In a celebratory display of unprecedented organization, a bipartisan group of activists poured into the Arizona secretary of state's office yesterday with more than 18,300 signatures to demand the recall of State Senate president Russell Pearce. The filing of the petitions marked the culmination of a campaign that has defied expectations, and a watershed moment for the beleaguered state. Once the state and Maricopa County recorders verify the legal requirement of 7,756 signatures from the traditionally conservative and Mormon-founded Mesa district, Pearce—who is considered by many as the de facto governor and motivating force behind the state's notorious blitz of extremist policies on education, health, guns and immigration—will become the first State Senate president in American history to be recalled.
Campaign supporters declared the historic moment to be a turning point in Arizona's extremist politics, which have dominated national headlines over the past two years. Coming only days after a Supreme Court decision upheld the first in a series of controversial immigration laws originating in Arizona, the recall campaign also takes on national implications. Pearce has influenced legislators and government officials in other states—Georgia, for example, recently adopted a punitive immigration law modeled on an Arizona measure—and he is affiliated with the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council, a shadowy group of legislators and corporate lobby interests.
Working nonstop in the desert heat over the past four months, organizers welcomed such a national showdown with newfound confidence in their ability to reclaim the state's floundering image and economy.
"We want to send a message to Senator Pearce, to every legislator down here at the Arizona legislature, that this kind of extreme, ideologically driven policies will no longer be tolerated in our state," said Citizens for a Better Arizona co-founder and Phoenix Republican activist Chad Snow.
"Extremist politics only result in short-term gain," added Citizens for a Better Arizona's co-founder and main organizer, Randy Parraz, who called Pearce an "outright embarrassment to the state." The recall effort, Parraz went on, was a reminder for right-wing extremists across the country that there would be "consequences" for their ruinous policies.
Throughout the campaign, Arizona activists repeatedly stressed that the recall effort transcended the hot-button immigration issue, reminding residents that all of Pearce's draconian measures are out of touch with the values and interests of Arizonans. In a statement on Tuesday, Citizens for a Better Arizona focused on Pearce's "reckless disregard" for public education; his support for drastic cuts in healthcare for the poor, including the state's widely denounced termination of the organ transplant program; and his overall role in diminishing the state's reputation and economy.
Calling Pearce a "real demagogue," retired educator John McDonald, who lives in the state senator's district and joined the door-to-door campaign over the past 120 days, said Pearce's "meanness goes too far." McDonald criticized Pearce for what he called punishing measures against the poor and indigent, as well as schools and children.
An active Mormon, Snow charged that Pearce was even out of step with the majority of Mormons in the district and the nation. Earlier this spring, the Church of Latter Day Saints released a statement on immigration issues, calling for “a responsible approach” based on "love thy neighbor" principles, the need to keep families intact and the "federal government's obligation to secure its borders."
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The emphasis on a federal response, as opposed to Arizona's new sagebrush rebellion, remains an important detail. Working with Governor Jan Brewer, Pearce has openly flaunted his disdain for federal authority and laws. From immigrant policy to international jurisdiction to healthcare and Medicaid requirements to gun laws, the Tea Party-led Arizona leaders have reveled in the headlines generated by their willingness to play chicken with the Obama administration. Now that the state's SB 1070 "Papers Please" immigration law has been rejected by two federal courts, Arizona officials have filed a petition to take their case to the Supreme Court.
A former deputy sheriff under Maricopa County's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Pearce has taken such radical policies one step further in his rhetoric and affiliations, as if openly courting outrage. He is currently at the center of a scandal over improper Fiesta Bowl gifts and favors. Last year he accused President Obama of "waging jihad" on America. And last month Fox News Phoenix explored his widely denounced connections to neo-Nazi hate groups.
The Arizona state legislature added a surprising crack in Pearce's invincibility this spring when it bowed to the business community's concerns over the economic impact of the Arizona boycott that followed the passage of SB 1070 and rejected his package of five more punitive immigration measures, including a rejection of Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Pearce's defenders are causing him even more embarrassment. Former US Representative J.D. Hayworth recently sent out a bizarre e-mail to Pearce supporters, calling the recall campaigners a group of "socialist thugs who carry swastikas."
Parraz, a former labor organizer who is credited with galvanizing the state's recall activists in the Si, se puede! spirit of Arizona's native labor leader Cesar Chavez, said he bounded into action after the Mesa legislator ascended to the presidency. Bringing together a broad coalition of voters, Parraz organized a movement that quickly spread across the state. "Arizona has been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons," he said. "We need a victory now. If we come together, we can can hold [Pearce] accountable and win."
The secretary of state and Maricopa County Recorder's Office will verify the petition signatures over the next ninety days, but the feeling of victory already appears to have lit a fire under a new movement in Arizona—one that is likely to grow and become more powerful.
One thing is for sure: if the proper number of signatures are verified and Governor Brewer issues a call for new elections for next fall or spring, the Citizens for a Better Arizona stand to be the most organized and inspiring political force in the state—and a wakeup call for the rest of the nation.
"If you can recall Pearce," Parraz said, "you can recall anybody."