Fed up with Phoenix, Tucson talks secession from Arizona

Arizona's conservative politics – and Phoenix's dominant role – lead some in Tucson to call for secession. It's a divide that dates back to the 1800s.

Lourdes Medrano
A car in Tucson displays breakaway sentiment.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Golfers play at the Phoenician resort near Phoenix, in the well-irrigated heart of what some in the ‘Start Our State’ set call a less-real Arizona.

There is a whiff of revolution on Fourth Avenue in Tucson. Inside a pub crowded with copper-clad tables sit Democrats – lots of them – often wondering aloud how they came to live in a state like this.

Phoenix, their northern neighbor and the state capital, is only a two-hour drive away, yet it is a different universe. In this pub packed with politicos and professors, the actions of Phoenix and the statehouse there are viewed with as much exasperation as in any East Coast blue state.

The Legislature passes a bill requiring police officers to ask for the documents of anyone they stop who looks like an illegal immigrant. The sheriff of Pima County, which includes Tucson, calls it "stupid" and refuses to enforce it. The state passes a law to ban all ethnic studies at public schools. Students at Tucson Unified School District storm a school meeting and chain themselves to chairs.

And here at the Shanty pub, Paul Eckerstrom has had enough. Meeting weekly with fellow malcontents, he is plotting how best to free his city from the tyrannies of Phoenix. His organization is Start Our State, and its goal is nothing less than a 51st state: Baja Arizona.

"There's always been kind of a resentment that Phoenix dominates Arizona politics and therefore they tell us what to do," says Mr. Eckerstrom, a former Pima County Democratic Party chairman. "They say they don't want the federal government to meddle in state politics, but they're interfering with our county and municipal governments."

Elements within Washington, D.C., have long agitated for statehood. A Long Island lawmaker has endorsed a study to investigate whether the island should become its own state. Puerto Rico has also flirted with the idea. Fringe movements in Texas and Alaska advocate independence.

For its part, Start Our State is a long shot. But its founders say they are serious, and their efforts are a parable of how the dramatically red-blue divide that has split the country is now splitting a single state.

The political divide between Pima County and Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is evident in voter registration records. In Pima County, 38 percent of registered voters are Democrats, with 31 percent Republicans, and 30 percent "other." The numbers are reversed in Maricopa, with 37 percent Republican, 29 percent Democrat, and 33 percent other.

These differences – and the ideologies underlying them – are perhaps most obvious in the two counties' sheriffs.

Not only did Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik vow not to enforce the state's controversial SB 1070 immigration law, he singled out conservative commentators such as Sarah Palin for blame when an assassination attempt targeted Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Meanwhile, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has gained notoriety as perhaps the most strident advocate of get-tough illegal-immigration policies in the country. Since 2007, the Maricopa County sheriff's office has helped deport some 26,000 illegal immigrants – nearly twice the number of the No. 2 county on the list, Los Angeles.

But tensions between Pima and Maricopa counties are not new. Talk of secession in this liberal-leaning area that borders Mexico has ebbed and flowed through the years.

For one, the characters of the two places are starkly different. While Tucson clings to its small-town feel amid growth, Phoenix sprawls as the sixth-largest city in the United States.

David Euchner, considering a move to the Arizona desert from Massachusetts a decade ago, was struck by the abundance of green grass in Maricopa and the salient cactus landscape in Pima. Master-planned communities in the Phoenix area reminded him of suburban L.A.

"Tucson is more of what Arizona is, what defines Arizona," says Mr. Euchner, an attorney who settled in Tucson and takes part in Start Our State's meetings at the Shanty.

History also accounts for some of the differences, says Marshall Trimble, Arizona's official historian. Tucson, whose European roots go back to the late 1600s, cherishes its Spanish, Mexican, and native American heritage. Phoenix didn't start taking shape until the 1860s.

Between 1867 and 1877, Tucson reigned as Arizona's territorial capital after wrangling the title away from Prescott in northern Arizona. "In 1889 the Johnny-come-lately, Phoenix, comes on the scene," Mr. Trimble adds. "Tucson is too far south and Prescott is too far north, so Phoenix, which is in the middle, becomes the permanent capital."

Its location, as well as its relative abundance of water, gave Phoenix the upper hand. By 1920, eight years after Arizona became the 48th state, Phoenix had surpassed Tucson in population for the first time.

For that reason, the bad blood seems mostly to be directed from Tucson toward Phoenix. "You've got the big guy that doesn't care, and the little guy saying, 'I can take you, I can lick you,' " Trimble says.

Despite Pima County's population of 1 million, Tucson still can't shake its cow town reputation. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the heart of Phoenix, Lloyd Scott says he seldom gives Tucson much thought. In his nine years living in Arizona's capital, the Texas native has visited The Old Pueblo just once.

"There's nothing down there that I don't have here," he says.

Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Maricopa County, chuckles when the topic of secession comes up. The notion that Pima County could have two senators in Congress is absurd, he says. "This is a ridiculous, nonsensical, unserious pipe dream."

Supporters note that Baja Arizona would actually be larger than seven states and more populous than seven. Eckerstrom and his allies look to Maine as a model: It took years, but Maine seceded from Massachusetts in 1820 with approval of the Massachusetts legislature, Congress, and the president. Eckerstrom says: "We want to be able to make our own decisions."

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