Mesa Recall Election Of Pearce District 18
The future of Arizona's legislative leadership lies in the hands of about 70,000 registered voters who live within a 25-square-mile area in west Mesa.
Legislative District 18 is believed to be the first in the country to participate in a recall election of a sitting Senate president. The Nov. 8 election will decide the fate of Russell Pearce, one of the most influential state politicians in the nation.
If voters re-elect Pearce, much of the control over what becomes state law will remain in his hands for at least one more year. If they replace him with Jerry Lewis, the Senate will have to appoint a new Senate president, who will decide which bills get public hearings and are voted on in the Senate. The Senate president also plays a key role in developing the state budget each year.
The influence Pearce commands in Arizona politics is no secret. He was nicknamed the Shadow Governor after his anti-illegal-immigration legislation, Senate Bill 1070, helped win Gov. Jan Brewer an additional four years in office.
As the author of SB 1070, he has become an international voice for tough illegal-immigration reform, which is, in large part, why he now faces recall. If Pearce loses his seat, it will be a blow to the anti-illegal-immigration movement, which this year got dozens of tough immigration measures passed in states across the country.
Over the past , Legislative District 18 has transformed from a community of White, Mormon and Catholic middle-class families to one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the state.
The area that has served as a conservative stronghold for Arizona Republicans since its inception includes the city's historical downtown, the state's first Mormon temple, the East Valley's first mall and Mesa College.
More recently, property values have plummeted and foreclosures and rentals have increased, creating a growing group of younger, lower-income residents with fewer ties to the community and very different priorities.
What has remained constant is the strong influence of the Mormon Church and the district's older, conservative, longtime residents who are most likely to vote.
A furniture-store sign on Country Club Drive near Southern Avenue reads, "Se habla Español." Nearby, a large billboard advertises Corona beer in Spanish.
The district's Hispanic population has grown to 43 percent, according to the U.S. census. Other minority groups also have grown. Residents have mixed feelings about the changes.
"I don't have a problem with immigration. I wouldn't be here without it. But I don't see a problem with doing it the right way," said Karen Norman, 59, who has lived in her home for 39 years. "It's so evident here. Parts of Mesa are like little Mexico."
Down the street, Victoria Yeldon, 24, has lived in her home for two years. She and her husband have an 8-month-old son. She volunteers at a local shelter.
"We never see gangs or bad kids or any vandalism," she said. "I feel safe here."
She said many people in the district, including many illegal immigrants, are just trying to make a better life for their families.
Once mostly Mormon and Catholic, west Mesa is now a broad mix of religious views. But like the white, steepled Mormon gathering places called stake centers that can be found every couple of miles, the religion continues to dominate district values.
There are an estimated 29,000 Mormons, including children, in District 18, according to church leaders, representing about 17 percent of the district's religious population.
The elected officials who represent the residents of District 18, from the mayor to the U.S. representative, are White, male, Mormon and over age 40. Pearce fits that demographic, as does challenger Lewis, a former stake president who oversaw several thousand area Mormons.
The church's official stance is that it does not tell its members whom to vote for, and members say they are not being told whom to support in this recall.
But there have been individuals at church functions in the district trying to garner support for Lewis. And the church has been public in its support of immigration reform more along the lines of what Lewis supports, which includes programs that allow illegal immigrants to continue working in the United States, as opposed to enforcement-focused measures Pearce supports, like SB 1070.
Lisa Alatini, 39, a Mexican-American Mormon mother of four and a hospital secretary, said she votes for candidates with strong family values and particularly those who oppose gay marriage and illegal immigration.
"If you aren't a citizen, you don't belong here," she said. "My grandmother worked really hard to get everybody here legally."
Joyzelle Curtis, 52, a Mormon stay-at-home mother of 10, has lived in the district for 16 years. She said she knows Lewis and Pearce and likes things about both of them. But she said she'll likely vote for Pearce because she opposes the recall. She said if voters are tired of Pearce, they can vote him out in November.
"I think Jerry Lewis is a great man, and I would love to see him run at another time," she said. "Mr. Pearce could do a whole lot more if he could focus on his job instead of this recall."
Behind the recall
Pearce first ran for the Legislature in 2000 and has never lost an election. Since winning a competitive primary in 2008, he has been deemed practically unbeatable in a district where many voters feel strongly about illegal immigration.
