In the end, Russell Pearce was undone by his own obsession with anti-immigrant demagoguery. For a decade, soon-to-be former Arizona State Senate President Pearce had assiduously groomed a reputation as a bullying lawmaker who prioritized anti-immigrant, restrictionist legislation—no matter the year or political climate. On Tuesday night, voters said they wanted a state senator who would tend to other, bigger concerns.
And in so doing, voters made history. Voters ousted Pearce in a recall election, replacing him with Republican challenger Jerry Lewis. The upset defeat of Pearce, considered by some to be the most powerful man in Arizona politics, was a first for the state, which had never before recalled a state officeholder. It was also a first for the nation, which had never seen the recall of a state senate president.
“I think voters from all political spectrums, Republicans, Democrats and independents came together to speak with one voice to say: the reign of President Pearce is over,” said Randy Parraz, the co-founder and president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, which spearheaded the recall effort.
Parraz called it a turning point in Arizona politics, which has seen its national reputation damaged because of Pearce’s efforts to push anti-immigrant state legislation like SB 1070, which spurred a host of lawsuits and a boycott of the state. It also inspired nearly two dozen copycat bills after it became law last year, prompting many to consider Arizona the birthplace of legalized racial profiling of immigrants.
“The extreme politics that use fear and hate and anger to divide people and to blame immigrants for problems instead of focusing on education or jobs and the economy, [politicians who push this ideology] are no longer going to be embraced or endorsed,” Parraz said.
Still, Pearce was no easy politician to oust.
“Pearce is a brand name across the district, across the entire state,” said Rodolfo Espino, a professor of political science at Arizona State University. “He enjoys such great name recognition and a special election is usually typified by low voter turnout, but that was quite the opposite of what we saw last night.”
Pearce had held his seat since 2001, and was closely allied with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in his decades as a public official before he became a state senator. By the time the recall effort was kicked off early this year, Pearce, a self-proclaimed “tea party president,” was well-known as much for his bullying lawmaking style as for his anti-immigrant crusading. Still, the support of high-ranking Arizona politicians like Gov. Jan Brewer and Arpaio and a handful of election shenanigans was not enough to save his seat in what became an 8-point upset by fellow Republican Lewis. Pearce’s legislative district has just around 71,000 registered voters; Lewis won by a little over 1,200 votes.
But while it was on anti-immigrant fear mongering that Pearce made his name, it wasn’t necessarily a pro-migrant solidarity that pushed Arizona voters to choose Lewis over Pearce. According to experts and organizers, Pearce’s electorate was fed up with his myopic focus on immigration enforcement and anti-immigrant bills because they left little time to tackle the issues Arizona voters cared most about: jobs, education and healthcare.
“[People] saw it in the first month of his leadership [as Senate president],” said Parraz. “He was focused on nullifying federal law, changing the U.S. Constitution, putting guns on campuses, cutting education, cutting off people waiting for organ transplants, and instead of spending $1.3 million and allowing 98 Arizonans to live, he sent $5 million to an angry sheriff for immigration enforcement.”
“That kind of politics, people started getting fed up.”
Pearce’s Legislative District 18 in Mesa is a diverse slice of the state, home to working-class families, Asian and Latino immigrants and a significant Mormon population, said Espino. It’s a conservative district, with a strong Republican majority. The demographics meant that progressives behind the recall effort didn’t have the luxury of sticking with ideological purity.
According to Espino, the effort to recall Pearce included the combined efforts of unlikely allies—what Espino calls “country club pro-business Republicans” alongside a strong contingent of immigrant rights activists—as well as a strategy that relied on political pragmatism. Espino explained the philosophy: “You do what you can to get the least desirable person out of office.”
That sentiment that rang true for Dulce Matuz, who works with Youth for Education in Action, an immigrant youth group that registered hundreds of new voters in the district. “The political party does not matter to us as long as the candidate supports education for all students regardless of immigration status and promotes the economic development for the state,” Matuz said in a statement.
Lewis is a charter school executive and Republican with nearly identical positions to Pearce on every issue except immigration, Lewis promised to tone down the fiery rhetoric and anti-immigrant antagonism while on the campaign trail. Lewis is a supporter of the Utah Compact, a unique and controversial legislative package passed earlier this year that included a novel state worker-visa program along with the immigration enforcement aspects of SB 1070.
“We now have an opportunity to heal the divide in Mesa,” Lewis said on Tuesday night, the Arizona Republic reported. He promised to bring a “more civic tone” to Arizona politics.
Whoever his replacement, Pearce’s ouster remains a significant moment for national as well as state politics.
“It’s as if you just decapitated the Republican Party and the Arizona legislature,” Espino said. “I don’t know if they know how to behave or even think for themselves.”
For the rest of the country, immigration rights advocates said, the lessons are clear.
“The message is anti-immigrant rhetoric does not pay off,” said Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union. “This is a wakeup call for 2012. Politicians better pay attention. Solutions, not extremism are the tools for political success.”
The transition will be immediate, the Arizona Republic reports, and Pearce is set to step down on Nov. 21.