The recall debate that wasn't a recall debate - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

The recall debate that wasn't a recall debate

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at

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Posted: Friday, October 7, 2011 2:50 pm | Updated: 4:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It was the hottest ticket in town - only because the Diamondbacks game wasn't until Friday.

The sign at the door at Thursday's District 18 state senatorial recall election debate informed latecomers that all tickets had been distributed for what was a political Super Bowl at the East Valley Institute of Technology auditorium:

Jerry Lewis vs. Russell Pearce.

Inside, Peter Sterling, president of the event-sponsoring Mesa Chamber of Commerce, announced that 63 media credentials were issued. That's more reporters than cover Sarah Palin, I think.

And why not? This was to be Arizona's biggest political event of the year: Ninety minutes of unvarnished recall politics.

This was to be some real political football. Offense. Defense. The president of the state Senate, perhaps Arizona's most powerful Republican, called to account by enough signatures from his own backyard.

Voters must choose in midterm whether to keep him in the Senate, or install an ideologically similar opponent in his place.

Jerry Lewis vs. Russell Pearce.

Olivia Cortes? She dropped out of the recall election earlier Thursday, only days after publicly saying she would not quit.

Jerry Lewis. Russell Pearce.

It was tough to stay awake.

Somebody apparently failed to tell either man that this forum wasn't supposed to be a polite side-by-side exhibition of "If-I-am-elected" speeches, the kind you see in primary elections. That would be useful if this were a regular election year, as the two hopefuls, both Republicans, are simply different shades of conservative.

In the candidates' defense, the chamber - the sole author of the questions asked in the debate - allowed only ones on issues: job creation, education, Gateway Airport, the like.

While the format kept things relatively polite - well, except for the handful of shouters in the crowd who mistook the forum for a baseball game - it also kept undecided voters unprepared to decide the main, if not the only, issue in a recall campaign:

Whether the incumbent's conduct in office is sufficient to allow him to complete his term.

And so anyone who wasn't firmly in either camp - whose members cheered and clapped at most everything their man said - could have been excused if 15 minutes in they began thinking about who they might dress as for Halloween.

Don't expect Pearce or Lewis masks to be sold in Mesa this year, however. Not scary enough.

The chamber didn't include any questions about Pearce's or his supporters' roles, if any, in the ongoing dispute over who was behind Cortes' campaign and why, which isn't going away just because Cortes did.

Or about Pearce's controversial, though amazingly legal, acceptance of thousands of dollars worth of travel for him and his family to attend far-away college football games, courtesy of the Fiesta Bowl.

Questions were asked about illegal immigration, the issue Pearce is best-known for, but they were framed in terms of their effects on business and tourism.

(Hmmm. Maybe I'll dress up as Ryan Roberts.) The framers of the Arizona Constitution didn't write in provisions for recalling officeholders, such as legislators, just to provide voters with the chance to wedge in an election when they're held every two years anyway.

To the contrary, recall was created as a rarely used device - the historians say Pearce is the first Arizona legislator to ever have been placed on a recall ballot - to make an emergency decision that can't wait until November of even-numbered years.

Lewis took a gentlemanly approach - sticking to generally being against divisiveness and for cooperation - and uttered few real criticisms of Pearce. The one point where he showed his teeth, referring to post-SB-1070 Arizona as comparable to 1964 Alabama (afterward he explained he meant that was the view of outsiders), only riled Pearce partisans while confusing his own.

The incumbent, on the other hand, talked in measured tones about his legislative accomplishments, inviting voters to let him keep on accomplishing.

As for Cortes, well, instead of being heard in court, where a judge had no authority to remove Cortes from the ballot, anyway, expect the accusations of those who oppose Pearce to find another place to be aired between now and the election.

Meanwhile, if Lewis hopes to win, he needs to make the election primarily about Pearce and his behavior in office.

That is, telling District 18 voters that they would get in their new senator most of the good qualities of the current one, but without the embarrassing and costly baggage that led enough people to sign petitions to call Pearce to account.


Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark Scarp ( here, and watch his video commentary posted on Saturdays at

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