The dust-up in District 18 and the historic recall of Russell Pearce belie Arizona’s image as a “red state,” and present voters with a new political weapon.
The dust-up in District 18 and the historic recall of Russell Pearce belie Arizona’s image as a “red state,” and present voters with a new political weapon.
The same day Governor Jan Brewer signed documents officially recalling Russell Pearce from the Arizona Senate, the group that organized Pearce’s recall announcedthey were seeking volunteers for a possible 2012 recall effort against her, and also gathering volunteers to challenge Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Russell Pearce was the first elected official in Arizona history to be recalled from office by voters, and he may not be the last.
Post-recall, Arizona may look less red to some people, but others contend the image of Arizona as a right-wing rampart was never accurate. Recent polls show a divided state (a 2011 Gallup Poll concluded Arizona was one of the most politically balanced states in the nation, with only a two point Republican advantage), and a voter base increasingly more concerned with jobs and the economy, and less concerned with border security and immigration – at least less than they were a few years ago, when Pearce successfully ran for Senate on an anti-illegal immigration platform.
Many say Pearce’s policies helped propagate a “zero tolerance” image of immigration in Arizona, which spurred national boycotts that hurt business. It remains to be seen whether Pearce’s replacement in District 18, Jerry Lewis, will do a better job of keeping his constituency happy. But however politicians and pundits are divided on the issues, they all seem to agree that recall elections represent a political weapon that fires across both sides of the aisle, and that Pearce’s ouster could spark more recall efforts in Arizona and around the nation.
Nationwide, voters deposed more than 13 elected officials in six states via recall elections in 2011, including Pearce, Michigan Representative Paul Scott, and Wisconsin State Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke. But it was the ousting of Pearce, the first sitting senate president to be recalled in the nation’s history, that really got the figurative gears turning.
“If it can happen in Arizona, it can happen anywhere,” says Rudy Lopez, national field director of politics for Campaign for Community Change, a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy group for minorities and marginalized communities. “If Russell Pearce can be recalled, anybody can be recalled.”
After all, Pearce was reelected in District 18 in 2010, after an election in which he was unchallenged in the Republican primary and defeated Democrat challenger Andrew Sherwood by nearly 7,000 votes.
Pearce sponsored, drafted and championed SB 1070, parts of which were deemed unconstitutional by a federal court. His approach to immigration reform was seen as too hardline by many people – even by some of his fellow Republicans and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Pearce is a longtime member. Pearce’s image was further tarnished when he was named in a special committee report on the Fiesta Bowl scandal, alleging he’d taken free game tickets.
In January 2011, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Citizens for a Better Arizona – helmed by former U.S. Senate candidate Randy Parraz and lawyer Chad Snow – launched a recall election effort against Pearce.
Parraz says volunteers at CBA felt Pearce was “over reaching and not focusing on the things most important to them, which are jobs, the economy, education and health care.”
Volunteers from CBA went door-to-door throughout District 18, collecting more than 18,000 signatures on recall petitions by the end of May. A recall election was scheduled for November, and Pearce’s seat was challenged by a former charter school superintendent named Jerry Lewis.
Like Pearce, Lewis is a Republican and a member of the Mormon Church. But his views on immigration are more in line with the Utah Compact adopted by the Mormon Church in 2010, which calls for a more compassionate approach to immigration reform than the law enforcement-heavy SB 1070. “To me, law enforcement is a piece of the action, but it’s not the whole piece,” Lewis says. “We have to look at the whole thing, and I think we can do that in a way that speaks to our humanity and makes it clear that we’re all brothers and sisters. We don’t want to separate families – that creates a much bigger problem on societies than anything else.”
Some say the District 18 recall election is symptomatic of a philosophical schism about immigration in the Mesa Mormon Church. On one side, there’s Russell Pearce and his law-and-order supporters. On the other, there’s a more family-and-business-oriented group that includes people like Jerry Lewis and Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley.
“These two factions are warring. The battlefield that just occurred in the recall election is a great example of how these two power factions are circling, trying to create immigration policy and what immigration policy looks like,” says Shane Wikfors, editor of the conservative blog Sonoran Alliance. “With Lewis now in that seat, the more business-oriented side believes they’ve sent a message to the legislature that ‘You need to tone down the rhetoric. You need to become less harsh. You need to be more adoptive of friendly immigration reform.’”