In 2008, some of the most powerful Mormon families in the state tried to oust Pearce with a candidate of their own: U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake's brother-in-law, Kevin Gibbons, a Mesa immigration attorney.
That election, as with the recall, was effectively a referendum on Pearce's strong stance on illegal immigration. Gibbons promised to bring a more civil tone to the Legislature. Pearce promised to continue to push illegal-immigration legislation.
Gibbons had the backing of the agriculture and business communities that opposed employer-sanctions regulations pushed by Pearce. Pearce had the support of residents who had grown increasingly angry at the changes in their community and the suffering economy, many of whom blamed an influx of illegal immigrants.
Pearce won, and in 2010, no Republican ran against Pearce in the primary.
The recall effort, led by a group called Citizens for a Better Arizona, which said it wanted a senator who focused more on jobs and education than illegal immigration and guns, began shortly into Pearce's current term.
The group got enough signatures from registered voters in Pearce's district to get the recall on the ballot. Lewis was not part of the recall group. He said he decided to run once the recall was set because he was concerned the district wasn't being well-represented by Pearce.
Tony Zeh, 40, a photographer and gulf-war veteran, finds himself regularly in the minority in the district. He's pro-choice and believes civilians shouldn't own handguns.
"Most of the people that get out and vote here are elderly, Mormon and less-educated," Zeh said. "Their value systems are stuck."
Lewis and Pearce, he said, are conservative and "against my platform."
Mike Burges, 65, said he's "not particularly happy" with Pearce but is concerned about the unknowns of someone new. He said neither candidate is focusing enough on jobs.
"We need real living-wage jobs," he said. "Fast-food jobs don't cut it. Service-industry jobs do not create wealth. We need more manufacturing."
About 61 percent of the district's approximately 116,000 residents over age 18 are registered to vote. Of those, only 48 percent cast a vote in the 2010 general election.
Half of those who voted in the district during the 2010 general election were Republicans, about a quarter were Democrats and about a quarter were independents, according to Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. About 14 percent of those who voted were Hispanic. Nearly 57 percent of those who voted were 50 or older.
Experts say younger, lower-income and minority residents are not typically strong voting populations. Nor are the more transient residents likely to live in apartments or rental homes.
"Who votes? Middle-aged homeowners, LDS," said Zach Smith, a politics professor at Northern Arizona University. "Those are the people who come out in much higher numbers."
Steve Meixner, 27, a software engineer, has lived in the area for two years. He said he wasn't familiar with the recall election. He said there has been too much focus on illegal immigration and is more interested in local issues such as funding teachers, firefighters and police officers.
Nicholas White, 43, a landscaper and father of five who has been renting a house for the past few months, said he has similar concerns. He wasn't familiar with the recall and said he wasn't sure whom he may vote for.
"We need jobs," he said, "and Medicaid and Medicare for the elderly."
Rodolfo Espino, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, said the lack of voter interest in the district is also about a lack of competitive elections. In a district with such a strong Republican turnout, candidates of other parties have little chance and Republicans often win by wide margins.
"That doesn't draw voters to the polls," he said.
Santiago Luna, 44, a landscaper, said that is part of the reason many Latinos don't vote.
"The Mormon community has very good control of the area and kind of dictates what goes on and how it goes on," he said. "Unfortunately, the votes of the minority can't do much against the majority. They are frustrated."
Finding the votes
The outcome of the recall will depend on which candidate gets the support of the most influential Mormon leaders, as well as whether less-traditional voters break the mold and show up and vote, local election experts say.
Pearce has the endorsement of several influential Mormon state lawmakers, Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Democratic and Latino groups are going door to door in the community to register more Latinos to vote. Democrat Randy Parraz, who helped organize the recall effort, said they've registered close to 900 new voters since January.
"A significant number of those are Latino voters," he said.
And he said in a race that could come down to a few hundred votes, those new voters could have significant impact.
"Most of the polls are showing a dead heat," he said. "Every vote is going to count."
Pearce and Lewis have already begun spending weekends walking neighborhoods and gathering with small groups of residents to garner votes and raise money.
Early voting begins today.
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/news/election/azelections/articles/2011/10/13/20111013mesa-district-18-decide-pearce-arizona-fate.html#ixzz1adzbq3YR