Tired of 'venom' over illegal immigration, voters in Arizona oust Russell Pearce

Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, architect of the state's tough law to curb illegal immigration, lost his job on Tuesday. Many voters are fed up with polarizing stances, analysts say.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (l.) speaks about his recall election during a news conference in Mesa, Arizona, Tuesday.

In an apparent rebuke to his hard-line politics, Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce was recalled by voters Tuesday. Senator Pearce was the author of the state's tough anti-illegal immigration law that has spawned copycat laws in several states from Utah to Alabama.

Senator Pearce's crusade against illegal immigration made him a national icon but ultimately factored into his historic recall.

His defeat, at the hands of political novice Jerry Lewis, puts a different face on Arizona and signals that voters are ready to take state politics in a new direction, says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Most Arizonans are pretty moderate, and I think they just got tired of all of the venom and all of the bitterness,” he says. “It really became more – to some degree – that Russell Pearce was somewhat of an embarrassment.”

Moderates turned out to vote in high numbers, Mr. Merrill says. Hispanics, many of whom oppose Pearce’s hard stance on immigration policies, also were crucial to ousting one of the most powerful politicos in the state, he adds.

The senator lost his seat to Mr. Lewis, a fellow Republican, 53 percent to 45 percent in a hotly contested race to represent Mesa, Ariz., a conservative district east of Phoenix that Pearce had represented in the Arizona Legislature for 11 years.

“If being recalled is the prize for keeping one’s promises, then so be it,” Pearce told a crowd late Tuesday as the vote tally showed he trailed Lewis, a school administrator.

Lewis had figured he was in an uphill battle to replace Pearce, who had Arizona Republican Party backing and widespread financial help from beyond the district. Nationwide, foes of illegal immigration also offered support.

“When we started this campaign, we were under no illusion as to the odds of our success,” Lewis told supporters in his victory speech.

The candidates focused largely on the economy during a volatile campaign. A third candidate, a Latina who was accused of entering the race to split the vote in favor of Pearce, dropped out before the election. Both men are fiscal conservatives, but their views on illegal immigration differ starkly.

Pearce for years had pushed laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration in the state, but he rose to national prominence after sponsoring Senate Bill 1070, the controversial law that makes it a state crime to be in Arizona illegally. The measure, whose key provisions are on hold pending a federal legal challenge, allows state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Lewis, for his part, frowns on immigration policies that focus exclusively on enforcement and favors cooperation with the federal government.

For retired educator Brian Barabé, the recall of his state senator portends positive change – particularly when it comes to dealing with illegal immigration.

“There is a groundswell of opinion of people that would like to see this state be proactive and start doing some sensible things about immigration," he says.

Pearce’s staunch support for SB 1070 motivated Mr. Barabé to help Citizens for a Better Arizona collect thousands of signatures needed to force the recall election. During the process, he learned that Pearce was instrumental in pushing through significant funding cuts to education and health-care services.

“It’s very significant that we got rid of one of the strong voices that is anti-immigrant and very negative for the state,” he says.

Although Arizona’s immigration law attracted boycotts and a federal lawsuit, several states – including Indiana and Georgia – have approved similar legislation. Numerous other states considered such measures, but ultimately rejected the idea. 

After riding a wave of popularity, Pearce this year faced resistance within his own party on furthering his agenda. His efforts to push bills on gun rights and immigration, including one to deny “birthright citizenship” to residents born in Arizona but whose parents are not US citizens, went nowhere. The senator also was involved in a financial scandal for failing to disclose that he had accepted thousands of dollars in free trips from the Fiesta Bowl, one of college football’s four major bowls.

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