Inside the Russell Pearce recall

A citizen-activist recounts the 10-month fight to oust the anti-immigration Arizona state senator

Published November 12, 2011 5:01PM (EST)

 Russell Pearce and the author, Amy McMullen     (AP/Matt York/Bob McMullen)
Russell Pearce and the author, Amy McMullen (AP/Matt York/Bob McMullen)

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Amy McMullen's Open Salon blog.

On a sunny day in January 2011 I found myself driving around a section of west Mesa, Ariz., looking for a meeting. I was from out of town and the address I was given was hard to find because the buildings were unmarked.  I drove around the area several times before stopping on a side street and hitting my steering wheel in frustration. Then I noticed  what appeared to be some kind of city utility building on the corner. There were a few cars in the lot, so I figured this had to be it and I drove in.  I followed another late arrival into a conference room where about 20 people were gathered. They were there to meet about how to unseat Russell Pearce, the most powerful man in Arizona politics.  I finally knew I was in the right place.

To me, Russell Pearce epitomized all that was wrong in my new home state of Arizona. From his harsh anti-immigrant law SB 1070 to his plans to slash welfare services, healthcare and education to the support he eagerly accepted from wealthy interest groups like private prison corporations, Pearce struck me as an ugly bully up to his neck in dirty politics. The fact that he included a famous neo-Nazi among his former pals  and had sent around blatantly anti-Semitic emails to his constituents didn’t endear him to me either.  As the newly elected president of what he proudly proclaimed to be the “Tea Party Senate," with a supermajority of far right-leaning Republicans, it was no secret that he planned to use his unfettered power to further an agenda guaranteed to make our state not only poorer but also even more of a national poster child for xenophobia and covert racism than it already was.

The man who led this somewhat clandestine meeting in January was Randy Parraz, a lawyer, union organizer and one-time candidate in the Democratic primary race for John McCain’s Senate seat. Randy is an attractive, energetic man in his 40s whose enthusiasm is infectious; he soon convinced me and everyone else in that room that not only was it possible to gather enough signatures to recall Pearce, it might even be possible to beat him in a November election.

I was taken aback when Randy told us that, if we were successful in our recall effort, our best chance for a Pearce defeat would be if his opponent were a moderate Republican and, most important, a fellow Mormon.  I wondered briefly why on earth I would be volunteering to help elect a Republican but the logic of this strategy didn’t escape me.  Democrats haven’t won in this conservative, predominately LDS area of Mesa in ages. Our main objective had to be bringing down Pearce and sending a strong message that right-wing extremism was no longer the status quo in Arizona.

So when Randy asked us if we were in, I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand to join the fledgling organization dubbed Citizens for a Better Arizona.  Together with our new chairman, a Mormon Republican attorney named Chad Snow, we were ready to go out and oust Russell Pearce.

Our first order of business was to file our intent to recall Pearce with the secretary of state. On the opening day of the Senate session we gathered at the Capitol and announced we would henceforth be holding Russell Pearce accountable for bringing in jobs and making our state a more just and welcoming place. We gave Pearce 21 days to comply; when he completely ignored our demands and instead presented a number of anti-immigrant and pro-gun bills, we moved forward with the recall.

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On Jan. 31 we gathered at the state Capitol once more and, with the press in tow, trooped up to the secretary of state’s office where CBA member and Mesa resident Todd Selleck formally filed for the recall of Russell Pearce.  We would have just 120 days to collect over 7,000 signatures in Pearce’s Legislative District 18.

Soon this political campaign neophyte found herself coming up against the difficulties of gathering petition signatures.  At first we set up a table at the Mesa Library to snag patrons going in to grab a book or two, and later people were sent into neighborhoods to knock on doors.  My friend Brenda and I decided that the central post office near the library would be a good place to gather signatures as well.  We were doing brisk business on the front steps signing people up when I looked up to find an annoyed man standing in front of me.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m collecting signatures to recall Russell Pearce.”

“Not here you’re not,” he retorted.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Turns out he was the head honcho at that branch and he was evicting us from the property.  Miffed at being treated that way we walked back to the library and fetched Randy and we had an old-fashioned showdown at the OK Corral with an irate and somewhat belligerent postal station master named Ivan.  He refused to budge and when we kept trying to get him to explain what authority he had to evict us he called the police.

