Arizona immigration law sponsor Russell Pearce thrusts state into political storm

Lawmaker gains momentum despite criticism, obstacles

The Arizona Republic/June 6, 2010

Nothing stops Russell Pearce.

Not a heart attack. Not a stroke. Not a bullet in the chest.

And most certainly not the criticism from opponents who have long accused him of putting politics ahead of facts, pushing too hard and cooperating too little.

Arizona's foremost foe of illegal immigration is a 62-year-old former lawman whose barrel-chested build and single-minded determination evoke images of the rodeo bulls he rode as a youth.

That iron will springs from a poverty-stricken Mesa childhood and an almost messianic conviction as to the rightness of his cause. It was the driving force behind passage of Senate Bill 1070, which has stirred America's fiercest immigration debate in decades.

Even before SB 1070, Pearce had become one of the most polarizing political figures in Arizona history. Critics have called him short-sighted, intractable, even racist - a charge he vehemently denies.

But Pearce also has steadfast supporters. He has never lost an election, and polls show widespread public backing for the new immigration law.

Pearce sees his battle against illegal immigration as crucial to the defense of America's rule of law and way of life.

If he has his way, SB 1070 will be far from his last act on Arizona's political stage. And Russell Pearce almost always gets his way.

By July 2, 1977, Pearce had been a sheriff's deputy for seven years. It wasn't his first career choice. That was medicine, but with no money for school, he gravitated to law enforcement because of a boyhood admiration for the men who wore a badge.

That afternoon, while patrolling in Guadalupe, he stopped three kids who were drinking.

One sicced his Doberman on Pearce. Pearce clubbed the animal with his flashlight. As he struggled with the dog's owner, another kid grabbed Pearce's .357 Magnum and aimed.

Pearce raised his hand in self-defense, and the bullet blew off his ring finger before slamming into his chest. He wasn't wearing a protective vest.

Still, he wrestled one kid into his squad car. The kid was covered with blood, and Pearce thought the kid was shot, too - until he saw the gushing stub on his own hand. That kid stayed put in the car as Pearce called for help.

By then a lot of guys would have called it a day, but not Pearce. Even though it was becoming hard to breathe, he chased after the other two kids, who still had his gun.

He wasn't about to let them get away with shooting him. Or anybody else. He didn't give up the chase until backup arrived. Deputies eventually tracked the kids down. The 17-year-old shooter got five years in prison. His 16-year-old brother went to jail for six months. The third youngster was not charged.

Years later, Pearce can joke about it.

"That's why I'm a Republican today," he said. "I owe my life to this party. If I'd had a heart, I'd be dead."

Even though the youths involved in Pearce's shooting were Latino, and his son Sean, also a sheriff's deputy, was shot and almost killed by an illegal immigrant several years ago, Pearce insists neither event shaped his views on immigration.

"I've never been a hateful guy," Pearce said in a recent interview. "It's disappointing that people would paint you as a hateful guy. . . . Vigilant? Absolutely. Want to step out into the parking lot? I'll do it right now. But I'm not hateful. I just know my duty. My duty to my country, my God, my family and the rule of law."

That almost single-minded obsession with the rule of law has been a constant theme throughout his life. Pearce stayed with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office for more than 20 years, rising to the rank of captain and becoming the sheriff's lobbyist in the Legislature. Many of the boating-safety laws he wrote while with the Sheriff's Office are still on Arizona's books.

Pearce's interest in the law and politics stems from boyhood and his Mormon upbringing; he recalls no particular political epiphany.

But during the 1970s and 1980s, Pearce gravitated toward a right-wing political guru whose teachings served to cement Pearce's beliefs in law and order and make him even more immovable when it came to defending those beliefs.

W. Cleon Skousen, a former FBI agent, fervent anti-Communist and Mormon political theorist, lectured to large East Valley audiences in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Pearce attended some of those meetings.

Karen Johnson, a former state legislator who has been Pearce's political colleague and personal friend for more than a quarter of a century, said many East Valley Republicans were followers of Skousen at the time, as was former Gov. Evan Mecham, who was impeached and ousted in 1988.

