Stealth Zealot

Pop quiz. Who’s Arizona’s other U.S. senator? Here’s a clue: He makes Dubya look like a liberal

"My father passed away three years ago, and that gets you thinking about the influences in your life and how your views came to be," Kyl says. "All these people -- my father, my grandmother -- were practical, common-sense people. And I've come to realize they had a huge influence on my life."

Kyl was born in northeastern Nebraska, near the small college town of Wayne, where his father led the chamber of commerce and served as a principal, then later, superintendent of schools. His father was a Republican, his grandmother "a Democrat who believed the world was started when Franklin Roosevelt took over." As he grew, though, he sided with his dad on the family arguments about the proper scope of the federal government.

In the 1950s, the Kyls moved to Iowa, where Kyl's father joined his brother in a clothing business. Once the children were raised, Kyl's father ran for Congress and won.

Analysts say Democrat Jim Pederson presents a real threat to Kyl.
Peter Scanlon
Analysts say Democrat Jim Pederson presents a real threat to Kyl.
Jon Kyl became a U.S. senator after Dennis DeConcini decided not to run in 1994.
Jon Kyl became a U.S. senator after Dennis DeConcini decided not to run in 1994.

As John Kyl headed for Congress as a Republican, his son, Jon, headed for the University of Arizona as a Young Republican.

While his father was considered a moderate, Kyl's ideas quickly moved to the party's right. In the early 1960s, Kyl read and reread Goldwater's landmark Conscience of a Conservative (he soon after met Goldwater at a political seminar), as well as William Buckley's Up From Liberalism.

"Those books had a huge impact on me," he says now.

Kyl then spent the summer of 1963 back in Washington with his father. It was one of the headiest years in American politics. The South was being torn apart by racial strife, and John Kennedy was working toward civil rights legislation while trying not to offend the Southern Democrats in Congress. The United States had 15,000 "advisers" in Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis was less than a year old. It seemed like war was breaking out everywhere.

Kyl's idol, Goldwater, was arguing for limited government and strong national defense in the months before he launched his campaign for the presidency.

And that year, the party was dividing along old lines: the Eastern corporate elite behind the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller, and the new Conservatives behind the rugged Western individualist, Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater got walloped in the 1964 presidential election, and was cast unfairly as a racist, radical warmonger in the process. But a new brand of Republican was born, one that later, in the form of Ronald Reagan and his followers in the Bush administrations, has directed U.S. policy for much of the past quarter-century.

Beginning in 1987, after his own children were grown, Jon Kyl became a voice for that Goldwater Conservatism in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1994, he took those views to the Senate.

And now, in 2006, it can be argued that Kyl is the most powerful proponent of that pure Goldwater neo-con ideology in the country.

"There's no doubt my ideas about government come from that time," Kyl says of the early 1960s. "My father and Barry Goldwater both had an amazing understanding of human nature. I'd like to think I learned a lot about human nature from both of them."

Kyl's opponent, Jim Pederson, is driving down Interstate 10 toward a speaking engagement in his hometown of Casa Grande when he gets word of a massive protest in the streets of Phoenix.

An estimated 20,000 people are marching down Camelback Road toward Kyl's office to protest what they see as Draconian immigration bills sitting in Congress. The protesters are most angered by a House bill proposing felony charges on undocumented workers, but Kyl has sponsored an unpopular Senate bill and also sits on the Senate judiciary committee, which will oversee the writing of the legislation.

Kyl has proposed large increases in border security, interior enforcement of immigration laws and a crackdown on the employers of illegal immigrants.

Pederson says he had no idea such a protest was planned (another even larger march was held April 10 in Phoenix). And he has no idea what the ramification will be.

But if you know Jim Pederson, you know one thing that is going through his head:

How can I get all the U.S. citizens in that crowd to a voting booth in November?

Considering it brought North 24th Street to a standstill, the march (and those like it in other U.S. cities) will do little to sway opinion that hordes of undocumented Mexican nationals are overrunning America.

But for Kyl's opponents, the protest says there is an issue in this election cycle capable of bringing the Hispanic voters to the polls en masse. And a strong Hispanic turnout is the stuff of nightmares to right-wing Republicans.

Pederson himself is trouble for Jon Kyl.

He is a legitimate threat, a successful Valley real estate mogul who made a minor legend of himself by taking over the chairmanship of a hapless Arizona Democratic Party in 2001 and infusing $2.4 million of his own money into a successful push to refocus the party apparatus on demographic groups within Arizona's massive untapped center. The year before he became party chairman, the Democrats couldn't even come up with an opponent for Jon Kyl. In 2002, after Pederson and his money arrived, Janet Napolitano and Terry Goddard won the state's two highest offices.

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