Ariz. Anti-Illegal Immigration Champion Loses Recall

Nov 9, 2011
Originally published on November 9, 2011 7:53 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As we've heard, voters in Mesa, Arizona, changed the complexion of that state's immigration debate. They threw out state senate president Russell Pearce, the man behind every one of Arizona's controversial immigration laws. NPR's Ted Robbins has that story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Republican Russell Pearce had the support of nearly every elected Republican in Arizona and every anti-immigration organization in the country. But he lost his recall election by 8 percentage points. Pearce told supporters that he accepted the loss as the price of keeping his word.

RUSSELL PEARCE: I've always put my loyalty to this Republic, the rule of law and the moral principles that folks have died for from the beginning of this great Republic, ahead of any personal interest.

ROBBINS: Over the last decade, Pearce has written and pushed through state laws prohibiting illegal immigrants from using state services, sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants and most notably, SB-1070, the law requiring local police to question the immigration status of people they stop. Here he is a couple of years ago explaining his quest.

PEARCE: I will not back off until we resolve this problem of this illegal invasion. Invaders, that's what they are. They're invaders on the American sovereignty and it can't be tolerated.

ROBBINS: Pearce, a former sheriff's deputy, was called a hero by some and a racist by others, but his dogged focus on immigration and the rule of law may be what did him in. His senate district in Mesa is strongly Mormon. Pearce is Mormon. But the LDS Church itself has said it supports more moderate approaches to the immigration issue and Pearce's opponent exploited that. Jerry Lewis is also a Mormon Republican. In his victory speech, Lewis, an assistant school district superintendent, stressed civility and moderation.

JERRY LEWIS: We ran a clean and civil campaign. We set out to show the world that we're serious about being different than the status quo. We ignored the attacks and launched none of our own. Let's continue to take the high ground.

ROBBINS: Lewis said he wants to change Arizona's image and he vowed to work with Democrats and fellow Republicans. He certainly could not have won without them. Hispanics, for instance, mounted a heavy get out the vote effort against Pearce. Republican Mesa city councilman Dave Richins, a Lewis supporter, says the campaign targeted Hispanic Mormons as well.

DAVE RICHINS: There are more Spanish-speaking members of the LDS Church than there are English-speaking members and that perception of inclusion is very important to the image of the church, to its missionary work and other programs, humanitarian programs worldwide.

ROBBINS: Richins says he hopes the Pearce recall means an end to shrill winner-take-all politics, but the state is committed to defending SB-1070 in federal court and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is touring the country with a new book promoting her hard-nosed tactics. But Russell Pearce was the state senate president. He can no longer set the legislative agenda and his voice no longer represents Arizona state government. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Mesa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.