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The Arizonification of America

A protester holds a placard during a protest against Arizona Senate Bill 1070 on April 25 outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)With the “papers please” provision of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigration law now in effect, Bill Clinton roused an overflowing crowd at Arizona State University last week with a special shout out to the state’s “dreamers,” the highly organized ranks of undocumented youth seeking permanent residency either through education or the military (and sometimes both). Appearing on behalf of the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, whose surging campaign to become the first Latino Senator in Arizona now leads in the latest polls, Clinton drew some of his biggest cheers for his support of the DREAM Act merely by calling it the “right thing to do.”

Welcome to the Arizona showdown.

Underscored by Gov. Jan Brewer’s latest act of defiance in denying state benefits to undocumented youth affected by President Obama’s deferral of immigration action against them, the Republican Party’s full embrace of Arizona’s immigration policy at its summer convention drew a clear line in the state’s sand. The “Arizonification” of America continues to frame the national immigration debate. It has cemented the state’s frontline image as so hopelessly wedded to a punitive approach of “attrition through enforcement” at any cost that the “Daily Show” once referred to Arizona as the “meth lab of democracy.”

Not that the headline-grabbing nativists, frontier justice sheriffs, neo-Nazi marchers, gun-toting militiamen and Tea Party political figures don’t exist in Arizona. But as the estimated 5,500 in attendance for Carmona and Clinton reminded the state, the fringe elements dominating the media and Arizona’s state house may have finally met their match. Case in point: An electrified citizens’ campaign has mounted the most serious get-out-the-vote effort against Joe Arpaio, the notorious Maricopa County Sheriff, in his 20-year reign.

The resurgence of this “other Arizona” signals a revival of the state’s century-old legacy of fighting against such anti-immigrant and thinly veiled racism, a movement that beganmalmost as soon as Arizona’s entry as a territory in the mid-19th century. For example, in Tucson, the pioneering Mexican immigrant Estevan Ochoa not only salvaged public education but single-handedly faced down the Confederate occupation of the Old Pueblo. When the Tucson Unified School District dismantled its acclaimed Mexican-American Studies program in Ochoa’s hometown last spring, Latino youth were quick to rekindle his memory.

I believe that today’s overlooked but growing alliance among Latinos, retiring baby boomers and rooted centrists will have a far a more lasting impact on both the liberal and conservative agendas nationally than the headline-grabbing but faltering Tea Party. This alliance might even have an impact on the 2012 election: Beyond Carmona’s surprising gains, the latest polling data to include Spanish-speaking voters now places the presidential showdown in a dead heat, even as Gov. Mitt Romney hangs on to a healthy overall lead in Arizona.

Is the other Arizona coming back?

Consider the progressive stalwarts who wrote one of the most enlightened constitutions in the country at Arizona’s birth in 1912. In a prophetic speech that he gave after negotiating a nationally watched labor agreement between striking union miners and copper companies, Gov. George W. Hunt spelled out the challenge facing the entire nation: 

It will be a happy day for the nation when the corporations shall be excluded from political activity and vast accumulations of capital cannot be employed in an attempt to control government.

Railing against corporate influence and money in politics in Arizona in 1916, Hunt foretold the Occupy Wall Street movement a century in advance: 

“The working class, plus the professional class, represent 99 percent,” he declared. “The remaining 1 percent is represented by those who make a business of employing capital.”

For all of his enlightenment, Hunt and his progressive forces succumbed to anti-immigrant pressures from more conservative unions and excluded the very foot soldiers who had built his labor ranks before statehood: in 1903, Mexican-American, native and immigrant workers led the first strikes in the state in Morenci.

The betrayal came full circle in 1917. Driven by a similar anti-immigrant hysteria during World War I, armed copper company thugs led by a border sheriff rounded up and deported striking immigrant miners in the copper capital of Bisbee. The extreme measure drew national condemnation, but also set a precedent of using punitive measures against immigrants over the next century whenever the economy slumped, wars ended or election time heated up.

But Arizonans also fought back. In 1972, the national media once again focused here, when Gov. Jack Williams signed a bill that banned secondary boycotts and strikes during harvest time, cracked down on collective bargaining rights and union membership procedures, and made it a crime to make “misleading” speeches about boycotted products. The headlines screamed: “Arizona-type legislation is spreading to many other farm states, despite protests.”

