Charter school executive Jerry Lewis announced Wednesday morning that he will challenge state Senate President Russell Pearce in the Nov. 8 recall election.
The Mesa Republican also filed election paperwork Wednesday, more than a week after signaling interest. Lewis said he would do more to promote economic and education policies if elected while working more closely with others. He said he was drafted by community members to challenge Pearce.
"I believe it's time to restore a style of leadership to Mesa that its residents can be proud of," Lewis said.
Lewis announced his candidacy to more than 200 supporters at the Wright House in Mesa, where he referred to Pearce as a friend. Both are Mormons and Lewis said he'll run a positive campaign without making personal attacks.
"Our faith teaches us to treat each other with respect and kindness," he said.
Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley said a groundswell of support has been building for Lewis and that the candidate is well-known in Legislative District 18.
"He'll restore sanity to the process instead of this concept that we'll rule by fear," Stapley said.
Lewis is a reluctant candidate, said Mesa attorney Dea Montague. Community members unhappy with Pearce had been searching for a candidate since the recall momentum grew earlier this year, he said. Both Lewis and the community group were unaffiliated with the recall campaign, Montague said.
Lewis declined to sign a recall petition when given the chance, Montague said. The draft committee persuaded Lewis to run because they thought Pearce worked on immigration issues at the expense of education and the economy, he said.
"In recent times the brand of Mesa and of Arizona has hurt our standing in the business community and our standing in education, and I believe that Jerry can have a very positive impact in changing that branding," Montague said.
The campaign is Lewis's first venture into the political arena.
His announcement was unconventional for an office-seeker trying to get media attention. Lewis left the event venue without taking questions from reporters or making himself available for individual interviews. Lewis spoke briefly and didn't delve into specific issues.
Stapley attended the announcement and said he wished he'd had the chance to advise Lewis to answer questions.
"He is not afraid of answering questions. He's new at this," Stapley said. "But what I know about Jerry is he's a very solid leader with very strong principles."
Lewis's supporters said the candidate would handle immigration differently than Pearce, who has become a national figure for drafting SB 1070 and other bills to discourage and deport illegal immigrants. With the court putting a hold on major provisions of SB 1070, supporters said Lewis recognizes immigration as a federal issue. However, they said Lewis believes in closing the border and working with federal officials to improve border security.
Matt Tolman, head of Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall, said Pearce has done what his constituents want.
"They like the fact that he's for securing the border and protecting the voters in Mesa because the federal government isn't doing its job, and I don't think that's changed," Tolman said.
Pearce has handily won eight terms in the Legislature and has been seen by some as virtually unbeatable. Stapley said he sees that differently after hearing from so many voters in Pearce's district.
"There has not been any choice on the ballots for some time - any good choice," he said. "No one has challenged him because of the primary system."
Supporters said they expect Pearce will dwarf the amount of money Lewis can raise, given Pearce's national prominence on immigration issues. Already, a nationwide campaign has started to raise money for Pearce in what is Arizona's first-ever recall of a lawmaker. Lewis supporters said they plan an inexpensive neighbor-to-neighbor campaign.
Pearce supporters have raised as much as $20,000 a day a couple times during a big push, Tolman said. He hesitated to estimate how much money would be spent but said he heard one pollster estimate up to $2 million. Lewis is an assistant superintendant for Sequoia Schools, a Mesa-based charter school chain with 13 Arizona locations. He is a former certified public accountant and has been a vice president with the Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts.
His campaign is headed by Mesa attorney Dea Montague, former Mesa Vice Mayor John Giles and attorney Clint Smith.
Lewis is the most prominent challenger, but the third to enter the race. Mesa audiologist Tommy Cattey filed paperwork July 16 with the Arizona Secretary of State's office. He's an independent. On Tuesday, Republican Olivia Cortes filed papers to begin her candidacy. Candidates must gather 621 signatures to get on the ballot.
Tolman said it's not surprising three candidates have entered the race and he expects more.
"If they want to run, I welcome them to run," Tolman said. "It will just bring out the distances and help everyone understand who is who."