The cops arrived and told us we were violating a loitering ordinance, prominently displayed on a column outside, but when we asked them to look up the ordinance it wasn’t anywhere on the books.  The cops finally told us that we could be arrested for trespassing (yes, at our federal post office) so we left.  I made a point of returning to that post office on several occasions to stand out on the public sidewalk in full view of the front entrance with a large “Recall Russell Pearce—Sign Here!” poster, just to annoy Ivan.  I also found that many people were perfectly willing to walk over to where I was to put their John Hancock on my petition.

I soon learned that there were several different kinds of people in Pearce’s district; those who were enthusiastic about getting rid of Pearce, those who hated our guts for trying to remove their hero Pearce, those who were mildly curious and those who didn’t have a clue who Pearce was. Every door I went up to held the exciting possibility and uncertainty of either being greeted with open arms, indifference or with pitchforks.  You just never knew.

Over the following months CBA grew.  People from all walks of life, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, whites, Latinos, indigenous people and African-Americans joined. Party affiliation or race didn’t matter; all that mattered was a shared conviction that Pearce was bad for our state and that together we could remove him from office.

As the days and weeks ticked by Randy kept up a tireless pace aimed at keeping us going, recruiting new volunteers and planning various appearances at the state Capitol.  When Pearce presided over a decision to not extend unemployment benefits for thousands of out-of-work people, we showed up with a giant unemployment check with his name on it made out for the paltry sum he would be entitled to when he was voted out of office.

For the most part, media coverage of our efforts was at best lukewarm. Numerous pundits dismissed us, repeating the conventional wisdom that Pearce was unbeatable.  Just a few stalwart folks in the media, most notably Phoenix New Times blogger Stephen Lemons, believed in what our grass-roots effort could accomplish.

Throughout the entire signature-collecting process we were also largely ignored or dismissed by Pearce and his cohorts. It’s likely Pearce didn’t think we could possibly succeed. In that case, he seriously underestimated Randy's skills as an organizer. On May 31, 120 days after the recall petition was submitted, history was made as we delivered over 18,000 signatures to the secretary of state and the first sitting Senate president -- ever-- was successfully recalled.

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Now we finally had Pearce’s attention and in his typically mature fashion he devoted a lot of his time to calling us names.  We were branded as far left-wing open borders anarchist extremists, and given the dreaded moniker "outsiders." Pearce appeared on TV  to denounce and ridicule our efforts, saying there was no way in hell he would ever lose in his district where he so often boasted he was “16 and 0."  His greatest supporters in the various Tea Party chapters started flooding their blogs with attacks on Randy Parraz’s union background.

As the secretary of state’s office went through the long process of counting the signatures, everyone started speculating about who might step forward to challenge Pearce in a November election.  Since our organization would not have any say in who was running, all we could do was wait and see.

Finally a man by the name of Jerry Lewis indicated he was interested.  Lewis was a political newbie and by all appearances promised to be Russell Pearce’s worst nightmare: Republican, moderate, articulate, an educator and Mormon.  He was also a nice guy and a former stake president in his church and fluent in Chinese. Perhaps because of his being new to politics he ignored the dire warnings from the Pearce camp that anyone who dared run against the Tea Party Senate president would be risking political ruin, or worse.  Soon after he announced his run, Lewis, in the midst of a morning jog, was struck in the groin by a padlock thrown from a truck speeding by.  Whether this was a mere accident or something more ominous was never determined.

Once the over 10,000 valid signatures were verified by the secretary of state’s office, the first thing Pearce did was challenge the recall in court.  This was a futile effort, and eventually thrown out by a higher court.

The race was now on to see who could win over the voters of Mesa. Citizens for a Better Arizona shifted gears and became a PAC focused on reaching out to people in the district and encouraging them to participate in the upcoming election.  Phone banking was set up in the office and we sat down for long sessions of listening to voice-mail messages, leaving voice-mail messages, getting hung up on and, on rare occasions, actually talking to someone.  Fundraising got underway, house parties were thrown and we all held our breath that no more candidates would enter the race and dilute the vote against Pearce.

