How a Recall Election Brought Down Arizona’s Most Powerful Politician (OPINION)

Nov 29, 2021
12:27 PM
Originally published at AZ Mirror

Former Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce, author of the infamous SB 1070 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

PHOENIX — One of the great stories in Arizona politics involves the recall 10 years ago this month of then-Republican state Senate President Russell Pearce, the far-right author of the single most anti-immigrant bill in modern U.S. history, Senate Bill 1070.

More commonly known as the “show us your papers” law, its passage wreaked terror in the immigrant community, sparked a national economic boycott of Arizona, and supercharged an already growing progressive movement whose reverberations are still being felt across state politics today.

One of the people inspired to counter the threat posed by Pearce’s political ascent was Randy Parraz, a longtime community organizer and the founder and president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, which formed to drive the 2011 recall effort.

“I just couldn’t believe that someone with that type of extremist views —racist, anti-Latino— could be rewarded for that type of behavior. That’s what really captured me and (made me decide) say I have to do something,” said Parraz, who recently published Dignity by Fire, a book about the recall.

For Parraz, Pearce’s draconian views on immigration were just the tip of the iceberg. “Of even greater concern to some families was his insistence on cutting Medicaid, rejecting billions of health care dollars from the federal government and eliminating funds to assist patients waiting for organ transplants,” Parraz writes. Pearce had also presided over a state senate that cut nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in funding from K–12 education.

“He was extreme in many ways,” Parraz said. “Anti-union, anti-worker, anti-women. He wanted to change laws to make it more difficult to press charges against a man when they committed domestic violence against a woman.”

But a grassroots campaign to take down the man many at the time regarded as Arizona’s most powerful politician was viewed by most of the state’s leading power brokers as not only unlikely but downright crazy and even counterproductive.

The widespread fear among leading Democrats, Pearce’s mostly muted critics in the Republican Party, and the state’s powerful business community was that going after Pearce would fail miserably and spark a backlash that could damage their own agendas.

Among Parraz’s most ardent Democratic naysayers was then-state Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who now represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate.

In his book, the author recounts a conversation between his wife Lillia Alvarez and Sinema about her involvement in the recall. According to Alvarez, Sinema called the campaign “dangerous” and warned, “You need to stop that right now … And, besides, he’s my boss and he would kill all of my bills.”

“Despite [Pearce’s] anti-anything-progressive record,” Parraz writes, “some Democrats still wanted to go along to get along in pursuit of their own agendas.”

One reason so many of the state’s established leaders opposed the recall, Parraz said, was the belief that Pearce was politically invincible. Pearce had never lost an election, he represented a “ruby red” conservative district, and he was president of the state senate. Not to mention, no one in the Arizona legislature had ever been recalled and there had never been a state senate president recalled in U.S. history.

Even if he could be recalled, the “conventional wisdom” went, no Democrat could beat him in a special election and no Republican would risk sticking their neck out to run against him.

Citizens for a Better Arizona had an answer for all of that. The group’s strategy was to first convince just enough registered voters in the district to sign a petition to recall Pearce, then get them to support a moderate Republican candidate to run against him.

Under the state’s recall rules, the group needed 7,756 signatures, or 25 percent of the number of voters who had cast a ballot in Pearce’s last election. Assuming that few Republicans would back the recall movement, Citizens for a Better Arizona set out to gather the necessary signatures from the district’s pool of about 40,000 registered Democrats and independents.

The bigger challenge, of course, involved finding a moderate, pro-immigrant, Republican “unicorn” brave enough to take Pearce on.

Along the way, Parraz and his team learned that there was also a growing contingent of Republicans in the district who were fed up with Pearce’s extremist agenda, including his racist anti-immigrant stance. Much of that opposition came from the district’s influential population of followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, though the church has shied away from that moniker in recent years.

Many in the church, despite leaning Republican, are generally pro-immigrant. And of the church’s more than 16 million members worldwide, about 40 percent are in Latin America.

In the end, Pearce was not only recalled but beaten by double digits in a special election won by political newcomer Jerry Lewis in a campaign backed by a first-of-its-kind coalition that included a demographically diverse array of Democratic, Republican and independent voters.

Instrumental in Pearce’s defeat was the district’s growing bloc of Latino voters. In the latter months of the campaign, droves of mostly young volunteers from across the Valley, including some undocumented immigrants, knocked on thousands of doors in the district urging voters to turn out the powerful incumbent.

“For decades, Latinos in safe, red Republican districts [like Pearce’s] had been ignored or taken for granted,” Parraz writes. But thanks to Latino grassroots organizations like Somos America, Mi Familia Vota, and Promise Arizona in Action, “For fifty straight days, Latino voters felt the love and attention of hundreds of volunteers who finally came to their neighborhoods, came to their casas (homes), knocked on their doors, and said, ‘We need your vote!’ “

The ultimate legacy of the Pearce recall, Parraz said, has been three-fold.

First, since Pearce’s ouster, Arizona Republicans have failed to pass any major anti-immigration legislation.

Also, Parraz adds, had Pearce remained in office, a later push in the legislature to expand access to Medicaid would almost certainly have failed. As a result of what Parraz calls an “unintended victory” of the recall, hundreds of thousands of low-income Arizonans today have health care coverage.

Most important, defeating Pearce showed that “citizens can and must get involved when the prevailing institutions [including the state’s major political parties] fail to hold certain politicians accountable.”

With the publication of his book behind him, what’s next for Parraz?

As co-founder and president of Organizing Institute for Democracy, Parraz said he and his family are making plans to relocate soon from California to Arizona, where they plan to buy a home.

Parraz said his group might get involved in a new voter initiative to repeal the ban on in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants. He also plans to fight what he calls recent steps by the legislature to “criminalize” voting rights.

No word on whether Parraz and Pearce plan to meet up anytime soon to talk about old times.


James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant based in Phoenix, AZ, the editor and publisher of the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America, and author of the upcoming book “Vanguardia: The American Latino Renaissance & the Future of Our Nation.” Twitter: @JG_Vanguardia