Russell Pearce, father of Arizona immigration law, now facing recall

Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce is hailed by many conservatives nationwide as a 'patriot' for his anti-illegal immigration stance. But the backlash has spawned a recall election Nov. 8.

Matt York/AP
Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce (R) speaks at the Capitol in Phoenix on April 18. Arizona is entering unusual political territory with a scheduled recall election for Pearce, the nationally known champion of legislation and ballot measures against illegal immigration.

A year ago, Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce (R) was riding high, catapulted into the national limelight as a leading champion of conservative policies following passage of Senate Bill 1070, the tough immigration law he sponsored.

But 2011 has been less kind to Senator Pearce, who faces a Nov. 8 recall election, as well as blowback from some members of his party, who say his agenda has gone too far. His attempts to move a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to Arizona residents failed, and Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has vetoed some of his signature legislation, including a bill to allow concealed weapons on college campuses and a "birther bill" requiring presidential candidates to provide their birth certificates.

More recently, he was forced to amend financial disclosure forms to acknowledge that he accepted thousands of dollars in free trips provided by the Fiesta Bowl, one of college football's four major bowls.

Despite these setbacks, unseating Pearce in his conservative district may be difficult – he is, to some, an "American patriot," who draws support even from beyond the state's borders. But a recall is not impossible, says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

"It will all depend on the candidate or candidates that challenge him," he says.

At least three people have entered the race to challenge the senator. If he is unseated, he would be the first sitting Arizona senator to be recalled.

A tea party ally of Pearce, Franklin Bruce Ross, has filed a legal challenge in Maricopa County Superior Court seeking to cancel the recall election. The suit contends that Citizens for a Better Arizona's signature-gathering process was flawed, and that not enough of the 7,756 required voter signatures were collected.

But the attorney for Citizens for a Better Arizona, Thomas Ryan, insisted in court Monday that the group had complied with state requirements. State elections officials say recall organizers submitted more than 10,000 valid signatures.

After hearing oral arguments in the case, Judge Hugh Hegyi told a packed courtroom that he will issue a ruling by week's end.

Pearce was not in court Monday and he has not returned calls seeking comment. But he has called recall supporters "radical extremists" and "far-left anarchists."

His critics have similar words for him. "He's not good for the state of Arizona," says Democrat Randy Parraz, a labor organizer from Scottsdale who has led the recall campaign and criticizes what he says is the senator's neglect of job creation, education, and health care.

Yet Pearce's allies are confident he will keep his seat. His constituents have sent him back to the Arizona Legislature since 2000 – first to the House and then the Senate.

"There's no reason why he wouldn't be elected again," says Matt Tolman, chairman of Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall.

Mr. Tolman lives in Pearce's district, but Pearce also is generating support from beyond his district borders. Team American, a political action committee led by former US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, has worked to drum up financial support on Pearce's behalf.

Pearce's backers hail his staunch views on illegal immigration.

Last year, he sponsored the controversial SB 1070, which gives local police the power to question suspected illegal immigrants, as well as a slew of other bills intended to stem the flow of illegal immigration. His push this year to deny citizenship to the offspring of illegal immigrants, however, failed to muster enough support earlier this year.

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