Arizona’s relentless conservative voice
Since the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shortened her State of the State speech. The state House of Representatives closed for two days so members could mourn.
But in the state Senate, it was business as usual. There was no halt to let senators attend funerals or President Obama’s visit. “We have a constitutional obligation,” Senate President Russell Pearce told the Arizona Republic, to wrap up business in 100 days.
Pearce does not let anything slow him down. When he was on patrol as a sheriff’s deputy here in the 1970s, he was shot in the chest but still wrestled with one of the youths who attacked him and chased two more before seeking medical help. When he entered the statehouse a decade ago, he was dismissed by some in his own party as a loudmouthed backbencher, unhealthily obsessed with illegal immigration.
Now he runs the place.
Pearce, 63, is arguably the most powerful man in Arizona politics. And his conservative, populist style — which his allies call principled and determined and which his enemies brand as divisive and dangerous — is at the heart of the current debate over the tone of politics.
The man charged in the attack, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, has shown no sign of being influenced by Pearce or by the rightward drift of Arizona. But the shooting has led pundits and elected officials, including President Obama, to call for greater civility in public life.
In Arizona, that call has often been interpreted as an attempt to rein in Pearce, who sometimes refers to those who disagree with his immigration stance as “traitors.” He himself has received so much vitriol and so many threats that state police proposed guarding him last year. The former lawman turned them down.
Pearce, who has spoken to The Times in the past, could not be reached for this story, but both defenders and critics agree it’s unlikely he will change his approach while trying to advance the GOP’s agenda in the state.
As the legislative session began last week, Pearce quipped that Brewer owed her reelection to him and noted that the Legislature could now override her veto.
“He’s just unstoppable,” said former state Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a fellow Republican and longtime target of Pearce. “He is willing to do whatever it takes to change the world because he thinks he has some divine calling.”
Konopnicki, who lost a primary to a more hard-line, Pearce-backed candidate last year, recalled that after voting against one of Pearce’s immigration bills in 2009, the senator sent an outraged e-mail to supporters accusing Konopnicki of betrayal. His family — including his teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome — received threats.
Pearce’s Legislature is expected to continue to take aggressive steps in the coming weeks. One of the first bills of the session would allow concealed guns on college campuses. Other expected legislation would designate second-class citizenship for children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants and create a volunteer militia to patrol the Mexican border.
“He talks the people’s language, he pushes the people’s bills and he’s blunt — and I think that’s refreshing to people,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, a fellow Republican.
“If you’re afraid of controversy and afraid of offending people,” Kavanagh added, “then you roll over on the bills and you’ve had a lackluster legislative career. That doesn’t describe Russell Pearce.”
Pearce is a fifth-generation Arizonan in a state of newcomers. He grew up in a troubled home with a severely alcoholic father.
In previous interviews, Pearce has recalled how he would come home and find that concerned neighbors had left groceries for the impoverished family. But the food was put to the side. His mother would not accept charity.
Pearce wanted to study medicine but was too poor to attend medical school, so he joined the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. He rose to chief deputy under Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the 1990s. Pearce claims credit for one of Arpaio’s calling cards: housing jail inmates in tents.
Meanwhile, Pearce attended lectures by W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing author and former FBI agent whose controversial theories have also inspired Glenn Beck.
Skousen argued that the United States was divinely founded and that breaching the country’s law contradicted God’s will. Like Pearce, Skousen was Mormon. Traces of Skousen can be heard in Pearce’s stark, black-and-white style and his emphasis on the sanctity of the law.
In 2000, Pearce entered the Legislature and began introducing bills to battle illegal immigration. After the Border Patrol fortified the California border in the 1990s, illegal crossings into Arizona skyrocketed, bringing car and identity theft, drug rings and anxiety.
At the time, some Arizona Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, favored citizenship for some immigrants who were in the country illegally. Pearce labeled that view “treasonous,” and he has steadily pushed the party to his stance by helping to oust moderates. (He endorsed McCain’s rival in last year’s GOP primary.)
Many Pearce proposals languished. But, bit by bit, he racked up victories.
“He’s very methodical,” said state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat. “He would start out with ideas that were outlandish, and he would do them over and over and over again. It’s just a basic understanding of human psychology: If you talk about something over and over, it’s not crazy.”
In 2004, he wrote a ballot measure denying state services to illegal immigrants and requiring picture identification to vote, which passed easily.
A law to dissolve businesses that repeatedly hired illegal immigrants finally passed in 2007 and was signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. (Though he’s backed several low-tax measures, Pearce has had a sometimes tense relationship with Arizona’s business community because of his positions on illegal immigration.)
During his legislative crusade, Pearce’s son Sean, a sheriff’s deputy, was shot in the stomach by an illegal immigrant accused of murder. Pearce rarely mentions his son, who survived the shooting, but in interviews he often grimly rattles off names of Arizona police officers killed or wounded by illegal immigrants.
Pearce’s opponents accuse him of racism. Some tie him to white supremacist groups — he once approvingly forwarded an e-mail from one such organization, and shared the stage with a local neo-Nazi at an immigration rally in 2007. Pearce, who has Latino grandchildren, has said he wasn’t aware of all the views of the racist groups involved in each incident.
His allies say the racism accusation is a smear from liberals. “What he stands for is against everything they’re trying to accomplish,” said Michelle Dallacroce, an anti-illegal-immigration activist.
Pearce came to national attention last year with SB 1070, which would require police to investigate the immigration status of people they have detained.
The law also contains some distinctly Pearce-like absolutist provisions — taxpayers could sue any public agency that did not fully enforce immigration laws, and anyone arrested in the state would be held until their immigration status was verified by the federal government.
Only one Republican — who was retiring — dared vote against SB 1070. Brewer signed the bill, sparking the legal challenge from the Obama administration. A judge struck down most of the law as unconstitutional.
Pearce was furious. “When you talk about jihad, that is exactly what Obama has against America, specifically the state of Arizona,” he told a gathering of conservative activists in November.
Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and emeritus professor of political science at Arizona State University, said that although some of Pearce’s immigration stands had been popular, his brand of conservatism was favored only by about 20% of the state. But Merrill noted that a tiny minority of the state votes in the primaries that control who wins elective office.
Dallacroce said she thought Pearce had helped Arizona replace California as the country’s political innovator.
“Right now, as Arizona goes,” Dallacroce said, “so goes the nation.”