The loss by the embattled sheriff came as he was facing a criminal contempt charge for violating a court order stemming from a 2007 case that found his office guilty of racial profiling.
A federal judge in Phoenix ruled that Arpaio and his deputies had stopped and detained Latino motorists solely on the suspicion they were in the country illegally for 18 months after an order to cease those operations.
Federal prosecutors alleged that the sheriff’s conduct was criminal and recommended he face up to six months incarceration if found guilty at trial.
He had lashed out at President Barack Obama’s Justice Department for what he said was playing politics and charging him so close to the election, vowing he would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Because of the looming legal woes and court setbacks, political observers predicted this would be Arpaio’s toughest election test. An opinion poll last month showed him down by nearly 15 percentage points.
At noon on Tuesday, several hundred students from two heavily Latino high schools walked out of class and onto the streets to urge voters to end Arpaio’s more than two decades in office.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles)