Mesa Voters Recall SB 1070 Architect

Mesa Voters Recall SB 1070 Architect

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MESA, Ariz. -- Mesa voters got their say in a historical election that resulted in the recall of Republican Senator Russell Pearce, also known as the architect of SB 1070.

Pearce conceded defeat in a brief press conference in the City of Mesa surrounded by politicians, friends and controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“If being recalled is the cost of keeping one's promises, then so be it,” said Pearce.

His opponent, Republican Jerry Lewis, expressed surprise. “I think people were tired of the vitriolic politics,” he said.

Pearce will be required to step down immediately from office once the results are made official. His recall marks the success of a new strategy of political organizing in Arizona that brought together a diverse array of voters representing various religious and political affiliations.

“This is an exciting time for Arizona. We are (heading) in a new direction. We are saying, 'No' to the extreme divisive politics of Russell Pearce,” said Randy Parraz, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona (CBA), the group that started the recall more than 10 months ago.

CBA collected more than 10,000 valid signatures to force a special election to recall Pearce, who ascended to the role of Senate president after crafting one of the toughest anti-immigrant laws in the country.

While SB 1070, which was partially enjoined in the courts, wasn’t the main focus of the recall, it did much to motivate voters to join the movement.

Pearce has been in office for 10 years. Like many of his constituents, he is a member of the Mormon Church and first gained national notoriety as an immigration hardliner for his support of Prop. 200, a ballot initiative denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants that was passed by state voters in 2004. 

With no other issue on the ballot, election officials weren’t expecting a high turn out. But by Election Day, they said they had received more than 15,000 mail-in ballots from Mesa voters.

Around noon voters began to trickle in to the First United Methodist Church of Mesa voting center, an area with a high concentration of Latinos.

Long time Mesa resident José García, 64, said he voted for Lewis not because he disagreed with SB 1070 but because he supported Lewis’ stand on other policies.

“It’s not just that [Pearce] is discriminatory [against Latinos]. He’s bad for politics in Arizona,” he said.

Pearce supporters mostly criticized the recall, indicating that opponents should have waited until the regular election, and that Lewis should have faced him during a primary -- not an open -- election.

“I think the recall wasn’t necessary. We voted for him. We put him in office for a reason,” said 53-year-old charter school teacher Reed Gaddie.

Gaddie said he applauded Pearce’s efforts to fight illegal immigration and disregarded opponents’ arguments that he cut funding for education and health care.

“If border security and SB 1070 were dropped, the 100,000 (immigrants) that left will come back in larger numbers,” he said in reference to statistics that report an exodus of immigrant families from the state.

The Latina Candidate

The recall election wasn’t without controversy.

Signs reading “Sí Se Puede” began to appear around Mesa announcing the candidacy of Olivia Cortes, a Republican and a Mormon. Cortes did not grant any interviews to the media, did not have a website and was later revealed to enjoy the support of Greg Western, the Mesa Tea Party president.

Opponents of Pearce filed a lawsuit accusing Olivia of being a sham candidate whose goal was to split the anti-Pearce vote between herself and Lewis and to confuse Latino voters, who make up about 13,000 of the district’s 70,000 registered voters.

Pearce denied any relationship with Cortes and refuted allegations that she was “planted” to help him win the race.

Cortes later withdrew from the race, announcing on her website that her decision was due to “intimidation and harassment” and the costs of defending herself in the lawsuit.

Cortes’ campaign finances revealed that she had collected only $900 in contributions, leading to questions as to who paid for the circulation of petitions to get her on the ballot.

Groups like CBA and Promise Arizona in Action, meanwhile, worked non-stop until Election Day to alert voters that Cortes’ name was on the ballot but she was no longer a candidate.

She nevertheless still garnered some votes.

“I voted early for Olivia Cortes, then I come to find out she dropped out of the race,” said Maria Quintero, a 56-year-old Mesa resident. “I want to know where my vote will go. Will it go into the garbage?”

Quintero said she felt fooled and was disappointed after she got calls from “30 of my friends” who had also voted for Cortes.

Outside Forces

Most of Pearce’s funding for the race came from outside his district, unlike Lewis, according to the Secretary of State’s office. He also got support from figures like former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, both known for their hard-line approach to illegal immigration.

Lewis, 54, has lived in Mesa for almost 30 years. He is a certified public accountant, a school superintendent and a former bishop of the Mormon Church, who has the support of a strong grassroots base of longtime Mesa residents from District 18.

“What I realized is that many, many people in Mesa want a change as do I. We want to be portrayed in a proper light; we want to focus on issues that are important to us,” said Lewis in an interview with New America Media months before the election. “We want a fresh voice for Mesa.”

During a candidates' debate, Lewis and Pearce clashed mostly on the issue of immigration.

“I believe that we need to have reform to our immigration policy that protects families, that keeps families intact, that recognizes that we are a civil society and recognizes that all people are created equal,” he said. “We can’t take such a piecemeal approach to resolving issues like this. It requires everybody coming to the table.”

Pearce has promoted a strategy of “attrition by enforcement” – one that would make life in Arizona unbearable for undocumented immigrants. Early this year, Pearce was behind an effort to pass legislation aimed at changing the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bestows citizenship on anyone born on American soil.

The bill, unsuccessful partly due to Republican opposition, was an attempt to give the state discretion to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants.

United Effort

The recall brought together a diverse group of people spearheaded by CBA.

“You have different organizations that have collaborated as a team. This is different because we are stronger,” said Petra Falcón, executive director of the group Promise Arizona in Action. The organization had more than 300 volunteers canvassing neighborhoods in Mesa trying to mobilize the vote of some 5,000 Latinos and get some of them to vote early.

Falcón said this is a growing movement of “families that don’t want to be separated and are getting tired of the hate.” PAZ in Action was born out of an earlier group that began encouraging voter registration soon after SB 1070 was signed into law.

Latino voting rights activists believe the results of the election will energize this segment.

“Latinos come out to vote, and even though they are not the majority of people that turn out to vote, they are sufficient to have an impact,” said Raquel Terán, a field coordinator for Promise Arizona in Action.

Parraz, an attorney, former union organizer and the mastermind behind the recall effort, said this experience shows that activists “got to think outside the box when it comes to partisan politics,” crediting the movement for bringing together people from different political and social affiliations.

“They made history,” he said, “by making [Pearce] the first senator to be recalled.”