Big Money & Bigger Shams: a Look Back at Pearce’s Recall

Chris Griffin • Nov 21, 2011

photo taken from Gage Skidmore's flickr page

It is the first time an Arizona state senator has been successfully recalled.  It is also the first time a state senate president has been successfully recalled in the history of our nation. Former state senator Russell Pearce was defeated in a historic recall where voters decided against him by a decisive margin of over 11 percent (55 percent for Lewis and 44 percent for Pearce), according to the last tally. 

Pearce was up against a political new comer by the name of Jerry Lewis, who like Pearce, is also a Republican and a Mormon. Pearce enjoyed many advantages over Lewis, not the least of which was the campaign contributions he drew. According to a November 2 article by Gary Nelson of the Arizona Republic, “Contributions to Pearce’s committee and others supporting him outweighed those to Lewis by about a 5-1 ratio,” with most of Pearce’s contributions coming from outside Mesa.  Despite these facts, Pearce and his supporters still knew this would be a difficult election to win. 

Looking for an edge over Lewis, Pearce supporters tried to steal the election by creating a sham candidate, Olivia Cortez, to enter the race with the sole purpose of weakening Lewis’s potential support base. 

The sham campaign was run by East Valley Tea Party Chairmen Greg Western, a Pearce supporter, and it was even being assisted by several members of Pearce’s own family. Cortez, however, withdrew after it became apparent that her candidacy was indeed a sham designed only to weaken Lewis’s potential support base—just as a judge was about to hear more evidence concerning the affiliations of those behind her campaign, querying whether or not any laws were broken in the process. Cortez still received approximately one percent of the vote.

The reality is that this recall election defied conventional wisdom in a number of ways, but it did so because Russell Pearce is not a conventional politician. 

Pearce is a polarizing figure in Arizona, sometimes alienating members of his own party, and who was known primarily for his extremist stance on immigrants and immigration. Pearce was behind numerous extreme anti-immigrant bills in Arizona, including the infamous SB 1070. Meanwhile, Lewis campaigned partially on how Pearce’s hard-line right-wing views have stigmatized Arizona, saying that because of Pearce and his agenda the state is now “seen as something akin to 1964 Alabama.”

While we have also seen harsh anti-immigrant legislation crop-up in some other states, like Alabama and Georgia, what we saw in this recall election was and is the will of citizens to steer their state in a different direction—a will so strong that a candidate with no legislative experience and 1/5 of the money of his opposition could still break historical ground at the state and national level.

In fact, before this recall election, the self-proclaimed architect of SB 1070 had never even lost a legislative campaign. 

As it happened, SB 1070 was not quite the golden trophy that Pearce proclaimed and displayed it as; instead, the bigoted law served more as a unifying springboard against him and the anti-immigrant, nativist agenda that he and his represent. While anti-immigrant extremism still exists, including in Arizona, this is clearly a defining moment in the struggle against nativism, and an attempt by voters to begin healing Arizona’s image.

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