Shortly before a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and killed six bystanders, the man who helped position Arizona at the vanguard of a national right-wing populist revolt addressed supporters in Phoenix.
“We’re leading the nation,” state Sen. Russell Pearce told the Maricopa County Republican Party as he celebrated the GOP’s clean sweep of state elections in November and Arizona’s influence on immigration and other issues.
Pearce, who wrote a tough immigration law last year, went on in the speech later posted on YouTube: “If it wasn’t for Arizona you wouldn’t have the debate going on that you have. … We’ve changed the face of this nation through the tea party, through Americans who want their government back.”
Hours later, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik offered a different assessment of Arizona politics.
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” Dupnik, a Democrat, said at a news conference after the rampage. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
The suspect in the shootings, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, left an Internet trail of disjointed ramblings that show no clear partisan ideology, and many analysts urged caution in ascribing a political motive to the shootings. But the attack immediately drew attention to Arizona’s place in the national political psyche.
There’s no precise way to measure where an entire state sits on the political spectrum. But years before “tea party” entered the political lexicon, vocal conservatives took over the Republican Party here, fomenting an angry brand of politics largely fueled by surging illegal immigration. Party leaders purged centrists, used aggressive rhetoric against foes and wrote envelope-pushing legislation.
Condemnation of the state’s tough law on illegal immigration — including boycotts that cost the state millions of dollars — has furthered an us-versus-them attitude among some Arizonans. When the Justice Department sued the state, contending Pearce’s immigration law was unconstitutional, Pearce replied that President Obama was waging “jihad” against Arizona.
Arizona, which joined the union in 1912 as the 48th state, has long been proud of its frontier roots and of doing things its own way. Recent laws, then, are part of a long tradition.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s popularity has soared as he’s rounded up illegal immigrants. Last year, Arizona allowed concealed firearms to be carried anywhere, including in bars.
The state House of Representatives passed a law requiring that presidential candidates prove they were born in the United States, a nod to “birthers” skeptical that Obama was born in the country. The bill died in the state Senate after it became the subject of national ridicule.
The most dramatic step was Pearce’s bill, SB 1070, requiring police officers to investigate the status of people they legally stop and think may be illegal immigrants. Republicans now vow to introduce legislation challenging the right to citizenship of children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants and checking the immigration status of parents of children in public schools.
There has been heated rhetoric on both sides — some critics of SB 1070 circulated an image of the state flag with a swastika on it — but people who have defied the conservative wave and hard-line stance on immigration are the ones who have reported the most dangerous harassment. One of the people killed Saturday, U.S. District Judge John Roll, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, was given protection by the U.S. Marshals Service in response to death threats he received after ruling that a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against a rancher could go forward.
Giffords’ office was vandalized after she voted for the healthcare bill last year. Her Republican challenger in November, former Marine Sgt. Jesse Kelly, held a fundraiser where donors were offered the chance to shoot an M-16 to “help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” In a statement after the shooting, Kelly said, “Senseless acts of violence such as this have no place in American politics.”
For years, some political leaders and activists have warned that the escalating rhetoric could have grim consequences.
“Nobody is surprised at this,” said John Loredo, a former Democratic state legislator who was planning to meet Giffords at the event where she was gunned down. “That has been the tone and rhetoric that has been used for some time, and this is the only place it could have led to.”
However, some analysts note that the exact motivation for the shooting remains unknown, and caution against caricaturizing Arizona as unwaveringly conservative or extremist, noting that voters have backed tax increases and in November approved a measure legalizing medical marijuana.
“It’s a complex state,” said Frederic I. Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University. “It’s a land of contradictions.”
Still, there’s no question that over the last decade conservative Republicans have cemented their hold on state offices.
“The tea party got here early in Arizona,” said Trent Humphries, an organizer with the Tucson branch of the movement.
Meanwhile, illegal immigrants were pouring across the state’s southern border in the late 1990s after the California border was fortified. The influx led to the ascension of immigration hardliners like Pearce, who took a more combative approach to politics. Some Arizonans, in a mix of Old West and Revolutionary War mythology, dubbed themselves Minutemen and grabbed their guns to patrol the border.
Ironically, a third factor helped conservatives: voter-approved public funding of elections. Businesses lost their moderating sway on the GOP as grass-roots challengers used state money to finance their campaigns. Social conservatives won Republican primaries and swept out moderates.
Then came Obama’s election, the national Democratic blowout of 2008 and swiftly expanded federal spending. Arizona conservatives were even more energized, said Jay Tibshraeny, a centrist Republican state senator who was stripped of his committee chairmanship by conservatives.
Tibshraeny, who becomes mayor of the Phoenix suburb of Chandler this week, cautioned against blaming the shooting on the state’s political dialogue. Still, he argued that a troubled person like Loughner could be influenced by the lack of civility in public life.
“Let’s not give fodder to the people out there who do not have the mental capacity to deal with these things,” Tibshraeny said.
Loredo, the Democrat, was pessimistic the state’s ascendant conservatives would dial back their rhetoric or positions after the shooting. “There are political benefits to being as extreme as they are,” he said. “It’s gotten them into the game and given them titles.”
Humphries, the tea party organizer, also doesn’t see moderation as likely. He noted that Arizona conservatives immediately condemned the attack, only to be blamed for it later. Such accusations are hurtful, said Humphries, who lives three blocks from the shooting scene and whose neighbor Dorwan Stoddard was killed in the rampage.
“It’s going to inflame people on the right.... You can’t be kicked in the head too many times before you kick back.”