Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America, could be in for the roughest fight of his political career if a recent survey of Valley leaders is any indication.
A survey conducted by local polling firm O’Neil Associates shows Arpaio with a 35 percent approval rating among Valley business and community leaders.
The Web-based survey, which was sent to members of Greater Phoenix Leadership, Valley Leadership, East Valley Partnership and Westmarc, is the lowest approval rating Arpaio has received among any group since taking office 10 years ago, said Michael O’Neil, president of O’Neil Associates of Tempe.
"It’s extraordinary," said O’Neil, whose company has measured public opinion in the Valley for more than 20 years. "I’ve never seen his numbers so low."
The sheriff, who criticized how the poll was conducted, claimed that survey did not accurately measure public opinion.
"It’s garbage," Arpaio said. "This poll does not reflect the general population."
Since the 400 people surveyed had never been asked to evaluate Arpaio’s performance, O’Neil said it is impossible to tell if the sheriff’s popularity with the group had dropped.
"All we know is that he is not popular among these people right now," O’Neil said, adding that Arpaio may never have been well liked by business and community leaders.
In the past, the sheriff has always received high approval ratings among the general public. A poll conducted by O’Neil Associates in 1997 showed Arpaio had an 85 percent approval rating.
The most recent survey of the general public taken by the polling firm showed the sheriff with a 69 percent approval rating in September 2001.
Arpaio said recent polls conducted by other companies, including other media, show him with a 70 percent to 80 percent approval rating.
"Everywhere I go people still come up to me and say ‘Give em hell sheriff,’ " Arpaio said.
Political rivals said the poll dispels the myth that the sheriff is unbeatable and indicates voters are tired of the Arpaio administration.
"He’s in for a battle," said W. Steven Martin, the former disc-jockey who is running against Arpaio in the September 2004 Republican primary. In previous elections, Martin said the sheriff won by such large numbers because there were no quality opponents running against him.
Mesa police Cmdr. Dan Saban, who is also running for sheriff, said the survey shows what people have been saying for months.
"People throughout the Valley want fresh leadership and want a regime change," said Saban, who has 28 years of law enforcement experience in the Valley.
Lisa Allen, the sheriff’s director of public information, said she was concerned with the low numbers, but remained confident that the sheriff would be re-elected to a fourth term.
Allen said the survey was biased because the groups that participateddon’t like the sheriff.
"Highly educated people and liberals do not vote for him," she said.
But the survey did show Arpaio retained a visibility rating of 90 percent. He was second only to the Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley who had a 92 percent recognition rate.
The poll, which was released Sunday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.