When he declared he was challenging Senate President Russell Pearce, Republican Jerry Lewis offered overarching goals that no politician really could argue against — investing in education, attracting companies to Arizona, a fresh start for Mesa.
What he refused to say was how his political positions differ from Pearce’s.
Instead, Lewis stuck to larger themes about how voters called for the historic Nov. 8 recall election, and that he was responding to their wishes.
Lewis, a charter school executive, has offered no detailed policy positions on the state’s problems, except to say he would be collaborative in coming up with solutions. He wouldn’t even say what eroded his support for Pearce, whom he admitted to have voted for in the past.
Shaping up is a campaign whose main message appears to be this: Lewis is a lot like Pearce — conservative, Republican, Mormon — but he has polished off the sharp edges that make the Senate’s No. 1 man such a divisive figure.
That message can be gleaned from the way Lewis and his allies are casting his candidacy.
“His main difference from Mr. Pearce is his collaborative nature of leadership,” said Dea Montague, a Mesa lawyer who is co-chairing the Lewis campaign. “In all of his leadership positions, he is not a divisive force. He is a unifier.”
Another way of putting what the Lewis campaign appears to be driving at without saying it outright:
• Pearce’s critics say he spends too much of his energy on illegal immigration; Lewis says he’ll focus on “all the issues.”
• Critics charge that Pearce has given his west Mesa District 18 and the state a bad name; Lewis says voters want someone they can be “proud of.”
• Many regard Pearce as uncompromising; Lewis says voters want someone who will work well with everyone, including the federal government, and adds voters “across the state of Arizona and this nation are tired of bully politics.”
• Pearce doesn’t hesitate labeling his enemies; Lewis says he’ll steer clear of personal attacks.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect about Lewis’ July 27 announcement was when he talked about running a “positive” campaign and mentioned Pearce by name only once.
“Our shared faith teaches us to treat others with respect and kindness,” Lewis said. “That is how I will campaign and that is how I will lead in the state Senate.”
CONSERVATIVE, BUT WHAT ELSE?
Whether Lewis’ apparent strategy works remains to be seen.
Except the catch-all phrase that he is a conservative, little is known about his political views. His recent voting history indicates he’s at least engaged in the political process — he voted in primary and general elections in 2006 through 2010, the most-recent years available.
But many political observers agree he will need to start providing specific policy positions on a wide array of issues facing the state to convince voters to remove the most powerful man in the Senate.
One issue, in particular, is illegal immigration, a complex and often emotional subject that many believe is the strong undercurrent in this recall election.
So far, Lewis has only talked about generalities. He’s for securing the border and enforcing laws, he said.
But when asked what should be done about the millions who are already in the country illegally, Lewis didn’t suggest a solution as much as offer a different approach to tackling the problem.
He emphasized collaboration and talked about wanting a government that “seeks the ideas of all people, that achieves the greatest results, that attacks the issue and not opponents.”
In an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, Lewis also backed away from a quote he gave to the East Valley Tribune in a 2005 story about the changing demographics of the Mormon church, in which he said he wanted Hispanic parishioners “to feel comfortable,” regardless of their legal status.
“That was a long time ago and I believe that statement was taken out of context,” Lewis said, explaining he was a stake president at the time and was speaking about his desire for people to feel comfortable in a church.
A VIGOROUS DEFENSE
While Lewis begins to introduce himself to Mesa voters, Pearce’s camp is gearing up for a fight and his allies are mounting a vigorous defense of the man they say is being wrongly subjected to a recall.
They said the suggestion that Pearce is a single-issue candidate is baseless and the notion that he’s somehow non-collaborative ignores the fact that he is Senate president, a position he wouldn’t be elected to unless he knows how to work with colleagues.
True, he is passionate about illegal immigration, but Pearce has done a lot to advance education choice, gun rights, prolife legislation and fiscal conservatism.
And while critics harped on Pearce’s decision to push controversial immigration measures in the 2011 legislative session, they overlooked, for example, his work in helping to pass a “jobs” bill and major changes to the state’s pension system, his allies also said.
