Five candidates have officially thrown their hats in the ring to become the first new sheriff in Santa Cruz County in nearly 30 years. The winner will head a staff of more than 100 employees on a $12 million budget in a key county along the U.S. – Mexico border south of Tucson.
Last week Keith D. Barth formally kicked off his campaign to replace Sheriff Tony Estrada with a gathering of supporters in Nogales. Among those backing Barth, a former Santa Cruz County justice of the peace, at the event was Alyssa Cordova, widow of Nogales police officer Jesus Cordova who was killed in the line of duty last year.
Barth, who previously served as a Cochise County Sheriff’s deputy, was elected to the justice court in 2007, a position he held until December 2018 when the county board eliminated his court, citing budgetary concerns. He currently serves as the contracted town magistrate for Huachuca City.
County election documents show three other Democrats have filed initial candidate papers. The others are David Ruiz, most recently with the U.S. Border Patrol; Rafael Corrales, retired Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputy; and David Hathaway, a retired DEA agent who supervised the agency’s Nogales office.
Hathaway challenged Estrada in the 2016 Democratic primary, coming within 383 votes of unseating the longtime sheriff. To date there is no declared candidate on the Republican party ticket, although former Customs & Border Protection official Jose “Joe” Agosttini is running as an Independent.
Estrada has yet to officially announce whether he plans to contend for an eighth term. He was first sworn in as Santa Cruz County’s top law enforcement official in January 1993 and will be 77-years-old when his term expires at the end of 2020.
If Estrada runs, he will face questions about an investigation by the state auditor’s office, his disputes with the county board, and county-wide budget issues brought on by the underutilization of a state-of-the-art jail built in 2011.
Last fall, Estrada was notified of an Arizona Auditor General investigation related to employees claiming extra hours as compensation for performing duties beyond their job description. Estrada approved the practice, which provided extra pay for some employees to help train new deputies and supervise patrol shifts, when the employees held positions that didn’t require that type of work.
In addition, the same county board that abolished Barth’s justice of the peace court also eliminated a sheriff’s lieutenant position. The action irked Estrada, who said the county board had no right to “meddle” in how he manages his office.
The county is also reeling from debt incurred to build a jail in Nogales that holds 372 inmates. The expectation was that other agencies would pay to house their detainees there, but county records show the average daily head count has been far less.
Some residents contend Estrada’s public criticisms of the Trump administration have contributed to the problem.