State Sen. Russell Pearce was riding high last year, notching wins that include enactment of a second Arizona law to crack down on illegal immigration and then his selection by fellow Republican senators as the chamber’s new president.
This year, things haven’t gone so well for the tough-talking former lawman.
Some fellow Republican senators blocked a new round of Pearce-backed legislation on illegal immigration. Then Pearce’s acceptance of free trips from the Fiesta Bowl embroiled him in a still-simmering ethics scandal.
Now, he faces a possible recall election that could put his political future up in the air.
Critics on Tuesday plan to cap months of signature gathering by submitting petitions to the Arizona secretary of state’s office to force a recall election. They have said they were within striking distance of the required 7,756 signatures of registered voters in his district in Mesa, Arizona’s third-largest city.
That’s after culling out duplicates and signatures of voters who don’t live in the district, said Randy Parraz, a leader of the recall campaign.
Depending on how long various officials take to process and certify petitions and signatures, the election would be held in November or March.
Recall supporters call Pearce out of touch with most voters’ major concerns, such as jobs and housing.
“He’s down there focusing on his two pet issues,” illegal immigration and gun owners’ rights, said Chad Snow, a Republican lawyer who is the recall committee’s chairman.
Signers, Parraz said, “are saying that they made a mistake and they’ve got to correct the mistake.”
But if Pearce’s past election performance is a gauge, he stands decent odds of surviving a recall election.
Within his Republican-leaning district in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb, Pearce has won election and re-election to the House or Senate without interruption since 2000. In both 2008 and 2010, he won with 56 percent of the vote.
In 2008, Pearce triumphed in a primary contest against a fellow Republican who tried to capitalize on business pushback to the Pearce-sponsored 2007 employer sanctions. However, Pearce easily defeated attorney Kevin Gibbons by a 2-1 margin.
Pearce said he takes the recall effort seriously but that he’s not worried.
Noting that Parraz is a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s U.S. Senate nomination last year, Pearce said the recall proponents “will be exposed for who they are.”
“They are anti-1070, they are anti the rule of law,” he said, referring to his 2010 illegal immigration legislation known as SB1070. “This is not an assault on me. This is an assault on Arizona and what it stands for.”
Pearce was interviewed Thursday, the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the employer sanctions law, which penalizes businesses that hire workers who in the United States illegally.
With the employer sanctions law, Pearce already was gaining notice as a critic of illegal immigration when he sponsored SB1070. The 2010 state law sparked protests, boycotts and legal challenges. Key provisions have been put on hold by lower courts as the state plans to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Pearce tried this year to win passage of still more legislation against illegal legislation, but he and his allies suffered a dramatic defeat on the Senate floor as a majority of the chamber killed five bills after business leaders’ urged lawmakers to step back from the contentious issue.
Despite the setback, Pearce is still seen as a powerful figure at the state Capitol, with significant influence over the fate of legislative proposals.
He and fellow fiscal conservatives won passage of a new state budget that relies on spending cuts to close a shortfall, and majority Republicans of all persuasions coalesced with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer on a package of an economic development plan built around phased-in future tax cuts for businesses.
But Pearce got unwelcome publicity before the session ended in April when a Fiesta Bowl internal report disclosed that he accepted numerous free trips to college football games in other states.
Pearce has denied wrongdoing and said he took the trips to help promote the Fiesta Bowl and the state’s economy, but he was among numerous legislators who amended their financial disclosure reports to list the trips. He and others said they didn’t realize he had to report the trips.
Prosecutors are investigating aspects of the bowl scandal, which also includes questionable spending by bowl officials and illegal reimbursements for campaign contributions, but so far nobody has been charged criminally.
Pearce enjoys popular support and should survive a recall election even as he and other conservatives face criticism from business leaders and others over illegal immigration, said Rob Haney, Republican chairman for Maricopa County.
“Everything here politically is based on the illegal immigration issue,” Haney said. “If you’re opposed to the continuing invasion and you like law enforcement, you will be attacked unmercifully.”
If there is a recall election, Pearce would face any challengers who qualify for the ballot by collecting their own signatures.
So far no challengers have announced intentions to run, and Parraz said that’s understandable because it’s not certain the election will be held.
“No one in their right mind is going to stick their head up right now,” Parraz said.
“If they do that and the signatures don’t get verified, you just committed political suicide. You just showed the sitting Senate president you don’t like him and you want to take him out.”