Skousen, who died in 2006 at age 92, saw America not just in political but also in religious terms. He believed the Founding Fathers were inspired by God when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, revolted from British rule and framed the Constitution. This is, in every literal sense, God's country, he believed. Therefore, there could be no compromise in defending her laws, her values, her position among nations - and her borders.

Pearce said he admires Skousen and has read many of his books. Indeed, Pearce's philosophy echoes Skousen's book "The Five Thousand Year Leap," which asserts that God inspired the Founders to create a society that has fostered more human progress in 200 years than in all the previous 5,000 years put together.

The book has become a favorite of talk-show host Glenn Beck and others in the "tea party" movement.

Skousen believed in an obscure prophecy attributed to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith that held that in the final days of the world, the Constitution would be hanging by a thread and would only be rescued by "the elders of Israel" - Mormon men.

While the prophesy is considered outside the mainstream of the church, it resonates in Pearce's comments.

"I love this country. I love this republic," Pearce said. "I believe it was inspired by God by our Founders to put together the freedom-loving constitutional republic that we have, recognizing certain God-given rights. I've believed that from a young age."

Politically, that translates into Pearce's reputation as a lawmaker who is a budget hawk, a gun-rights zealot and, most famously, a foe of illegal immigration.

"I've always been pretty passionate about the rule of law and our sovereign state and our sovereign nation," he said. "I believe that you have to have permission to enter this country just like you have to have permission to enter my home. I believe you can't ignore the damage it costs to American jobs - billions of dollars - or the crime that comes with this tsunami across the border."

In 2001, Pearce had a stroke, which followed an earlier heart attack.

Within days, with his speech slurred, he was back at the Legislature for a debate on emergency health-care funding for illegal immigrants.

A fellow lawmaker told him, "I imagine the doctor told you not to come, and that's why you're here."

That same fall, still walking with a cane and his speech still muddy, Pearce set out on the campaign trail with his personal friend and political soulmate, Matt Salmon, a fellow East Valley Republican who was running for governor and shared Pearce's fervency for smaller government and reducing taxes.

Salmon crisscrossed the state, setting a brutal campaign pace. Pearce insisted on keeping up even though "he could barely walk," Salmon said.

"He has an incredible sense of what is right and what is wrong in his mind, and nobody can shake him off that," Salmon said. "He just keeps coming, doesn't give up, ever, and he doesn't get down even when the odds are stacked on him."

Pearce's fellow lawmakers have seen that grit time and again during his more than nine years in the Capitol.

From the moment he set foot there in January 2001, vowing to become "the John Wayne of the Legislature," he has loaded its hoppers with dozens of bills designed to frustrate those who cross the border without papers.

Partly because of his experience - writing legislation with the Sheriff's Office and leading the state Motor Vehicle Department during a previous Republican administration - and partly because of the force of his personality, Pearce quickly assumed powerful committee chairmanships that helped him shape the Legislature's agenda, though he has not yet campaigned for a leadership position.

Pearce has tried to get elements of SB 1070 passed for at least four years, even as he battled illegal immigration on other legislative fronts.

The law, which ignited a national firestorm over immigration and led to a meeting last week between Gov. Jan Brewer and President Barack Obama, makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It says a police officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person's legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the country illegally.

Pearce's success this year sprang not just from his own persistence but also from political circumstances. After years of butting heads with Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who in 2006 vetoed a bill similar to 1070, Pearce now has a political ally in the Republican Brewer.

But beyond that, legislators point to Pearce's stubbornness, a description he does not dispute.

Senate President Bob Burns said he experienced Pearce's negotiating tactics a few years ago when he tried to get him to make changes to a bill imposing penalties on employees who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Pearce refused to give in, and the two had to bring in a third person to move the discussion forward.

"He's a tough negotiator," Burns said. "I think we ended up both giving some. But he's pretty set in how he feels about certain things, and he tries pretty hard to get it done the way he thinks is right."

Pearce will bend on some things - if it suits his purpose.

Even after SB 1070 passed, he acquiesced in another bill, signed by Brewer, designed to soften language that some critics feared could lead to racial profiling. While outwardly it was designed to mute critics, it was also a way to protect SB 1070 against potential legal challenges.

Most of the time with Pearce, politics is pure hardball.

In a March hearing of the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee, Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, confronted Pearce on his immigration efforts and legislative tactics. He accused him of not answering questions and of making up crime statistics to suit his needs.

