A veteran legislator outspoken about illegal immigration versus an immigration lawyer. The District 18 Senate race in Mesa could not be scripted any better. Both Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and political rookie Kevin Gibbons say they know the highly divisive immigration issue better than the other.
Each also insists he is the true, conservative Republican best fit to represent the district and party values.
Pearce is the author of the state's new employer sanctions law. It punishes business owners for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. He's also pushed other measures aimed at making illegal immigration tougher, including Proposition 200, which prevents illegal immigrants from receiving state benefits.
Now, Pearce, former Chief Deputy of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, is hoping to move to the Senate; he is prohibited by term limits from continuing in the House.
He says his goal is to continue to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country. That and stopping what he sees as government bloating through a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, his proposal that would cap government spending at no more than is necessary to keep up with inflation and population growth.
"We need to check our out-of-control spending," said Pearce.
A former director of the state Motor Vehicle Division, Pearce said that despite government service in one capacity or the other for most of his career, he's championed public causes by keeping his taxpayer glasses on. He touts that he cut administration costs by $10 million annually when he was at MVD and helped reduce unnecessary transactions.
Pearce, a lifetime Mesa resident, credits his humble background growing up as one of 13 children - and never depending on welfare checks - as the main reason he abhors the welfare system even now.
"People, especially able-bodied folks, need to get off their butts and go to work instead of depending on taxpayer money," Pearce said.
He opposes a property tax but believes sales tax is fair, because it's based on consumption. Pearce is also a strong advocate of upholding gun rights and preventing eminent domain abuse by government.
But a conversation invariably comes back to the illegal immigration issue. Pearce doesn't buy the argument that there aren't enough U.S. citizens to fill American jobs.
A proponent of English as the official state language, he also denounces the current system of allowing children of illegal immigrants to be educated in public schools, as well as "unconstitutional citizenship by birth" to children of non-Americans.
"Why should someone who comes here illegally reap all these benefits?" Pearce said.
He says Mesa's recent policy that specifies circumstances under which police and others can ask people about their immigration status isn't enough to prevent it from "remaining a sanctuary city."
"I'm not changing any laws here - I'm just asking that we check proof of eligibility to stay and work in the country," Pearce said.
Pearce is endorsed by the Maricopa County Republican Committee and the District 18 Precinct Committeemen. He's also backed by pro-family and law enforcement groups, as well as legislators including Andy Biggs and Mark Anderson.
He says the fact that the sanctions law was supported by the state Republican party is a testament to their endorsement of his views.
Gibbons, meanwhile, says that as someone who deals with immigration issues professionally, he understands the "reality" that the legal immigration system is "dysfunctional."
He's heavily supported by business interests, a fact he's more than willing to embrace, saying they're "the true roots of the Republican party." He's also backed by the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona and the Mesa Police Association.
"I'm the only guy who's dealt with legal immigration in this race," Gibbons said, adding he understands the needs of business owners to hire workers from outside the country because they're not getting American workers.
Gibbons says illegal immigration is a valid concern, and he supports securing the border, but adds it needs to be addressed at the federal level. He criticizes the employer sanctions law for going too far by turning employers "into federal immigration officers."
Gibbons, politically well-connected through his family ties to Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is making no bones about the fact that he's entered the race on the anti-Pearce plank. He says he's "a realist" whose main aim is to push for economic development in Mesa and the state by being business-friendly.
The longtime Mesa resident says Pearce's extreme stance on the immigration issue has isolated his opponent from the business community.
"Let's face it, the real issues here are how do we as a state attract new businesses and make it a haven for small businesses," Gibbons said.
That's clear from his campaign donations, with major support from restaurant, liquor and the farming industry.
The donor list includes Yuma mayor Larry Nelson, where agriculture is the dominant economic engine.
"I like Russell but for him to suggest that our farmers are knowingly hiring illegal immigrants is an absolute lie," Nelson said, adding that the farmers don't get enough workers locally.
"Our farmers are suffering and someone needs to listen and not penalize them," Nelson said.
Nelson said he donated money to Gibbons because he felt he would be open to a different approach to "this complex issue."
Gibbons said as a legislator he would focus on promoting higher education and lowering corporate income tax to attract companies.
"Mesa has the reputation of being the worst place to do business," Gibbons said. "We have to get rid of that image. Let's change the dialogue and tone."
Gibbons says he represents a "silent majority" of Republicans who don't wish to be associated with Pearce's views. Among his other supporters is former Mesa Vice Mayor Claudia Walters, who said that to suggest all Republicans believe the same thing is "a silly notion."
"Gibbons has a fresh viewpoint which many of us share," Walters said.
The rift within the Republican party has smoldered and accusations have been flying.
Blogs are buzzing and district voters are receiving mailers from independent committees and candidates' campaigns.
Pearce has said Gibbons is only pandering to what he calls the open borders crowd. When Democrat heavyweight Jim Pederson contributed to the Gibbons campaign, the lines got clearly drawn, said Maricopa County Republican Committee chairman Tom Husband.
"How could he take money from a Democrat?" Husband said.
That prompted the committee to endorse Pearce for the primary. Plus, it was clear that business interests who wanted to water down the sanctions law were largely funding Gibbons, Husband said.
Gibbons has since given Pederson's contribution to a domestic violence shelter.
Still, he felt Pederson gave to his campaign because he shared his views as a businessman.
"We need to work in a cooperative environment at the Legislature," Gibbons said, adding that the donation doesn't mean he's not a Republican.
Pearce's supporters, including District 18 Republican chairman Matt Tolman, questioned Gibbons' commitment to Mesa, accusing him of not voting on key city issues including the Riverview and Waveyard projects.
Gibbons says he has closely followed all city elections but missed voting in one because he was out of town.
But the race really captured the headlines last week after two mailers hit voter homes. Sent by an independent expenditure committee, Mesa Deserves Better, they dredge up past allegations in a 1980 divorce petition filed by Pearce's wife, LuAnne, in which she had accused her husband of domestic violence.
The two, however, remain married to this day. In a statement released last week, LuAnne Pearce said those statements were untrue. Pearce was outraged at the mailer, saying it was dragging something up from 30 years ago.
GOP heavyhitter Nathan Sproul, who chairs the committee, has defended his actions, saying it's perfectly all right to bring out issues that speak to a person's character.
Gibbons has denounced the mailer. But one of his campaign fliers also attacks Pearce's track record on hindering legislation aimed at strengthening the position of domestic violence victims.
Another attack mailer brought up Pearce's alleged connections with neo-Nazis because of a photograph in which Pearce posed with former City Council candidate JT Ready. It also criticized Pearce for broadly distributing through e-mail an article from the white supremacist group, National Alliance. At the time, Pearce said the e-mail was a mistake. And last week he termed the latest mailer another "slimy" attack on him.
He said the photograph was taken at a public event he and former Rep. J.D Hayworth organized. "I was photographed with many people and I totally disavow Ready's association," Pearce said Friday. "You get hundreds of pictures taken."
Early voting is going on now. The primary is Sept. 2.