Former state Sen. Russell Pearce will end the silence over his future Monday, at an event that suggests anything but a quiet retirement following a stunning recall that removed him from office last year.
The Mesa Republican and iconic figure in the anti-illegal immigration debate will appear before the Red Mountain Tea Party with other political candidates and his close political ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Recall organizer Randy Parraz expects Pearce will launch a bid for the state Senate.
So does Sean McCaffrey, the founder of Ban Amnesty Now. McCaffrey works closely with Pearce since BAN named Pearce its president in January.
“I do get the feeling that he’s got the political bug and the public service bug,” McCaffrey said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he jumps back into the fray because despite all the things he has achieved, I think he has the feeling that there’s more to do.”
Pearce did not reply to the Tribune’s emailed request for an interview.
Pearce was behind SB 1070 during his year as Senate president and relentlessly pursued related immigration measures until voters ousted him in November. McCaffrey said Pearce wants to keep pushing immigration bills but is passionate about a wide range of matters that include taxes, the state budget and education.
Pearce lost a November recall to Republican Jerry Lewis, a charter school executive who was well known in the conservative Mesa district but had no political experience. By a 12-point loss, Pearce was the first Arizona legislator to be recalled in the 99 years since Arizona became a state.
That distinction makes Pearce damaged goods, Parraz said. Pearce should have taken the recall as a sign he’d become removed from even conservative voters in his district, Parraz said.
“It’s not about doing whatever the tea party wants you to do. This is not a tea party state, because if we were, Russell Pearce would have won by 12 points,” Parraz said. “I just don’t think Russell Pearce has the pull that he thinks he has among voters.”
Parraz led Citizens for a Better Arizona, which organized voters in west Mesa’s legislative District 18 in response to Pearce’s immigration bills. But the group said Pearce also upset voters by leading the Legislature in making excessive budget cuts that hurt education, health care and other programs.
After the recall was launched, a scandal revealed the Fiesta Bowl had curried favor with lawmakers by providing free tickets and junkets to football games. Pearce took nearly $40,000 in tickets and travel.
Pearce supporters generated intense criticism when some of them supported a third candidate, Olivia Cortes. Critics called her a sham candidate to split the vote, as the retiree had no political experience, shunned most reporters, made little effort to campaign and admitted she didn’t know who posted campaign signs on her behalf.
Pearce was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, and to the Senate in 2008. The Arizona native previously was a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked closely with Arpaio.
McCaffrey said he hasn’t spoken with Pearce about Monday’s announcement. He emphasized neither he nor BAN would be involved with a political campaign, if Pearce were to launch one. The state Senate run seems the best fit for Pearce, he said. McCaffrey said it’s probably too late for anybody to launch a campaign for the U.S. Senate or House.
McCaffrey formerly worked as a campaign consultant and said he doesn’t believe the recall damaged Pearce.
He expects Parraz will work against Pearce but questioned whether Citizens for a Better Arizona can sustain itself beyond a single election. The recall was an abuse of Arizona’s constitution and not a sign of widespread Pearce opposition, McCaffrey said.
“Ordinarily a recall effort is intended for extraordinary situations when an elected official has abused the public trust,” he said. “In this case, the recall provision was taken advantage of by people who didn’t like his legislative agenda.”
The old District 18 boundaries changed since the recall as part of redistricting that takes place every decade. Pearce is now in District 25. That district is currently represented by Republican Sen. Rich Crandall, which could set up a primary battle.
District 25 is further to the east than District 18 but has the same conservative tilt, Parraz said.
He anticipates fighting Pearce in the primary election with the same tactics used in the recall. That involved extensive door-to-door communication with voters to talk about Pearce and build a coalition of independents, moderate Republicans and Democrats. In this case, some Democrats might re-register as Republicans to vote in the primary.
Parraz said he’s been talking with District 25 voters and would only proceed if people in that district want assistance. Parraz said the recall shows Pearce had alienated a wide swath of people, and the result could be repeated this fall.
“If Russell Pearce thinks he’s just going to walk into that seat, he’s going to have a fight,” he said. “Russell Pearce has no idea how many Republican business owners are against him.”
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