MESA, Ariz.—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.
The effort to oust Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce has transformed a normally quiet legislative district in a Phoenix suburb into a closely watched battleground on immigration that also features issues such as school funding cuts and state mandates on local governments.
People on both sides of the debate believe that removing Pearce would send a powerful message to the Legislature that uncompromising stands on immigration and other issues will not be tolerated by voters. On the flip side, a Pearce victory will say a tough stance on illegal immigration is just what voters demand.
"The folks running the recall are trying to send a message to the rest of the Legislature that if they can take out Russell Pearce, then they can take out any one of us, and to get us to stop running bills against illegal immigration," said Republican Sen. Ron Gould.
Pearce is facing fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, a charter school executive and former accountant who hopes his candidacy will help the district and Arizona shed false images as being home to intolerance. The election marks the first time in Arizona that a sitting legislator has faced a recall.
It's a surprising turnaround for Pearce, who was riding high a year ago with enactment of the immigration enforcement law known as SB1070 and his elevation to the Arizona Senate's top leadership post.
But then came the recall drive, the state Senate's surprising rejection last spring of a handful of Pearce-backed immigration measures and disclosures that he'd accepted numerous free trips to college football games, courtesy of the Fiesta Bowl.
The race has also been noteworthy for some its vicious attacks, campaign shenanigans and relatively large spending for a legislative race.
Pearce is going head-to-head against Lewis, although the name of a mystery third candidate will appear on ballots despite the fact that she dropped out. A court battle over the candidate, Olivia Cortes, revealed that Pearce supporters helped her get on the ballot in an effort to dilute the vote against him. Ballots cast for her won't count, but they could still siphon votes away from Lewis.
Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate said the election likely would have minimal impact nationally because most people concerned with the issue have fairly set positions. But the stakes in Arizona are seen as higher.
A rare Republican lawmaker publicly supporting Lewis, Sen. Rich Crandall, said that the election outcome could affect Arizona politics and the tone of the Legislature.
"The tone is going to be what are the real solutions to real problems," the Mesa lawmaker said.
The GOP-dominated Legislature has taken a forceful role on several conservative causes in recent years, including business tax cuts, school private school vouchers, abortion limits, gun rights, union restrictions and immigration.
Nationally, Pearce gained notice when he won approval of a 2007 state law requiring Arizona employers to use a federal system to check new employees' work eligibility.
He followed that up in 2010 with enactment of a sweeping immigration enforcement law known as SB1070.
A federal judge has blocked implementation of key provisions of SB1070 and an appeal is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but Pearce's stock soared among immigration hardliners and other states moved to enact their own versions.
Recall backers didn't emphasize the immigration issue, instead focusing on saying Pearce was giving short shrift to concerns about education, health care and the economy.
Pearce denies that and points to his wide-ranging legislative record on concerns ranging from gun rights to business tax cuts. And despite what his opponents say, Pearce says he's been targeted by critics of his immigration legislation.
"They're trying to hide that issue," he said in an interview.
Lewis, who was not part of the recall campaign, 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.
Supporters of both candidates said the race is close, and voters interviewed outside the city library said SB1070 and its sponsor were concerns for them.
When asked about her decision to vote for Lewis, Mesa resident and Democrat Barbara Bryan responded: "He's not Russell Pearce. It's the negative tone about too many things."
Leslie Ann Cluff, a Republican, said she supports Pearce "just became I'm against illegal aliens, and he helped to get that law passed."
Pearce has endorsements from Gov. Jan Brewer and dozens of other elected Republican officeholders, while his pre-election campaign finance report shows that his Senate presidency and his role in promoting immigration legislation provided him with a more than 3-to-1 fundraising advantage over Lewis.
Out-of-state contributors accounted for a fifth of Pearce's 1,800 individual donors, and most of the Arizonans had addresses outside Mesa.
Lewis, 54, appears to have significant grassroots support in the district. His campaign finance report listed more than 400 contributions from individuals. Nearly all listed Mesa addresses.
Pearce, 64, says he's taking the challenge seriously. Lewis is perceived as a nice guy by many district residents "who don't know what's going on," Pearce said. "He'll get some moderate Republicans so it will be a close race."
Pearce won his first legislative race in 2000 and rose to prominence in the Senate while making immigration a signature issue. He regularly recites violent crimes that involved illegal immigrants, including the 2004 shooting of his son, a sheriff's deputy who was wounded while serving a search warrant.
While Republicans hold a nearly 3-2 advantage over Democrats in the district, the nature of the recall race allows Democrats to vote in what otherwise would be a primary between two Republicans.
Both candidates belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church whose members have played leading roles in Mesa civic life for generations despite accounting for an increasingly smaller share of the city's population.
The candidates not-so-subtly argue that each is more in line with the church's overall position on immigration issues.
Spokeswoman Cindy Packard said the church is neutral and won't comment on the race, but the church last summer issued a statement saying that enforcement alone is an inadequate approach to immigration.
That could be seen as more in line with Lewis' stance, but Pearce said immigration changes other than enforcement are federal issues, not state ones.
Meanwhile, the candidates have traded barbs about integrity issues.
Pearce's campaign points to a lawsuit in which a fired school employee accused Lewis of stealing items donated for homeless students by giving them to a teacher. Lewis said it was an acceptable practice to give unused items to teachers, but that he wishes he'd asked the fired worker to explain her concerns at the time.
Lewis is vowing to sponsor legislation banning gifts to lawmakers and said Pearce had a conflict of interest when he accepted trips from the Fiesta bowl. Pearce said he only went at the bowl's request to show support for it