Arizona’s Relentless Conservative Voice

Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2011

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Pearce [Senate President Russell Pearce], 63, is arguably the most powerful man in Arizona politics. And his conservative, populist style–which his allies call principled and determined and which his enemies brand as divisive and dangerous–is at the heart of the current debate over the tone of politics.

The man charged in the attack, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, has shown no sign of being influenced by Pearce or by the rightward drift of Arizona. But the shooting has led pundits and elected officials, including President Obama, to call for greater civility in public life.

In Arizona, that call has often been interpreted as an attempt to rein in Pearce, who sometimes refers to those who disagree with his immigration stance as “traitors.” He himself has received so much vitriol and so many threats that state police proposed guarding him last year. The former lawman turned them down.

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“He’s just unstoppable,” said former state Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a fellow Republican and longtime target of Pearce. “He is willing to do whatever it takes to change the world because he thinks he has some divine calling.”

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Pearce’s Legislature is expected to continue to take aggressive steps in the coming weeks. One of the first bills of the session would allow concealed guns on college campuses. Other expected legislation would designate second-class citizenship for children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants and create a volunteer militia to patrol the Mexican border.

“He talks the people’s language, he pushes the people’s bills and he’s blunt–and I think that’s refreshing to people,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, a fellow Republican.

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Pearce is a fifth-generation Arizonan in a state of newcomers. He grew up in a troubled home with a severely alcoholic father.

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Meanwhile, Pearce attended lectures by W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing author and former FBI agent whose controversial theories have also inspired Glenn Beck.

Skousen argued that the United States was divinely founded and that breaching the country’s law contradicted God’s will. Like Pearce, Skousen was Mormon. Traces of Skousen can be heard in Pearce’s stark, black-and-white style and his emphasis on the sanctity of the law.

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In 2004, he [Pearce] wrote a ballot measure denying state services to illegal immigrants and requiring picture identification to vote, which passed easily.

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Pearce’s opponents accuse him of racism. Some tie him to white supremacist groups–he once approvingly forwarded an e-mail from one such organization, and shared the stage with a local neo-Nazi at an immigration rally in 2007. Pearce, who has Latino grandchildren, has said he wasn’t aware of all the views of the racist groups involved in each incident.

His allies say the racism accusation is a smear from liberals. “What he stands for is against everything they’re trying to accomplish,” said Michelle Dallacroce, an anti-illegal-immigration activist.

Pearce came to national attention last year with SB 1070, which would require police to investigate the immigration status of people they have detained.

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conservative activists in November.

Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and emeritus professor of political science at Arizona State University, said that although some of Pearce’s immigration stands had been popular, his brand of conservatism was favored only by about 20% of the state. But Merrill noted that a tiny minority of the state votes in the primaries that control who wins elective office.

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