Senate President Russell Pearce’s defeat on Nov. 8 was a colossal political victory for critics of his strict-enforcement approach to confronting illegal immigration.
And many immediately saw it as a cautionary tale for politicians here and elsewhere who share his views.
But the practical implications of his defeat, particularly in Arizona, are likely more limited — and much more nuanced than some would like to paint it.
That’s because even as he exits the Legislature, the body of anti-illegal immigration laws he has successfully championed through the years is largely intact.
And if laws like SB1070 would be undone, it would happen in the courts — not at the hands of the Arizona Legislature, where there’s not enough votes to roll back any of the measures Pearce has gotten passed.
But critics regard his loss as another sign of an invigorated Latino electorate, whom they said flocked to the polls and helped to elect Jerry Lewis, a political neophyte who offered a more collaborative approach in solving the illegal immigration question.
They are looking ahead — to the 2012 general elections — and predicting that Hispanic voters will play a decisive role in key states.
“We see what happened with Russell Pearce as a cautionary tale for right-wing extremists,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a D.C.-based group that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally.
“We also want to remind Democrats that immigration is a mobilizing issue for Latino voters and instead of running away from the issue, they should lean into it,” he said, adding the recall election’s message to the Republican Party is that anti-immigrant extremism is a “political loser.”
Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said in a telephone conference a day after the election that the outcome offers “proof to candidates everywhere, including the presidential candidates, that the American people want solutions to real problems, not more divisions and demonizing of Latinos and immigrants.
“Republicans who think they do not need the votes of Latinos and fair-minded people better think again,“ he said.
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Lewis’ triumph likely means one more “no” vote on get-tough illegal immigration measures that Pearce likes, but even now there are already enough Republicans who have stood up to the outgoing senator and stopped proposals he supported.
Just this last session, Pearce failed to persuade enough of his fellow Republicans to pass a series of immigration bills, including legislation that was aimed at getting the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue of American citizenship and ultimately deny automatic citizenship to children born to illegal aliens.
For Pearce’s allies, his defeat doesn’t change Arizona’s priorities. Illegal immigration remains a problem, and once the economy kicks back to life and attracts more undocumented workers, the issue will be return to the front burner, they said.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known nationally for his immigration sweeps, said anti-illegal immigration laws are in place.
“The laws are there — thanks to Russell. You can’t get rid of the laws and they’re going to be enforced,” Arpaio said. “I’m going to enforce them. You think I’m going to surrender?”
In an interview before the Nov. 8 election, former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo anticipated that Pearce’s loss could be problematic for the national movement where he’s regarded as a political figurehead — but only in terms of “perception.”
But its “practical” implications would be minimal, if any, the former Colorado representative said.
He downplayed the notion that legislators elsewhere in the country would be chilled by Pearce’s defeat.
Lawmakers typically gauge their constituents’ sentiments before introducing or acting on any proposal, he said.
“For the most part, throughout the country, I don’t think state legislators are going to think that their constituents would be influenced by the events in Arizona,” he said.
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But while rolling back laws like SB1070 is unlikely, some of his allies admit that with Pearce out of the picture, it gets tougher to pass additional laws.
“Clearly, the loss of his leadership in anti-illegal immigration matters. The loss of his vote, particularly since he is Senate president, is going to make it more difficult to get that legislation passed,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills who is also hawkish on illegal immigration.
And this is where Pearce’s loss will sting the most for his allies.
As an advocate, Pearce is determined, politically savvy and patient.
Laws like the sanctions against businesses that hire illegal workers and SB1070 didn’t come about in a year, but Pearce constantly chipped away at the opposition, until it became politically risky to say “no.”
Even as a rank-file-member, Pearce wielded great influence and his endorsement was among a few that mattered.
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But after his Republican colleagues rebuffed the controversial immigration measures he championed this year, it exposed a deep schism within his party.
Lewis is an extension of that schism.
The challenger had made his feelings about immigration known when he said during the race’s only public debate that Arizona is regarded as unfriendly to business and is seen by some as “something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama.”
In some quarters, Lewis’ victory is being heralded as a development that may further foster a national dialogue over “practical” solutions to the immigration problem.
A day after his win, Lewis was invited to take part in a telephone conference Nov. 10 about “practical and fair federal solutions to our flawed immigration laws.” The briefing was organized by the D.C.-based National Immigration Forum.
Scheduled to join Lewis were former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, and Mayor Paul Bridges of Uvalda, Georgia.
Early in the campaign, neither side really wanted to focus on illegal immigration.
In the end, it became the focal point in the race.
It seems the subject that propelled Pearce to power became a reason for his downfall.