Constantin Querard, a political consultant who will run an independent expenditure committee to help Pearce keep his seat, called the charges that Pearce is a one-issue guy an “old, sad” talking point.
“If he’s so one-issue, how did he get all that other stuff done?” Querard rhetorically asked, referring to Pearce’s work in other areas.
Querard raised another point: Lewis is essentially asking his district to get rid of its tremendous influence in the Legislature, given Pearce’s position as Senate president.
If it boiled down to Lewis versus Pearce, most people agree that the incumbent is the overwhelming favorite.
Already, Pearce has bagged endorsements from Gov. Jan Brewer, the state Republican Party, and the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Other established party members are also expected to throw their weight behind the incumbent.
But Lewis has also attracted an impressive lineup of supporters, and many of them are established Mesa residents like Ross Farnsworth, a prominent Mormon and East Valley developer.
They also include former Mesa City Councilman John Giles, who will serve as his campaign’s honorary chairman.
Another early supporter is Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, who didn’t hide his displeasure at the budget decisions made by the Legislature under Pearce’s leadership.
“My problem with Senator Pearce is that he is shifting costs to cities and counties and calling that somehow a budget without gimmicks, which is absolutely not true,” Stapley said.
Pearce has also been “missing in action” when it comes to education. “He’s gutted the funding (for education),” Stapley said.
Like most elections, the campaign that successfully sets the narrative will have the early advantage.
Interviews with Pearce’s allies indicate that his camp will try to portray Lewis’ challenge as an extension of the recall drive, which they believe was really prompted by the Senate president’s advocacy for strict-enforcement immigration measures.
“This is a concerted effort by Randy Parraz, Chad Snow and others who disagree with the senator on the issue of illegal immigration,” Chad Willems, Pearce’s campaign consultant, said of the leaders of Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group that successfully petitioned for the special election. “This is the sole purpose of their recall.
“What’s clear here is that Randy Parraz and his ilk had built this house, and Jerry Lewis and others who run are going to have to live in it,” Willems added.
Pearce did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Former Sen. Karen Johnson, who held Pearce’s seat before retiring, said she doesn’t know what else the recall would be about other than illegal immigration.
Along with a few others, Pearce “personifies the fight in Arizona against illegal immigration,” Johnson said.
“Russell has been the point man and I think that the group, and maybe even the chamber (of commerce) and other groups that benefit from illegals, are very unhappy about that, and if they see a chance to do something to Russell, I think they are going to jump at it, and that’s what they’ve done here,” she said.
Parraz, one of the leaders of the Recall drive, flat out rejected the notion that a single issue — immigration — fueled the recall drive.
His litany of complaints is long, but Parraz’s main point is Pearce is more interested in being an ideologue than in leading pragmatically.
Parraz said at a time when the economy is struggling, Pearce wanted to focus on ideologically driven legislation like the 14th Amendment, the “birther” issue, gun legislation and nullification of federal laws, he said.
“Look at the people that showed up at Jerry Lewis’ (event). Look at the people that volunteered with us,” Parraz said. “This has not been fueled by a bunch of angry, Latino, pro-immigrant rights activists.”
Two other candidates have emerged: Republican Olivia Cortes, who worked in the semi-conductor industry, and independent Tommy Cattey, an audiologist and pastor.
Many Capitol observers say the election has the potential of becoming one of the most expensive legislative races in state history. They also say if anybody has a chance of giving a serious threat to Pearce, it would be someone like Lewis — a Mormon Republican with strong roots in the district.
But they also agreed that Lewis will be taking a huge political risk, and said he should be prepared for a tough campaign.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat and one of Pearce’s most vocal critics, cautioned, “They (Pearce camp) are not playing around. They’re going to do everything they can to try to protect Senator Pearce and you’re going to have a whole other side, who is going to do everything it can to defeat Russell Pearce.
“So it is going to be a no-holds-barred match,” he said. “They might as well put it in a steel cage and let them go at it.”
Jerry Lewis Bio:
Party affiliation: Republican
Religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Occupation: Assistant school superintendent at Sequoia Schools, which operates charter schools in the state; former accountant with Deloitte & Touche
Number of years in Mesa: 30 years
Community involvement: Vice president, Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts of America