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Home / 2012 Session Wrap / Russell Pearce gone but not forgotten by legislative allies

Russell Pearce gone but not forgotten by legislative allies

Former Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona's controversial immigration law SB1070, testified on immigration issues April 24 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo)

A phantom of sorts lurked in the Senate last session.

Divas weren’t held captive in a cellar. Chandeliers weren’t damaged. But ousted Senate President Russell Pearce’s presence was felt in the chamber that he once ran.

His allies this past session honored the Mesa Republican with speeches, tried to continue his legacy on immigration enforcement and even attempted to cut him a check for his campaign expenses and change laws involving recall elections.

“Russell is an imposing figure at the Legislature,” said Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City.

Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said the long shadow cast by Pearce wasn’t so much a matter of influence, but of relationships he’s cultivated over the years and the ensuing loyalty they brought.

“He had friends who appreciated him and admired him and were to a degree upset with regard to the recall situation the way that turned out,” Antenori said. “Russell, to many people, is just a friend and colleague.”

Antenori said Pearce’s skill was reaching out to aspiring legislators and politicians in the House and other government bodies throughout the state and helping them campaign, whether it was giving his endorsement or advice on who to call for answers or where to get inexpensive printing.

“I had a lot of help from him early on in my legislative career and I have a degree of loyalty as well,” Antenori said. “When I was coming up and no one knew who I was, Russell reached out and helped me.”

Gould and Antenori said that as far as they knew, Pearce never tried to influence what was going on at the Legislature this year.

Pearce did not respond to a request for an interview.

Gould said Pearce was instrumental in getting several members elected, especially Sens. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, and Steve Smith, R-Maricopa.

Smith sponsored SB1449, which would have required primary and general elections in recalls, instead of the current winner-takes-all system. Pearce’s allies believe Pearce was ousted because independents and Democrats also voted in the special election, and sided with his challenger, now-Sen. Jerry Lewis.

Smith was also on the conference committee that proposed an amendment to the recall bill that would have set up the structure for repaying Pearce’s campaign expenses, which ran $260,000.

He said the main motivation for seeking the reimbursement was because the Constitution required it, but there was another reason for his support of Pearce.

“I think he got railroaded. He got screwed through the recall, how the recall happened, why the recall happened,” Smith said. “And even this last session, we could have put the framework in place if he wanted to be reimbursed. Nobody even said that he did. We couldn’t even get that passed, so to me he always gets the raw end of the deal.”

Smith and Pearce were also allied on immigration, where Pearce was the driving force behind most illegal immigration legislation in the state and Smith is a border hawk. Smith sponsored bills in both years of his freshman term that would have required the state to collect data on K-12 students who couldn’t prove lawful residence in the U.S. and hospitals to confirm lawful residency of people seeking emergency care.

Neither bill passed in 2011, and Smith introduced them again this year, only to see them held in committee.

Senate President Steve Pierce said Smith didn’t have the votes this year to begin with, but he also didn’t want immigration measures to move this year.

“You know, I thought it was time to let things heal and move on to the economy,” Pierce said.

Melvin did not return a call seeking comment, but he often publicly praised Pearce.

He did it on sine die, while addressing Pierce, R-Prescott.

“I think I speak for others on the floor when I say I miss our former Senate President Russell Pearce,” Melvin said. “He’s a true Arizonan and American patriot in so many ways.”

Randy Parraz, whose group, Citizens for a Better Arizona, launched the Pearce recall, said Pearce’s enduring presence this year was simply a matter of his allies mourning.

“It was a long drawn out funeral,” he said.

Lewis, who got criticized by some of Pearce’s allies in his first caucus meeting, said he was too involved in his own priorities of the economy and education to notice anything having to do with Pearce.

“There are a lot of people who have strong feelings, I’m sure, about a lot of those issues, but to be honest I didn’t really concern myself with (them). There other more important things to focus on,” Lewis said.

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