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Arizona's relentless conservative voice

Pleas for greater civility in politics have been seen as calls to rein in state Senate President Russell Pearce. But the immigration hard-liner shows no signs of slowing down.

January 17, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Russell Pearce is arguably the most powerful man in Arizona politics.
Russell Pearce is arguably the most powerful man in Arizona politics. (Susan Walsh / The Associated…)

Reporting from Phoenix — Since the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shortened her State of the State speech. The state House of Representatives closed for two days so members could mourn.

But in the state Senate, it was business as usual. There was no halt to let senators attend funerals or President Obama's visit. "We have a constitutional obligation," Senate President Russell Pearce told the Arizona Republic, to wrap up business in 100 days.

Pearce does not let anything slow him down. When he was on patrol as a sheriff's deputy here in the 1970s, he was shot in the chest but still wrestled with one of the youths who attacked him and chased two more before seeking medical help. When he entered the statehouse a decade ago, he was dismissed by some in his own party as a loudmouthed backbencher, unhealthily obsessed with illegal immigration.

Now he runs the place.

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.

Pearce, who has spoken to The Times in the past, could not be reached for this story, but both defenders and critics agree it's unlikely he will change his approach while trying to advance the GOP's agenda in the state.

As the legislative session began last week, Pearce quipped that Brewer owed her reelection to him and noted that the Legislature could now override her veto.

"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."

Konopnicki, who lost a primary to a more hard-line, Pearce-backed candidate last year, recalled that after voting against one of Pearce's immigration bills in 2009, the senator sent an outraged e-mail to supporters accusing Konopnicki of betrayal. His family — including his teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome — received threats.

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.

"If you're afraid of controversy and afraid of offending people," Kavanagh added, "then you roll over on the bills and you've had a lackluster legislative career. That doesn't describe Russell Pearce."

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

In previous interviews, Pearce has recalled how he would come home and find that concerned neighbors had left groceries for the impoverished family. But the food was put to the side. His mother would not accept charity.

Pearce wanted to study medicine but was too poor to attend medical school, so he joined the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. He rose to chief deputy under Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the 1990s. Pearce claims credit for one of Arpaio's calling cards: housing jail inmates in tents.

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.

In 2000, Pearce entered the Legislature and began introducing bills to battle illegal immigration. After the Border Patrol fortified the California border in the 1990s, illegal crossings into Arizona skyrocketed, bringing car and identity theft, drug rings and anxiety.

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