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Activist Randy Parraz Led an Army of Non-Partisan Warriors to Take Down Russell Pearce

Pearce and his old pal Sheriff Joe Arpaio say sayonara to Pearce's political career.
AP Photo/Matt York

Democrats say the darnedest things.

In the aftermath of Russell Pearce's defeat in the November 8 Legislative District 18 recall election, local Democrats have been trying to make it seem as if the former state Senate president's stuffed head was a prize they could hang on their walls.

The day after Pearce's downfall, ultra-lefty Democratic state Senator Kyrsten Sinema appeared on Keith Olbermann's show Countdown, on Current TV, to analyze the outcome.

By way of introduction to the topic, Olbermann said, "I know you worked — and everybody there worked — very hard on this, but did you ever expect this would happen?"

Sinema, who never has had anything to do with the recall group Citizens for a Better Arizona and did nothing to assist get-out-the-vote efforts in the waning days of the campaign, did not disabuse Olbermann of his misconception.

Nevertheless, her answer portrayed her own perception of a recall most Democratic leaders dreaded at the time it was filed in late January.

"In the early days, many of us just thought this was a political statement," she said, "to try [to] hold Russell accountable for not just [Senate Bill 1070] but, really, many other pieces of legislation and controversies that have gone on in Arizona.

"But over time, as Russell continued to get embroiled in [more scandals] — and efforts by [opponent Jerry Lewis'] camp and Democrats and independents, unaffiliated groups, doing great field work — it began to seem that it was really a possibility, that this election would come out on top for Jerry Lewis."

I remember speaking with Democratic Party insiders at the time Citizens for a Better Arizona filed its recall petition paperwork at the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. They were horrified by CBA and the group's co-founder, failed U.S. Senate candidate Randy Parraz, whom Democratic muck-a-mucks saw as a dangerous pariah.

The recall idea was "doomed to failure," they all said (off the record, naturally). And worst of all, they feared that the recall would "only make Pearce stronger" when it failed. They also feared retribution, that Pearce would retaliate against them, as he was known to do to any who crossed his shadow in the sun.

So it is amusing to sit and watch the Democratic bigwigs embrace publicly what they once privately loathed.

After Election Night, Arizona Democratic Party chair Andrei Cherny issued a statement noting the Democratic mayoral wins in the state's two biggest cities, and adding that the successful routing of Pearce was a "W" in the "D" column.

"For the first time in 20 years, we will have Democratic mayors of Tucson and Phoenix," Cherny said. "And for the first time in American history, a state legislative leader — the most powerful politician in Arizona — was recalled from office. "

Thing is, the guy who beat Pearce — at last count by 12 humiliating percentage points — was a deeply conservative Mormon Republican. Lewis is no Democrat (or even Democrat in disguise), and yet Cherny gives his win the same weight as Mayor-elect Greg Stanton, a Phoenix Dem?

Of course, the defeat of Arizona's far-right shadow governor, a nativist extremist committed to the idea of "attrition through enforcement" (i.e., driving illegal immigrants from Arizona through fear and economic retaliation) is much bigger than the ascension of Stanton, which was about as easy to predict as triple-digit heat in an Arizona summer.

Phoenix is a sliver of blue in a sea of Maricopa County red. The only drama in the Greg Stanton-Wes Gullett battle was what color tie Stanton would wear during his acceptance speech.

Then came the recent Senate Republican caucus meeting, in the aftermath of Pearce's loss, to elect a new Senate president, who turned out to be Prescott GOPer Steve Pierce.

Voting for Pierce in that caucus was the newly elected Lewis. One alternative to Pierce would have been ideologue Andy Biggs — often referred to as "Russell Pearce with a brain." But in a deal brokered in part by LD 19 Republican moderate Rich Crandall, Pierce took the top spot, a victory for the "non-crazy" wing of the state GOP.

That's because Pierce was one of several Senate Republicans to balk at approving five Pearce-backed anti-immigration measures in March of this year.