Then came word that a woman named Olivia Cortes had decided to run.  She described herself as an immigrant from Mexico and a Republican but was very vague on any of the other details as to why she was in the race.  We immediately suspected that she could be a plant by the Pearce camp to divert the district's Hispanic vote.

Our suspicions grew deeper when Cortes quickly gathered enough signatures to get herself on the ballot, and they were confirmed when her petitions were delivered to the secretary of state’s office by the chairman of the East Valley Tea Party Patriots.  The fact that two of Russell Pearce’s own nieces helped circulate Cortes’ petitions and the candid admission by a paid signature gatherer that Cortes was in the race to help the Pearce campaign put the final nails in the coffin.  Once the press caught on they tried to gain an interview with her only to be stonewalled completely by Cortes, who soon learned the hard way that the best way to keep the press interested in you is to refuse to talk to them.

A lovely elderly Mesa resident, former teacher, lifelong Republican and stalwart Pearce opponent  by the name of Mary Lou Boettcher stepped forward and brought a suit against Olivia Cortes, alleging she was a sham candidate whose sole purpose was to mislead and deceive voters and that she should be removed from the ballot.

The suit went to court (you can read about it here) and the plaintiff’s attorney, Tom Ryan, called the whole sordid cast of characters to the stand, including Cortes, who came across as a clueless but willing participant who was manipulated into running after she was recruited at her Mormon Church by a Tea Party leader. The judge decided that while Cortes was obviously a sham candidate, he didn’t have the authority to have her removed from the ballot. So although the effort didn’t get Cortes removed, the media was fixated on the scandal and there were very few people in the entire state who didn’t know what was going on.  Ryan prepared to go to court again, this time with Pearce’s nieces and brother subpoenaed but, not surprisingly, Cortes withdrew from the race before a second trial could go forward.

As time ticked by our grass-roots efforts grew and volunteers flooded into CBA’s office to help out.  We stayed focus on educating voters that Cortes was no longer a candidate and, once the early ballots were mailed out, encouraging people to get their ballots in.

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Nov. 8 was fast approaching.  I had taken some time off from the efforts but was drawn back in for the final push.  The polls were too close to call and Russell Pearce had spent three times as much as Lewis on his campaign, ironically mostly raised from “outsiders." I canvassed Mesa one last time the day before the election, and was able to pick up some ballots from people who just hadn’t gotten around to mailing theirs in.  I was astonished anyone would just hand their ballot to a complete stranger but we had gathered over 200 in this fashion.

On Election Day my husband and I stood outside a church polling station in Mesa.  We were on one side of the driveway entrance and several elderly Pearce supporters were on the other side. We all waved our signs at people driving in and out and did an entirely unscientific poll of votes that consisted of counting who gave us thumbs up and who did not.  We counted the middle fingers as Pearce supporters.

A goofy guy showed up to hold the Pearce signs but couldn’t resist coming over to our side to argue with us about why Pearce was the better choice.  I finally had to tell him firmly that he needed to stay over on his side of the driveway.  It was either that or push him out into traffic.  He finally left us alone.

Afterward we headed over to the CBA party.  We were a jumble of nerves and we all knew that if Pearce won he would be worse than ever, emboldened to do God-knows-what horrible things.  Several hundred people showed up, milling around grinning nervously at each other, jumping from foot to foot, biting our fingernails down to our elbows.

I was glued to my cellphone Twitter feed and as the results came in my disbelief turned to hope and then to certainty.  I tweeted, “OMG, I think we’re going to win this!” just a few minutes before someone shouted, “Pearce has conceded!”  The tally was 53 percent for Lewis and 45 percent for Pearce.

The room broke into cheers, shouts, people hugging, crying, jumping up and down.  Tears were running down my face and I was hoarse from shouting, screaming. It was like an evil dictator had been deposed -- our very own Arab Spring. We were finally free from the reign of Russell Pearce.

Later I glanced at my cellphone and smiled. Someone had tweeted:

“Sheriff Joe, you’re next.”

By Amy McMullen

MORE FROM Amy McMullen

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2011 Elections Arizona Russell Pearce Tea Party