"Your approaches on immigration have failed for years," Patterson said. "We don't get a lot of facts on your bills; we get a lot of rhetoric. You're entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts."

Republican House leaders kicked Patterson off the committee for the comments. Pearce did not object to the move.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, is the legislator who this year most often opposed Pearce on various issues, including guns and immigration.

She said Pearce's influence has increased over the years and described him as "the most powerful person in the Senate."

"His strategy, as far as I can tell, is, 'If you don't give me what I want, I'm going to get my activists, and I'm going to run somebody against you in the primary election,' " Sinema said.

Outside the Legislature, one of Pearce's most strident critics is Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state lawmaker and Hispanic activist who has debated Pearce in several public forums.

"I have a real low opinion of him," Gutierrez said. "I find few as deceptive and untruthful as Russell Pearce, and it goes from the personal to wild numerical allegations. . . . He simply makes up numbers. He is quite notorious on that. He invents them, I think, inside his head."

The same charge was made by Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who responded with an outraged Arizona Republic op-ed piece a year ago after Pearce wrote that Phoenix was suffering from high crime because it was a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.

"The senator's own vision is distorted and myopic. Enough of his reckless misstatements," Gordon wrote. "I know how it works for you, senator. If you told people the real numbers - verified by the FBI - you'd have no 'hot-button issue' and would risk losing your political base."

Pearce has frequently cited a soaring crime rate caused by illegal immigration as one of the reasons for his stance.

However, statistics from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show that violent and property crimes in Phoenix have decreased in the last three years at a rate that is even faster than the nation's as a whole.

As recently as two months ago, Pearce wrote a constituent that illegal immigrants are responsible for "over 9,000 American deaths every year." The number has been attributed to U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said he "extrapolated" from a Government Accountability Office study. The study, however, was on illegal-immigrant prison populations and does not mention that figure.

While Pearce has vocal critics, there are those who see another side of him.

Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, a public-private business-development group, said he has met with the senator informally as they worked on legislative issues. "He was quite the delightful breakfast companion," Arnett said, and he was willing to listen to other points of view.

"He's very dogmatic, he's very driven with what he is doing, but he is not terribly unreasonable."

Tom Freestone, a veteran Valley politician, was on the county Board of Supervisors when Pearce was still a sheriff's captain making budget presentations to the board.

"I found him to be very thorough, very well-studied," Freestone said. "He always knew how to present. He was one of the best presenters I've ever seen."

Later, Freestone said, the men crossed paths when Freestone was in the state Senate and Pearce was director of the Motor Vehicle Department. "He was always very respectful, even if he disagreed," Freestone said.

"One thing I've noticed about him, he's been true to form. When he gets determined, he gets determined. He does study his facts well, but when he decides that's the thing that should be done, you really have a hard time deterring him. It becomes a quest with him."

In the aftermath of SB 1070's passage, Pearce said he has received many more phone calls and e-mails of support than of condemnation.

The critics, he said, have been vulgar, sometimes threatening violence.

He said the Department of Public Safety has investigated some of the threats and offered to guard his family.

He declined.

"If I need to mow my yard with a .40-caliber on, I'll mow my yard. I don't need a baby-sitter. I'll protect my family."

But even with the passage of 1070, Pearce remains as laser-focused as ever on illegal immigration and says there is more to be done.

"The 'anchor baby' thing needs to be fixed," he said, referring to children who, despite their parents' undocumented status, are given automatic citizenship because they are born in the U.S. "Anchor babies are an unconstitutional declaration of citizenship to those born of non-Americans. It's wrong, and it's immoral."

Pearce also has further political aspirations. He plans to run next year for president of the Senate, and he has his eyes on the job occupied for nearly two decades by County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for whom Pearce briefly served as chief deputy in the early 1990s.

"As a young man I've always thought about running for sheriff," he said. "That's the only political ambition I've ever had, actually."

Whether or not that comes to pass, and regardless of what else he adds to his political resume, Pearce believes he already is carving his legacy, that of a man who helped create "a better place for folks who live in America, that love freedom, appreciate the founding principles of this country."

"The candle of liberty," he said, "has always been kept lit by a vigilant few."

Republic reporter Alia Beard Rau contributed to this article.

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