tags: , , , , America’s Voice Research on Immigration Reform

Russell Pearce’s Recall Shows Danger of “Negative Tone,” Anti-Immigration Stance as “Pet Issue”

Share This:

November 2011 | Click here to download PDF

Over the course of a single year, Russell Pearce fell from secure incumbency to resounding defeat. Jerry Lewis beat incumbent State Senator Russell Pearce soundly in the first-ever recall election of a state politician in Arizona history, getting 53.4% of the vote to Pearce’s 45.4%. Pearce had handily won his last 2 elections: defeating one challenger in 2008 and two in 2010, and winning 56% of the vote each time. As late as May 2011, Pearce bragged: “My constituency knows me, my district knows me — that’s why I have a 16-0 record with wins in my district.”

Associated Press on recall: “a referendum on the state’s hardline immigration policies.” In a preview of the election, the Associated Press highlighted the importance of the immigration issue in the Pearce recall: “The architect of the groundbreaking Arizona immigration law that thrust the issue into the national political debate faces a recall election Tuesday likely to be viewed as a referendum on the state’s hardline immigration policies.”  Constituents cited many concerns about Pearce’s leadership and priorities: one told the Associated Press that she was voting for Lewis because she was sick of “the negative tone about too many things,” and Republican State Senator Rich Crandall predicted that if Lewis were elected, “the tone is going to be what are real solutions to real problems.” Pearce’s obsessive focus on immigration, to the exclusion of voters’ other concerns, clearly fed this perception.

It became clear the tide was turning against Pearce when business blocked his latest crop of anti-immigrant bills last spring. As president of the State Senate, Pearce attempted to follow up 2010’s groundbreaking anti-immigrant law SB 1070 with a new series of extreme anti-immigration proposals. Pearce put together a slate of bills that would have prevented undocumented children from attending public schools, required hospitals to check immigration status, and even issued a different kind of birth certificate to children born to an undocumented parent. Arizona’s business community mobilized against this agenda, and the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, along with 60 CEOs from around the state, sent Pearce an open letter urging him to reconsider. Soon after, the bills failed to pass in the Senate and were shelved for the year.

The bipartisan campaign to recall Pearce showed the voters were frustrated with Pearce’s focus on “pet issues.” Republican Chad Snow chaired the committee that circulated the petition to recall Pearce, joining Democrat Randy Parraz in leading the recall effort. Snow told the Associated Press that Pearce was out of touch with voters’ top issues, and that “He’s down there focusing on his two pet issues”—gun rights and immigration.

Pearce’s Republican opponent, new State Senator Jerry Lewis, wants to change the state party’s course on immigration. Pearce’s Republican opponent, Jerry Lewis, was not involved in the petition calling for Pearce’s recall. Once the petition gathered enough signatures and the recall election was scheduled, however, he jumped into the race. According to the Associated Press, Lewis “said his approach on immigration would be to do more to forge consensus for comprehensive action. ‘The image that people have of us is something that we’re not,’ he said.”

Pearce lost despite his hefty campaign war chest stocked with out-of state money, and dirty tricks to try to suppress the Lewis vote.  According to the local ABC affiliate, Pearce has raised $230,000, while Lewis has raised only $69,000. However, the Arizona Republic reports that “only 12 percent of Pearce’s support came from within Mesa,” and ABC reports that Pearce received donations from 40 states. Lewis, on the other hand, raised 59% of his funds from Mesa.

Pearce allies first tried to put a sham candidate on the ballot… For much of the campaign, Pearce was running against not only Lewis but a woman named Olivia Cortes, who the Arizona Republic said had entered the race “mysteriously” and who “was supported by Pearce family members and allies.” The people circulating petitions to put Cortes on the ballot “admitted that their purpose was to help Pearce win the election.” Cortes quit the race on October 6th, after lawyers suing to get her off the ballot announced they had “uncovered new evidence implicating Cortes and Pearce’s supporters in election fraud.” However, Cortes was still on early-voting ballots, and some early voters voted for her without knowing she was no longer a candidate.

…then tried to use election-eve robocalls to mislead Latino voters. A few days before the election, Latino families in Pearce’s district began to report that they were receiving robocalls asking them to “protest” the election by writing in a candidate. According to local network ABC 15, the robocall featured a man with a Spanish accent saying: “Voters beware. If you plan to vote this Tuesday, you should know that both candidates for State Senator, Russell Pearce and Jerry Lewis, are Republicans. The only other candidate, Olivia Cortes, was forced to withdraw last month. You can protest this one-sided election by writing in your own candidate.”