Even before he became president of the Arizona Senate, Russell Pearce, a conservative Republican from Mesa, was dominating much of the action in the Legislature.
But as he takes over the top spot in the Senate, he has lost some of the freedom he had to set his own course.
Pearce, who is not known for backing down, now speaks for the chamber’s Republican majority, whose members have diverse views on spending, taxation and immigration.
That means he has to balance his individual goals as lawmaker with the aggregate interests of his caucus, particularly when they don’t jibe.
Here’s a case in point: Pearce, an illegal immigration firebrand and author of SB1070, has decided not to personally sponsor legislation that is meant to challenge the established interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which grants automatic American citizenship to children born in the country, regardless of their parents’ legal status. He also skipped the unveiling of the legislation in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.
Some of his colleagues and many in the business community are wary of the citizenship proposal.
In this Jan. 7 interview, Pearce talks about the birthright issue and his relationship with Democrats and the governor.
I’m curious to know if you skipped the unveiling of the birthright proposal in Washington, D.C. this week in order not to send the signal that you’re prioritizing it over the budget and the economy.
Well, that certainly may have sent that signal, and I hope it did. But they’re not unrelated in terms of the constitutional issues, fixing the things that are wrong with America. You know, we spend $2.7 billion here to educate, medicate and incarcerate the illegal aliens. You got to take away those incentives to come across our border and break our laws.
…I had two people go (to Washington) and they’re very competent. They’re very good. I didn’t need to be there. So I chose to stay here to take care of the things that I need to take care of, getting ready for Monday, January 10.
What is the timing for (pushing it through here in the Legislature)? Will you get it passed or moved before the budget is fixed and a jobs bill is sent to the Governor’s Office?
You know what? There are some that would like to do that. I’ll let the process work it out. It’ll be assigned to committees, and the committees will move it appropriately. There are some that think it ought to go up front to show Arizona continues to lead this fight and is not backing away from this fight of fixing and putting some common sense back in the government.
Are you concerned, though, that if you did allow it to move forward — let’s say ahead of the budget or ahead of a jobs bill — that some people would look at that as reneging on your part on the promise to prioritize jobs and the economy?
The caucus will make that decision, so no. Again, there are other bills that we probably would push out ahead of the budget. There are certain things that don’t interfere with the budget. They have nothing to do with the budget. The caucus will make those decisions.
Given the kind of emotional reaction you always get when it comes to immigration, how will you make sure that the birthright proposal won’t be a distraction?
There’s going to be about a thousand bills introduced. Why is it a distraction? It will be worked like any other bill. What’s a distraction is the media trying to make it a distraction. We have the work of the people to do.
How’s your relationship with Senator David Schapira, the minority leader?
He mentioned that you actually helped him before pass bills.
Yes, when he has a good bill that I think has merit, I’ve been there for him. I’m not as partisan as people think. I’m a Republican for a reason. I believe in certain things. But when anybody has a good idea, (he supports it).
Are you saying you would allow Democratic bills to go forward?
If the chairman wants to hear them, and if they’re good policy. I’m not going to vote for bad policy. I don’t care whose names (are on bills). I vote against Republican bills, too, as you notice. I hold Republican bills sometimes. If they’re not good policy and not moving Arizona in the right direction, then they’re not going to have my support.
You obviously don’t need Democratic votes on the budget. You have the votes if you want to pass it on your own. But will you negotiate with Democrats on the budget?
If they have good ideas. Again, you got to understand. We changed the looks of Congress for a reason. They were not happy at the direction our government was going. They gave us the largest majority in the history of the state of Arizona and this party. Clearly, it was a mandate to do things the right way. Fiscal responsibility. Curb spending. Balance the budget. And we’re going to deliver that.
What role then, if any, do you foresee Democrats will play in this budget process?
Well, I think if they are serious, like some of the talks up here, in pushing and working with us on jobs and those kinds of things, and if they have some good ideas, we’re there. But we’re not going to support ideas just because everybody wants to think we’re bipartisan. We are bipartisan when it’s appropriate, and when those are good ideas. If they want their bill heard, it’s their job to put forward a good bill.
The big question, of course, is that’s pretty subjective.
Sure it is! But that’s why we’re the majority.
Will you push for steeper cuts to AHCCCS, which would mean violating the federal maintenance-of-effort requirements?
You can’t sustain what we’re doing now. So, I know everybody wants to say what I’m saying in their way. Let me say it my way. You have to look at this. Right now, we can’t sustain it. The levels of government (spending) are unsustainable. Over one out of five Arizonans are on AHCCCS. Plus, we don’t have accountability with it, you know, in terms of co-pay and premiums.
When there is no accountability, it gets abused.
How will you solve the $825 million in deficit you have in this fiscal year?
That’s a process, and I’m not going to get into the details. The governor will release her budget. We will be working with the governor, so there’s a process to try to figure out how to do that. You’re not going to get a lot of cuts in 2011.
Will we see borrowing in the mix?
Those are options that are on the table. You know where I’m at.
You’re not ruling them out?
I don’t rule out anything at this point. You have to solve the problem. And you’re not going to get $900 million worth of cuts in a year that’s already half gone. I know that. I’m a realist. But I want responsible solutions that don’t dig the hole deeper than it already is. So we’ll look at all the options and try to take the least damaging as we move forward in this budget.
(But) I put the world on notice: 2012 is going to be reductions. 2011 — we’re halfway through the year — we can’t probably do what we need to in 2011. So 2011 needs to move us forward to a successful 2012 budget.
A lot of attention and speculation are being paid to your relationship with Governor Jan Brewer. Can you describe to me how your relationship is with her?
Very good. I consider Governor Brewer a friend.
How will you deal with her on major disagreements?
You know what? Are you married, Luige?
So am I. You know what? As a married man, I can tell you there are disagreements with those we love, and we will work it out.