The bills included immigration-omnibus legislation — arguably as bad as Arizona's "papers please" law, Senate Bill 1070 — as well as bills aimed at denying birthright citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants. When they went down in flames, Pearce was incensed, and the far right vowed retribution against GOP "turncoats" such as Steve Pierce.

Pierce and other Republicans voting "nay" were responding to a letter signed by 60 Arizona CEOs and business leaders urging moderation and the bills' defeat. That Pierce responded to that call and voted against all five showed that Prescott's Pierce was no nativist flunky. And certainly no Andy Biggs.

 

Nevertheless, Cherny belittled the choice, accusing Republicans of "wearing earplugs" in picking Pierce, stating, "By replacing Russell Pearce with Steve Pierce, very little will change — other than one vowel."

Randy Parraz was not amused by Cherny's objections to Pierce, since the Arizona Democratic Party had stayed out of the recall effort.

"It's disrespectful for someone to say that," he told me recently. "It shows that when you don't do anything, you try to discredit what other people do."

Rather, Parraz stressed the bipartisan nature of the victory.

Sure, Democrats, as individuals, worked like hell for CBA — first, to secure the signatures necessary to make the recall a reality, then on CBA's well-organized get-out-the-vote effort — but so did Republicans.

"There are a lot of Republicans I love and respect because of what they've done," Parraz said.

Indeed, there always have been many Republicans disgusted with Pearce's Hispanic-bashing, his sleazy Fiesta Bowl payoffs, his banning people from the state Senate building, his high-profile politicking with neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists.

We need only look back at the failed campaign of Republican Kevin Gibbons in LD 18's 2008 GOP primary for state Senate — when Gibbons pulled 30 percent of the GOP vote against Pearce — to know there was significant opposition to Pearce in the district.

That discontent continued to simmer, and it came to a boil in 2010 when Pearce failed to make it on LD 18's slate of precinct committeemen picked for the party's state committee.

More than 50 Republicans were elected from LD 18. To not elect Pearce was essentially a no-confidence vote from the people who knew him best.

This was such an embarrassment to Pearce that Maricopa County GOP Chair Rob Haney, an avowed nativist and Pearce's longtime ally, stepped in and forced a re-vote. Nevertheless, Pearce squeaked in, drawing the fewest supporters.

Though I reported on this shortly after Lewis announced his bid to replace Pearce in late July, such realities in LD 18 were lost on the political pundits who, from jump, never saw the tsunami coming.

Pearce's rabid nativism and outright bigotry never reflected the immigration stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which remains prominent in Mesa despite shifting demographics there.

I pointed this out in November 2010, observing that, according to the Utah Compact — a statement in support of humane immigration reform that the church backed — Pearce was a bad Mormon.

Phoenix attorney Daryl Williams, a church elder, even used my blog post as a footnote on a pro-immigration essay he wrote from an LDS perspective.

In June 2011, the LDS church strengthened its statement on immigration, decrying enforcement-only approaches by states, saying it was concerned that such legislation "is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God."

Though an LDS member, Pearce failed to get the message and went so far as to suggest in a Legislative District 18 GOP meeting that the church backed SB 1070.

The correction was swift and stern from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City.

In response to information presented by Channel 12's Brahm Resnik, the church reiterated its objections to an enforcement-only approach (like 1070) and stated its three basic principles in the immigration debate: the Gospel's commandment to "love thy neighbor," the importance of keeping families together, and the federal government's responsibility to secure the border.

Pearce finally had gone one lie too far.

But none of this surprised me. Nor did the fact that Lewis, a former LDS stake president, argued passionately and effectively against SB 1070 during his campaign — something that I rarely heard prominent mainstream Democrats do during 2010. Instead, as 1070 roiled through the state, Dems seeking election to prominent offices hid their heads, hoping the issue would evaporate.

What did Lewis argue? The same thing those 60 business leaders did about the five bills now-Senate President Steve Pierce voted against earlier this year: Bigotry is bad for business.

Because of 1070, people outside Arizona looked at the state as "something akin to 1964 Alabama," and business leaders were shunning us, Lewis said at his debate with Pearce in early October at the East Valley Institute of Technology.