Launching his “Si Se Puede” movement, the inspiring slogan that would be adopted as “Yes, We Can” by President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, Cesar Chavez, an Arizona native and co-founder of the United Farm Workers embarked in 1972 on a “fast for love” in Phoenix in the “spirit of social justice in Arizona.” Chavez wrote:

The fast is to try to reach the hearts of those men, so that they will understand that we too have rights and we’re not here to destroy, because we’re not destroyers, we’re builders.

Although Williams’s hard-line anti-union legislation would be fought in the courts for years, the Chavez-led campaign signed up 150,000 new voters, ushering in a new era of electoral participation: Within two years, thanks to Chavez’s work, Raul Castro became the state’s first (and still the only) Latino governor.

In one of the most overlooked major news stories last year, a similar “Si Se Puede” movement once again shocked local and national media observers and entrenched political interests lulled into believing Arizona’s SB 1070 had placed the state on electoral lockdown. Led by Randy Parraz, a labor organizer, new bipartisan movement fed up with the state’s extremist policies took its organizational momentum into electoral politics and carried out the historic recall of former state senator Russell Pearce, the self-declared “Tea Party President” and legislative mastermind behind SB 1070. The historic nature of the recall, dating back to the state’s progressive constitution battle a century ago, was the opening salvo in the 2012 elections, for two reasons.

First, Parraz and his Citizens for a Better Arizona brought together often disparate factions in Arizona —including rising Latino youth, retiring baby boomers, centrists that included the Mormon church, and the demoralized local Democratic Party — in arguably one of the most conservative legislative districts in the nation. “Arizona has been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons,” Parraz told his forces. “We need a victory now.” And they got it. Pearce, considered one of the most influential voices in the “attrition through enforcement” movement spreading across numerous states, was the first state senate president to be recalled in American history, according to election record keepers.

Speaking about the Pearce recall, Dan O’Neal, chairman of the Arizona Progressive Democrats of America, said: “This election sends a message to other Democratic efforts,” to not be afraid to take on issues and races in red states.”

Secondly, the recall also spotlighted the emergence of a new Latino generation and its role in a historic demographic shift taking place in Arizona and across the nation. With the nation’s highest “cultural generation” gap, according to a Brookings Metropolitan Policy study in 2010 — 83 percent of the state’s aging population was categorized as Anglo, and 57 percent of the children came from Latino families in the last census — Arizona has changed from 72 percent to 50 percent non-Latino in the past two decades. The demographics don’t pull any punches. A new political conversation is about to take place in Arizona. And organizers are not sitting back and waiting.

Working with several other civil rights groups, Parraz and his Citizens for a Better Arizona now lead the “Joe’s Got to Go” campaign against Arpaio, whose one-time insurmountable lead over his opponent Paul Penzone has shrunk to a few percentage points. With the sheriff under investigation for racial profiling by the Department of Justice, the take-no-prisoners challenge of Arpaio’s role as the face of SB 1070 enforcement has already electrified the state’s once timid liberal ranks.

If an Arpaio upset happens, with the state “papers please” law a part of all races in the state and the nation, the rise of the “other Arizona” and its bipartisan rejection of extremism could reverse the “Arizonification of America” push back in the opposite direction. As one of fifteen swing states where the margin of victory often hangs on one to three percentage points, the expected 6-8 percent increase in Latino voters places Arizona on the cusp of electing Carmona to a highly prized Senate position for the Democrats.

In essence: While Arizona may not swing to President Obama, the defeat of Arpaio or a victory for Carmona would be a huge step toward dismantling Republican control behind Arizona’s state immigration policy, and changing a state of mind for the media and outside observers.

No more “meth lab of democracy.”

Inspired by organizers like Parraz, and driven by the changing demographics, electoral change is coming in increments to Arizona in 2012 — and ultimately laying the groundwork for the gubernatorial race in 2014 for either Brewer or a bevy of Republican candidates. A groundwork deeply rooted in the other Arizona’s powerful lessons of history that transcend the state’s borders.

As Phoenix-based Puente human rights advocate Carlos Garcia recently told me, Arizona’s gift to the nation may simply be this legacy of resiliency against extremism on the front lines. “Turning the tide from hate to human rights,” as Garcia put it, sends a powerful message that will reach far beyond the ballot box.

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