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Does Russell Pearce recall portend a new Arizona?

November 9, 2011 |  5:07 pm

Russell Pearce

To some, the ousting of Arizona Senate president and Republican stalwart Russell Pearce reflects a retreat from the hard-line conservative politics the state has become known for and is a direct backlash against his stringent immigration policies.

But to others, he is a victim of circumstance.

Pearce, who was arguably the most powerful politician in the state, lost in a recall election Tuesday to fellow Republican Jerry Lewis. The nonpartisan election, with no primary, allowed all voters, including independents and Democrats, to choose between two Republican candidates.

The recall election was forced through a petition drive by a group called Citizens for a Better Arizona, led by Democratic labor organizer Randy Parraz. The group argued that Pearce's focus on illegal immigration — he wrote the state's controversial immigration law, SB 1070, and a host of others — has distracted him from the needs of his Phoenix-area district. His policies, they say, have damaged the image of the entire state.

In an interview with The Times last week, Pearce acknowledged that the election could be “dangerous” for him and said Lewis would not beat him in a regular Republican primary.

“That’s why he’s going through the backdoor,” he said. “And that’s why he’ll be short-lived.”

Pearce’s defeat was partly the result of a wider variety of voters being able to vote and actually showing up to do so, said Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Typically, races in Arizona are decided in the primaries, where a low percentage of voters turn out at the polls, Merrill said. “The ideologues all go to the polls and they elect ideologues — the Russell Pearces of the world,” he  said.

The unusual voting environment, paired with growing discontent with the divisive Pearce, created an ideal situation for opponents to oust him.

An ethics investigation and underhanded tactics, including a candidate in the recall election who withdrew from the race after she was tied to Pearce, further sullied his campaign in the eyes of voters, observers say.

“I don’t see that this is a repudiation of Russell Pearce in terms of his position on illegal immigration,” Merrill said. “It was more that he became somewhat of an embarrassment.”

Andrei Cherny, the Arizona Democratic Party chairman, said that Pearce’s removal is a good start toward changing the caustic nature of politics in the state, but the heavily Republican-controlled Legislature has adopted the same divisive, in-your-face politics Pearce employed.

“The rest of the Russell Pearce clones in state government, from the governor on down to the state legislators, will continue his brand of right-wing extremism,” Cherny said. “But what this shows is the voters have had enough and is an opening for a more mainstream, common-sense kind of leadership in the state.”

Parraz, who led the recall, said that is too soon to say if this is part of a larger political trend in the state, but it does send a clear message.

“This shows that when politicians overreach, there is a way to hold them accountable,” Parraz said.

The group has set its sights on another controversial figure in the state, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is planning to seek a sixth term if he doesn’t run for the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl.

Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff,” has long drawn strong reactions in the state and nationally for his aggressive tactics in rooting out illegal immigrants.

The sheriff, who was at Pearce’s side during his concession speech, said in an interview Wednesday that the outcome was an anomaly and the result of this “strange” election was not representative of the rest of the state.

The group that spurred the recall can come after him if it wants, he said.

“If they think they’re going to intimidate me, I got news for them,” Arpaio said. “This is the sheriff you’re talking about, with a gun and badge that enforces the law. Nothing is going to stop me from cracking down on illegal immigration as long as the laws are there.”

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-- Stephen Ceasar

Photo: State Sen. Russell Pearce, left, speaks about his recall election during a news conference in Mesa, Ariz., on Tuesday night. Credit: Joshua Lott / Reuters

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