In Antigovernment Arizona, Even the Shooting of a Representative Can’t Change Politics Much

On the anniversary of Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, has the wild-west state become any less wild? Arizonan Tom Zoellner remains skeptical.

In the confused hours after U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson on this day last year, speculation ran wild about the motives of the man who tried to take her life.

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was branded a socialist pot-smoker; a right-wing militant; a devotee of Ayn Rand; a flag-burner; a disgruntled job seeker; a dropout loser; someone who might have been dazzled into violence by the political action committee of Sarah Palin, whose website featured little doodads that looked like target marks over districts of vulnerable Democrats such as Giffords. People saw in Loughner what they wanted to see.

In a now-famous press conference held at a luxury resort down the road from the Safeway, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed the state’s astringent politics for the shootings, saying, “This is not the nice United States we all grew up with” and that Arizona in particular had become “a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Loughner now sits in a Missouri prison-hospital, charged with six murders and prohibited by his own attorneys from taking drugs that might ease the symptoms of his paranoid schizophrenia. Giffords is recuperating in seclusion at her husband’s home outside Houston. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of Gabrielle’s, and also of Gabe Zimmerman, who died in the shooting.) And Arizona, the youngest of the contiguous states, has shown signs of tiring of the hotspur politics that once prompted Jon Stewart to call it “the meth lab of American democracy.”

The Giffords’ shooting helped create an abrupt sobering-up of the public dialogue: the last election held in Tucson, for mayor last November, passed with hardly an ill-tempered word spoken (that is, until some ads financed by outside money surfaced in the last week). Though joblessness persists, unemployment is down slightly, to a sluggish 8.7 percent. The continuously lousy trade in homebuilding—a mainstay of the state’s economy since the end of the Second World War—has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of migrants who cross the Mexican border in search of work.

The man who was arguably most responsible for the roiling battles over immigration—state Senate president Russell Pearce, the author of the “show me your papers” law that promised to turn local police into federal immigration enforcers—was recalled by his own constituents in an unprecedented special election in October, replaced by a Republican of more genial temperament. Pearce’s attempts to follow up his punitive immigration measure with even harsher laws, including one that made it a crime for a doctor not to snitch on an emergency-room patient, were voted down. A law known as Senate Bill 1070, which requires local police to check immigration status of suspected migrants, will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this session.

Meanwhile, Tucson’s largest school district has been fighting to keep its “ethnic studies” elective class, against fierce opposition from Republican Attorney General Tom Horne.

Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio has seen his stock take a plunge. The U.S. Justice Department released a damning report on the flamboyant Maricopa County lawman who had made a national name for himself by conducting mass “immigration sweeps.” Federal officials said Arpaio had used unconstitutional police tactics, created a systematic culture of discrimination against Latinos, and built a dangerous “wall of mistrust” between police and minorities in his county, which includes Phoenix.

It was the latest hit in a bad year for Arpaio. His top deputy was fired in August amid corruption accusations and the misdirection of approximately $100 million that was supposed to have been used to run the jails. Arpaio, 79, stands for reelection within nine months, and early indications are that he’ll face a real electoral challenge for the first time in his career, if not be fired by weary voters.

Though Arpaio and Pearce have been humbled, and the bitterness of the language may have come down several notches, some of the bigger dysfunctions remain untouched—and have even worsened. The legislature found time to designate an official “state firearm,” the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. But it did not find any money to keep about 135,000 poor residents on the state’s Medicaid program, including more than 5,000 people classified as “seriously mentally ill”—a population in which Jared Lee Loughner would surely have been classified, had anybody sought treatment for him.

The last session also included some only-in-Arizona moments, including state Sen. Lori Klein drawing her .380 Ruger (which she routinely carries onto the Senate floor) out of her purse and aiming it at a reporter so he could see the red laser-target dot on his chest. The state’s already liberal gun laws, needless to say, didn’t get tightened up. Thirty-shot magazines, such as that used to mow down a crowd at the Safeway, are still legal, though a bill to make it easier to carry a concealed weapon onto a college campus did get vetoed by the governor.

There is more to Arizona’s wacky politics than meets the eye. The youngest state on the lower continent was practically founded on the idea of personal reinvention and sunny lifestyles. Cheap housing, seemingly endless horizons of land, low taxes, and plentiful water (thanks to big-ticket federal dams) meant a fresh start for those seeking a change, and Arizona welcomed millions of newcomers into a few sprawling urban areas—especially Phoenix, which author Ed Abbey once called “the blob that ate Arizona”—set in the midst of a spectacular barren desert and 21 Indian reservations. But the freewheeling growth came with a cost.

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“People aren’t attached,” David Taylor, the former city planner of Tucson, once said. “They don’t bond well. They think Company X is going to move them to California, so why bother? Sort of like mining camps when the ore runs out.”

Voters here have not always chosen their leaders for reasons of competence, and partisan primaries tend to favor the most passionate speakers. Perennial antitax candidate Evan Mecham was elected governor in 1986, and more than half of the voters in the Republican primary that year hadn’t lived in the state longer than five years. Mecham’s clownish term in office ended with the first triple play in American history: he was impeached, indicted, and subjected to a recall all at the same time.

More recently, a growing demographic divide between an aging Anglo population and a youthful Latino population means that common ground is growing even scarcer. Demographers call this “gray versus brown.” These are groups with without much general comfort with one another, despite Arizona’s rich border history, and it is all too easy for an Anglo to live here for decades without ever having a conversation with a native Mexican or a Native American.

The rhetoric in Arizona may have cooled since the murders outside a grocery store, and two of the state’s most polarizing figures—Arpaio and Pearce—may be temporarily hushed, but the social anxieties confronting Arizona still persist underneath the anniversary’s calm. In a Gallup poll commissioned for the Center for the Future of Arizona two years ago, Arizonans gave their state enthusiastic praise for the beauty of the landscape. But when asked whether “people in our communities care about each other,” only 12 percent strongly agreed.

“You might compare [Arizona] to a ski community: a place where people might own a condominium and feel no real connection to the town,” said Lattie Coor, the head of the institute that commissioned the survey. It is clear, he said, that “you can exist in Arizona without having any human interaction at all.” And inside one of the pop-up subdivisions that blanket Phoenix and Tucson, Jared Lee Loughner went slowly and unmistakably mad for at least four years without anyone trying to get him the help he needed.

An election coming up this November may test Arizona’s temporary calm. Candidates are looking to create a context for them to occupy an empty Senate seat—the first time this has happened since 1994—and every House member will be running in redrawn districts. And the Supreme Court’s ruling on the 1070 spot-check immigration law is likely to make many unhappy no matter which way it goes. The social fissures that have historically exaggerated the differences between varied interests have not abated, even as the hot rhetoric has cooled amid the horror of the Safeway shootings.

“There’s been a lot nicer of a discourse,” said Neal Cash, the CEO of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, a behavioral health nonprofit. “It feels like a change has begun to occur. But how lasting it’ll be, who knows?”