The night Pearce conceded defeat to Jerry Lewis, he told media, “I intend to spend a little time with my God, my wife, my family, and re-assess where we need to go.” He did not give any interviews in the aftermath of the recall, but pundits say it’s not likely he’ll fade into the sunset.
“I suspect he’s going to stay active,” says David Berman, senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. “He’s probably got some opportunities for elected office in Mesa. He comes from a law enforcement background, so there may be something there for him. There are all kinds of organizations on illegal immigration that he could join up with and be a spokesman for. I think he’s probably got a lot of opportunities, and I expect we’ll hear from him quite a bit.”
Pearce could run for office again in Mesa. That could be in District 18, or possibly District 19, depending on where the Independent Redistricting Commission redraws the lines. Current draft maps put Pearce in District 19, the seat of Republican State Senator Rich Crandall.
If Pearce were to run against Crandall, “I think we’d see the same political warring in that district that we saw in District 18,” Wikfors says.
Pearce could also go the route of former Arizona State Representative J.D. Hayworth and become a mouthpiece for a local conservative radio station.
Pearce served as a sheriff’s deputy for 23 years, so he could also consider running for sheriff. However, Pearce has expressed no desire to run against his longtime ally, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And Arpaio, who’s been sheriff since 1992, is pretty sure he’s going to run for his office again.
“I think Russell should continue his public service,” Arpaio says. “I’d like to see him run against Flake [for a U.S. Senate seat]. The door is still open for me [to run for U.S. Senate], but I think if you were a betting lady, you’d bet I’m running for sheriff again next year. If I don’t run for senate, I’m definitely going to run for sheriff. And I say that because most critics out there who’d like to see me go away one way or the other, the message is I’m sticking around. I’m going to continue doing my illegal immigration [enforcement].”
Arpaio insists that he’s just enforcing the will of the people – as was Pearce. “I serve the people. I don’t serve governors, politicians or anybody else. When the people want you to do something, you should do it,” Arpaio says. “[Pearce] knows – we all know – that the majority of the people like the immigration policy. So he is serving his bosses, which are the people. I’m serving the same boss. We’re just doing the job for our bosses, which are the people in Arizona.”
Andrei Cherny, Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, says it was precisely Pearce’s hardline focus on immigration – to the exclusion of other issues – that led to the recall.
“We’re in the fifth year of the worst economic downturn the state’s ever seen,” Cherny says. “Under his leadership and the leadership of other Republicans in the state, nothing’s been done to get our economy on track. It’s issues like that that really give people the sense we need to make a big change.”
Determining whether Pearce’s loss indicates a shift toward more moderate thinking requires a re-evaluation of Arizona’s image as a red state, Cherny adds. “I think there’s been this idea pushed out there that we are somehow this right, red state, when the fact of the matter has always been that we are very much a purple state,” Cherny says. “Politicians have been pushing this idea that we’re a hardcore conservative state to fit their own, personal political agendas, but the truth is, what the people want is really a mainstream government that’s really focused on real problems and real issues. And that’s not what they’ve been getting.”
“I think the biggest driver of things like the recall is the sense that we need people here who are really going to be fighting for the folks that always get left out of politics,” Cherny adds.
David Berman points out that recent polls within Arizona suggest “a lot of people are a lot softer on the immigration issue than they were before.”
A poll conducted by the Morrison Institute in September 2010 showed that 64 percent of those polled supported all the provisions in SB 1070. However, people may now view immigration as less of an issue, as indicated by a recent Morrison Institute study that showed 22 percent of respondents viewed the economy and jobs as Arizona’s biggest issue, just behind 24 percent of respondents who answered immigration and border security.
“I think there has been a shift in attitude on that issue, and recognition on the part of many that we have an embarrassing image,” Berman says. “It was affecting business…I think we’re seeing large shifts in opinion that are away from what Pearce did.”
Rudy Lopez says the recall results in District 18 gave Arizona’s image a much-needed makeover. “The message here was really clear, that that’s not the kind of politics they want in Arizona, and not the kind of politics they want in that legislative district, and I think it’s a real wake-up call to people who were close to Russell Pearce’s policies,” Lopez says.
“The other thing I think is important to note is, this isn’t about party affiliation,” he continues. “It wasn’t about Republicans or Democrats; it’s really about a point of view. And I was really proud of the result of the election. It really showed that people don’t want those kind of politics in their state, and they were very clear about it.”