After the debate, he didn't back off his words. He defended them vigorously.

"In a 21st-century time," he said, "when we've been through all of these wonderful, wonderful battles to recognize that all people are created equal, we . . . have a subclass of individuals here we're treating in a different way than . . . everybody else. That's having a terrible impact on our economy."

Such words are blasphemy to the nativist right. His courage in sticking to his principles — and in continuing to smile through all the muck thrown at him by the Tea Party-inspired Pearce camp, from padlocks lobbed at him from moving vehicles to the sham candidacy of Olivia Cortes — helped earn him his win.

 

But before Lewis ever would have the chance to make such statements, to run the squeaky-clean campaign that he did, or to be recruited to do so by Mesa Republicans, there had to be a pre-existing vision — and that foresight belonged to Randy Parraz.

Just off his failed run for the U.S. Senate, the community organizer and onetime AFL-CIO leader in Arizona, was poking around for his next challenge. It came in the notice that Pearce — the most extreme politician in the state and architect of 1070 — had been named Arizona's Senate president.

Parraz was enraged and began kicking around the concept of a recall with friend and Republican lawyer Chad Snow, who had worked with him against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in an organization Parraz fronted, Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability.

Snow, a Mormon, likes to joke, "It was Sheriff Joe that brought us together."

In 2008, Snow attended a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors. He didn't know Parraz, who had led a group of MCSA supporters to the meeting, demanding that the Supes address Arpaio's various abuses of power.

Weirdly, Snow was placed in handcuffs briefly by Arpaio's deputies, for no apparent reason.

He remembered an MCSO supervisor coming down a hall, ordering his release.

"'You've got the wrong one, you'll have to let him go,'" the supervising deputy said, according to Snow. "As they were walking me out, they were walking Randy back, under arrest."

Parraz was falsely arrested for failing to obey a police officer, and a lawsuit against the county still is outstanding over the incident. Characteristically, Parraz has refused to settle.

That afternoon, Snow visited Parraz in jail and offered to defend him.

Though a GOPer, Snow was opposed to the politics Arpaio and Pearce represented, was open to the idea of the recall, and, like Parraz, was ready to throw in his own money to kick-start CBA.

Snow points to a chair in his law office, strewn with legal documents and hung with starched shirts and ties ready for courtroom appearances.

"It was in that chair that Randy said to me, 'Dude, let's recall Russell Pearce,'" Snow told me recently.

Snow and Parraz began in early January with a 21-day warning to Pearce to moderate his ways. Snow actually believed that Pearce's new Senate post — its position of responsibility — might rein him in.

"I was wrong," Snow says. "Randy thought Pearce would be emboldened by [his new position.]"

Parraz was right, and when no such sign of moderation was forthcoming from Pearce — who had lied to his Senate colleagues to win their support to be Senate president by suggesting he would put immigration on the back burner — CBA filed recall paperwork.

Initially, CBA was upstaged by a rival recall group fronted by DeeDee Blase, then the head of Somos Republicans, a Hispanic GOP group with a flair for garnering headlines. But Blase soon threw her support to CBA.

All the news media, save New Times, wrote off the effort as misguided, futile, or both. But I knew CBA had an opening. At the very least, I knew they could score the signatures necessary for a recall, which would place Pearce on the defensive and make him do something he hadn't done in some time: actually campaign in LD 18, rather than take his re-election there for granted.

As CBA volunteers went door-to-door seeking signatures, it was obvious that disgust with Pearce was rampant. Some people literally grabbed clipboards out of the hands of signature-gatherers to sign in favor of the recall.

So when CBA dropped its bomb on May 31, submitting more than 18,000 signatures in favor of the recall, thousands more than needed, I was hardly amazed.

The political establishment, however, including the Capitol press corps, reacted with indignation, scoffing at the accomplishment.

The Arizona Republic's Robert Robb already had declared the recall "an abuse of the process." How dare these little people?

