When Paul Babeu first tried to run for Congress in 2012, his exploratory campaign was rocked by allegations by a 34-year-old man that the Arizona sheriff threatened to have him deported if their relationship was publicly revealed. But even though he was eventually cleared of criminal wrongdoing, Babeu's campaign did not make it out of the gate.
The spectacle surrounding the conservative Republican’s relationship overshadowed another issue that had risen for Babeu. A 2000 investigation by the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services found what it deemed "abusive" disciplinary practices being used on students at a private school he once led for troubled youth had begun to circulate in Arizona . And while the story got some attention in the Arizona press at the time, he denied any personal wrongdoing, said he was never named in any lawsuit against the school and was easily re-elected sheriff that same year.
Almost four years later, as Babeu campaigns again for Congress, this time for the Republican nomination in Arizona’s highly contested, open 1st District, the issue of the DeSisto School has re-emerged, with video. This week, the Phoenix ABC affiliate aired a scathing report featuring a secretly recorded home video – released to the station by Babeu’s sister – in which Babeu spoke broadly about the school’s disciplinary procedures, such as sending students to work on farms and secluding them in corners after they misbehaved.
“You should see these people coming in there, they’re absolutely bonkers,” he said on the tape , adding that in order for the kids to improve, they “need to feel hopeless and feel depression and complete failure."
In a statement this week, he said he "had no responsibility over student discipline" or student affairs, and was never "directly or indirectly involved in any incident."
The video has attracted the ire of one of his Republican rivals, Wendy Rogers. But one Republican operative close to Babeu questioned Rogers' sincerity in her attack, noting that when she was running in Arizona's 9th District seat in 2012, she sought Babeu's support in terms of robocalls, even after the allegations against him were made.
In Washington, D.C., the story raised the eyebrows of officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They see an opportunity to damage a man they consider the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, as the party fights to defend the seat being vacated by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democrat challenging Sen. John McCain for re-election.
Former state Sen. Tom O'Halleran, the leading Democrat in the race, said in a statement when the story reemerged: "I am so troubled by anyone who would participate in or cover up the systematic abuse of children."
As Babeu faces four Republicans for the party's nomination in this massive eastern Arizona district rated Tossup by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call, some Republicans think the issue could finally drag him down.
"He's done," said one unaffiliated Arizona Republican operative. "He has a following but I'd really be surprised if they overlook this."
Babeu, the second-term sheriff of Pinal County, has earned a national following for his advocacy against illegal immigration, appearing often on Fox News Channel. Recently, he appeared at a CNN forum about guns with President Barack Obama. To movement conservatives, he's viewed as a younger generation's Joe Arpaio – another Arizona sheriff who gained notoriety as a crusader against illegal immigration.
In his district, he trails only Gary Kiehne – a self-funding businessman who has unsuccessfully sought the seat before – in fundraising, and has been a top contender in the polls. That, he said, is why he thinks the video has come out now – 16 years after he said it was filmed at a family Christmas gathering.
"When you lead in both polls and fundraising you have to expect a big target on your back. Democrats will stop at nothing to retain the seat," he said in a statement to Roll Call. "But I have faith in the voters to see through these baseless attacks."