For Jerry Lewis, the message voters sent with the recall was “a referendum on priorities.”
“Focus on the priorities, listen to your constituents, and do it in a way that is constructive rather than destructive,” Lewis says. “Do it in a way that doesn’t taint us or portray us in a manner that we are not. Solve issues that need to be solved, but do it in a way that builds us up rather than tears us down or stereotypes us as something that we’re really not.”
Now that Lewis has Pearce’s senate position, how will things change? Lewis says he wants to bring “a civil tone” to Mesa politics. He says the immigration issue is complex, and while we need to consider securing the border and urge the federal government to address the issue, we also have to “satisfy the need of our economy” and figure out how to keep families together.
But immigration isn’t Lewis’ first priority. “The foremost problem here is we have an economy that’s flat on its back that needs help fast,” Lewis says. “So we’re going to be focusing on the economy, getting jobs, and getting our state back on the right track economically. If we can fix the economy, that’d solve a whole lot of problems. So that’s job one.”
Whatever his timetable and priorities, Lewis likely represents a more willing and capable negotiating partner than his predecessor, Arizona Democrats say. “Hopefully, Senator Lewis will be somebody who can be a voice of reason and common sense,” Andrei Cherny says. “I’m sure Democrats won’t agree with him on every issue that comes along, but if people in the state government are willing to roll up their sleeves and actually get to work and try to solve problems – as opposed to just playing politics – I think that’s 90 percent of what anybody could ask for.”
There’s a stockpile of weapon-related metaphors for recall elections, especially when discussing the successful recall of Russell Pearce. And activists are reportedly setting up more targets.
“I think it’s a warning shot around the country, that when your politics go to such an extreme level, that it’s the voters who are going to respond,” Frank Lopez says, adding that Campaign for Community Change is holding an immigration summit in Alabama this month, where “the copycat of SB 1070, House Bill 56” passed. As this story went to press, a recall campaign was also in progress against union-busting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
“People are probably wondering, ‘Is it going to happen to me?’ I think it does have the sort of gun-behind-the-door fear factor for people who might go too far out and alienate some of their voters,” Berman says. “Pearce had a pretty secure job. Most legislators do. The districts here are pretty one-sided and they don’t have a lot of competition. This raises the possibility that people in your own party are going to turn against you if you do something they don’t like. That was the weapon here that worked very effectively in the Pearce case.”
At a press conference at the capitol on November 21, Randy Parraz of Citizens for a Better Arizona said the group wanted to gauge the public’s interest in recalling Governor Jan Brewer. Such a recall election would need more than 430,000 valid signatures on petitions; Parraz said CBA would pursue a Brewer recall campaign if at least 5,000 people signed up to collect at least 100 signatures each at citizensforabetteraz.org.
“We’re going to let the decision be on the voters, the citizens of Arizona, to see if they want that type of recall,” Parraz said. “We’re putting the work back on them.”
Citizens for a Better Arizona is also gathering volunteers for a “Citizens Posse” to oppose Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Parraz said the focus would be on persuading voters to support someone else when Arpaio’s term ends next year.
“As his bosses, as voters in Maricopa County, we’re going to remind him that it’s not all about him; it’s all about us,” Parraz says. “That’s our position. He’s been privileged to serve in it, but now he’s abused that privilege. So it’s our goal that at this time next year, he will not be sheriff of Maricopa County. We’re framing next November as the recall of him... we just don’t have to submit the signatures because the date’s already set.”
Arpaio says he’s not concerned. “I’m not going to be intimidated by the same people who’ve gone after Russell Pearce and think that I’m next,” Arpaio says. “I’m a different type of guy than Russell Pearce. I have a gun and a badge. I’m the chief law enforcement officer. Russell… was the senate president, but he’s in the legislature. I’m a law enforcement guy. There’s a big difference between them. I think these open-border people realize that. Because I’m the guy that can make it rough on them – I’m talking about enforcing the immigration laws.”
Even if the new year doesn’t bring more recall elections to Arizona, to many, the successful recall of Pearce is an optimistic start in a new direction. “We had a night where not only was the most powerful politician in the state recalled from office in a historic election, but we saw mainstream Democrats get elected in Phoenix and Tucson as mayor,” Andrei Cherny says. “Hopefully, this year is the beginning of a return to common sense and a return to responsible leadership – two things I think most people in our state could agree has been missing from state government for the past few years. That’s good for all of us.”