On PBS' Horizon and elsewhere, local scribe Howard Fischer naysayed the possibility that the recall would move forward or that Pearce ever could be in trouble in LD 18.

Yet the recall did, indeed, move forward, with county and state elections officials certifying that more than 10,000 signatures were from valid LD 18 voters. Pearce fought the recall all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, to no avail.

Under Parraz's day-to-day guidance, CBA had dotted every "i," crossed every "t." For all the wailing by Pearce and his friends in the press, the recall was on.

The local Fourth Estate's open hostility to the recall blinded it to Pearce's impending loss, even after dream challenger Lewis entered the race.

 

As late as July 29, the Capitol Times' Christian Palmer, associate editor of the paper's Yellow Sheet, wrote off Lewis, stating, "So far, all the signs are pointing to a disappointing blowout, with Pearce clobbering political newbie Jerry Lewis."

Chad Snow chalks up such predictions to an inability to understand the process that was going on.

"They didn't see the advantage of this kind of race," Snow said, "which is essentially an open primary."

That is, Democrats, Independents, and Republicans together could vote against Pearce and for his opponent as a part of the recall election.

In addition, the press wasn't watching Mesa closely. If it had been, it would have seen the plethora of Lewis signs in Mormon yards. If reporters had been going out with CBAers as they canvassed hundreds of doors a day or listened in as they made hundreds of calls to the homes of LD 18 voters, they wouldn't have needed conservative polls to point them in the right direction.

I watched as volunteers scrambled to pick up early ballots. CBAers encouraged folks to fill out their early ballots on the spot, seal them, and turn them over to volunteers, who then dropped them off at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

Whenever someone brought in an early ballot to CBA's Mesa office, Parraz inevitably would smile and say, "Gimme some skin," high-fiving the volunteer.

And if someone scored more than one ballot, he or she earned cheers from fellow CBAers.

On the day before the election, CBA dropped off nearly 200 such ballots to the county. Ballots that might never have otherwise been mailed or counted.

Victory is made of such vignettes. But because the reporters and pundits in question never eyeballed them, all they had to go on was their own hot air.

Nor can the arrogant, bullying, creepy campaign waged by Pearce and his allies be discounted.

As New Times reported, Chandler attorney Tom Ryan, along with co-counsel H. Micheal Wright, sued sham candidate Olivia Cortes, forcing her and her Tea Party enablers into court, where she was exposed and ultimately forced to withdraw her diversionary candidacy.

It was a candidacy many still believe Pearce operative Constantin Querard ultimately was responsible for, one encouraged and aided by Pearce supporters and family members. One which Pearce and his top handlers, Chad Willems and Chuck Coughlin, had to be aware of.

I believe this is because the Pearce camp had no faith in the electoral process, no faith in Pearce as a candidate. What they were left with were lies and chicanery. Cortes was one manifestation of this. Others included fake websites and Twitter accounts, misleading robo-calls and mailers.

"Pearce was either getting the worst political advice of his career," Snow said of the missteps. "Or he was getting good advice but was just too stubborn to take it."

Based on my sources and my observations, Pearce, Willems, Coughlin, Querard, and all of Pearce's goofy Tea Party worshipers were down from day one with whatever it took to assure Pearce's survival. Ethical violations and alleged lawbreaking? No problem, as long as their candidate triumphed.

I've got to wonder if they learned anything. That is, that their shenanigans backfired, that they lost because of them.

I'm guessing not.

Parraz's next target? He's returning to his first target, Joe Arpaio. No, not a recall, he says. The sheriff already is heading for a re-election campaign in 2012, so there's no point in starting a recall effort, which would need nearly 400,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot in a countywide election.

His CBA plans to be the tip of the spear, an independent-expenditure committee that can do attack ads, raise money, and dog Arpaio's every step.

As for Pearce, Parraz doesn't see him having much of a career after this, but should Pearce try to run again — say, for Arpaio's spot someday — he's got a message for the former most powerful politician in Arizona.

"I hope he does [go for elective office again]," Parraz says, his eyes glinting at the possibility. "Because then we'll go ballistic."


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