Russell Pearce, Arizona Senate President and Immigration Hardliner, May Face Recall

Russell Pearce of Arizona is the driving force behind the nation's harshest immigration crackdown. Terry Greene Sterling reports on the campaign to oust him from political life.

Russell Pearce arrives for a special session at the Capitol in Phoenix on Aug. 9, 2010. (Photo: Matt York / AP Photo)

State Sen. Russell Pearce has been Arizona immigrants' worst nightmare in the last few years. Now, his critics in the Latino community and elsewhere are seeking a measure of revenge.

Pearce made national headlines last year as the sponsor of a harsh crack down on unauthorized immigrants that was signed into law. This year, Pearce, Republican president of the state Senate and a man branded a " hardcore nativist"—is pushing for another stunner. He's advocating a law that would ban citizenship to what immigration hardliners call "anchor babies," children born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents.

His opponents argue that this would violate the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to most babies born on American soil. But they're taking their concerns a step further. Two separate groups have launched recall bids against Pearce in the past week, most recently on Monday. Both recall efforts are led by Latinos. One campaign, Arizonans for Better Government, says Pearce has an "overt disdain for the United States Constitution." Joe Penalosa, a Phoenix attorney and Republican who is involved with the group, says the anchor-baby law disrespects Pearce's own Mormon Church, which recently supported the Utah Compact, a declaration seeking "humane" treatment of immigrants and emphasizing that immigration policy should be handled by the feds, not the state.

"I'm driven by respect for the Constitution and the rule of law," Pearce said on CNN recently. In a nutshell, he believes the 14th Amendment has been misinterpreted for a century, so it's up to Arizona to fix the Constitution. (Pearce didn't respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.)

But to Penalosa and many others in a state that's almost evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and independents, Pearce is an embarrassment, the guy largely responsible for giving Arizona a rap as a racist backwater. Last year's SB 1070 makes it a state crime for unauthorized migrants to set foot in Arizona and requires all state cops to enforce the law. Parts of it have been temporarily stayed by a judge, but the law could nevertheless cost the penny-pinched state nearly $256 million in losses tied to a convention and tourism downtick over the next two years.

The recall may be the only way to stop the "anchor baby" bill; passage of the legislation is likely a slam dunk. Pearce is the undisputed leader of the legislature, which holds conservative majorities so strong they can overturn even the vetoes of Arizona's conservative governor, Jan Brewer, should she drift too far toward the center. Although she vetoed a Republican property-tax law last year, Brewer is unlikely to challenge Pearce this time because—as he's fond of pointing out—she was trailing in the polls until she signed SB 1070.

Pearce's earlier efforts to get birthright-citizenship restrictions passed were thwarted by former Governor Janet Napolitano and moderate Republicans in the legislature. But the climate has changed since then. "This is the most conservative Arizona legislature in modern times, and that's saying a lot, because Arizona is a conservative state," says Chris Herstam, a Phoenix lawyer, lobbyist, and moderate Republican who served in the legislature from 1983 to 1990.

To many in a state divided between Republicans, Democrats, and independents, Russell Pearce is an embarrassment, the guy behind a string of laws that have given Arizona a rap as a racist backwater.

Opponents of the law may challenge Pearce's math. Arizonans already face severe health-care and education cuts thanks to a deficit of more than $2 billion. Pearce says getting rid of "illegals" will save the state billions, but his numbers derive from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. FAIR dismisses the allegation as baseless fearmongering, but its studies conflict with findings of mainstream economists, social scientists, and groups like the Pew Hispanic Center.

Pearce, a barrel-chested 63-year-old former sheriff deputy, was elected Senate president in November by assuring other senators concerned about the economy that he would not sponsor immigration legislation. But once elected, he announced that his political allies would sponsor his birthright-citizenship law and he would advance it through the Senate. It was typical Pearce trickery, says Bill Konopnicki, who served in the Arizona House from 2003 to 2010. Konopnicki says he knows what happens to Pearce's friends and enemies. He spoke out against SB 1070 (after he voted for it) and another pet Pearce bill. Soon thereafter, he says, he and his family received a death threat because he was "soft on illegals." During last year's state Senate primary race, Pearce campaigned fiercely for Konopnicki's opponent, Sylvia Allen, a real-estate agent and archconservative from the town of Snowflake, who told a legislative committee that the world is 6,000 years old. Thanks to Pearce's influence, Allen is now president pro tem of the Senate.

(Immigration isn't the only issue Pearce pushes to the limit. He's given the go-ahead for members to pack loaded guns in the Senate chambers and supports passage of even more liberal gun laws in the wake of the Tucson shootings that killed six and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and he's sponsored a bill that would allow Arizona legislators to overturn federal laws. )

Pearce has a less than distinguished history. He began his political career in 2000, shortly after he'd been let go as director of the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles for allegedly wiping out a DUI charge for a political constituent. Stephen Lemons, a columnist for the Phoenix New Times (where I was formerly a staff writer), began exposing other scandals, including an incident in which Pearce was accused of spying on his estranged first wife from his police car. Lemons also reported that Pearce's second wife, LuAnne, claimed in court he had a "violent temper" and had recently grabbed her by the throat. (LuAnne is still married to him, and told Lemons she never made the allegation in the court document she signed.) Pearce denied he'd ever hurt his wife.

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If the recall effort succeeds, it will force an election for Pearce's Senate seat this fall. An energized Democratic critic is already circling. Former prosecutor Andrei Cherny was recently elected state Democratic chairman. The son of poor immigrants, he calls the proposed birthright-citizenship law "downright un-American" and blames Pearce and his supporters for attempting "a new Civil War." But war is one thing Pearce is used to. That's because, he insists, "I know right and wrong."

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone . Visit her on Facebook, or her website.