PHOENIX, Ariz.—A bipartisan effort to recall conservative state Senator Russell Pearce, known for his tough stance on illegal immigration, could signal a shift in the political climate in Arizona, even if it doesn’t result in Pearce leaving office.
Hundreds of people from the group Citizens for a Better Arizona gathered outside the Secretary of State’s office on Tuesday to deliver 18,315 signatures in support of the recall.
Once the signatures are certifed, Pearce will automatically be recalled and will face a special election to keep his job. That could happen in November.
Only 7,756 signatures are required to force the new election, but the group's cofounder, Randy Parraz, said activists wanted to make a political statement by surpassing the 17,553 votes Pearce received in November 2010.
If the campaign succeeds, it would be the first time in Arizona history that a politician faced a recall election, according to the Secretary of State. (Republican Governor Evan Mecham was recalled for misusing state funds in 1988 but was impeached and removed from office before the election took place.)
A recall would be even more noteworthy in light of Pearce’s extremely conservative District 18, which covers most of western and central Mesa and small portions of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“It is remarkable, given the district where he comes from is heavily Republican,” said Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Espino said the recall campaign has been successful because it hasn't focused on immigration, but has included Pearce’s overall political performance.
Pearce, who took over as president of the state Senate this year, has been in office for 10 years. Like many of his constituents, he is a member of the Mormon church.
He first gained national notoriety as a hardliner against illegal immigration for his support of Prop. 200, a ballot initiative to deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants, which was passed by state voters in 2004.
Pearce later was the main force behind a law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 27, to sanction businesses that hired undocumented workers. Most recently, he garnered international attention for being the “architect” of SB 1070. The law, which has been partially blocked in the courts, would allow local police to incarcerate suspected undocumented immigrants.
In 2008 and 2010, Pearce was re-elected with close to 56 percent of the vote.
Parraz says Pearce’s support for SB 1070, as well as his attempt to change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, is only part of the reason voters have supported the recall campaign.
Other reasons cited on the Citizens for a Better Arizona website are Pearce’s political performance on such issues as health care (he helped defund the state public health care system) and public education (he supported major cuts).
Parraz said that the group hopes to send the message that Pearce is out of sync with what voters want.
“We don’t talk about the issue of immigration because there’s so much more,” said Brenda Rascón, who lives in Pearce’s district and who has been circulating petitions for his recall since February. “There are people in his own district (who) are hurting economically, and he is pursuing this agenda that is economically disastrous,” she said.
Rascon said that in conversations with voters, some supported his immigration views, but were disappointed with his failure to disclose that he had received numerous free trips to out-of-state college football games from the nonprofit organization Fiesta Bowl. While he has denied any wrongdoing, Pearce was among several legislators who amended their financial disclosure reports to list the trips that had not been reported.
Two weeks ago, Pearce was also the subject of a special news report by the Phoenix-based Fox News affiliate, KTVK-3TV, that questioned his ties to neo-Nazi J.T. Ready (previously reported by the weekly Phoenix News Times). Pearce denied knowing about Ready’s connections to the movement, and claimed that he cut ties with him once he found out.
The senator wasn’t available for an interview with NAM. His spokesperson said he wasn’t “as a general rule” commenting on the recall.
But during a “Fight the Recall" rally that was attended by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, also known for his tough stance on immigration, Pearce told a Phoenix television station that he takes the recall campaign seriously.
"You take everything seriously. People know who these folks are. They've tried it before," Pearce said. "They're simply open-border anarchists who have no respect for the rule of law. We'll deal with it."
Chad Snow, cofounder of Citizens for a Better Arizona, who is a Republican and Mormon, said the grassroots group has the support of a number of Republicans and members from Pearce’s church. Activists also include people on different sides of SB 1070, he added.
Snow said that the GOP is conflicted over politicians such as Pearce, who are perceived as ideologically extreme and divisive.
That internal division was evident during the last legislative session, when at least five anti-immigrant measures pushed by Pearce, including one to deny birthright citizenship, were defeated with the support of at least 12 Republicans.
If Citizens for a Better Arizona turns in a sufficient number of valid signatures, Republican Governor Jan Brewer will have to call for a special election. Pearce could choose to participate or not. The election could happen this November or next March, depending on how much time the Secretary of State’s office and the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office take to verify the signatures.
"Even if he runs for re-election and wins, he will always have that stigma [of the recall]," Snow said.
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