Editor's note: See the latest on the race in Legislative District 18 here.
Mesa's Hohokam Stadium, home of the Chicago Cubs' spring training camp, seats 12,500 at capacity. But on the evening of October 14, only a small percentage of the seats were filled as more than a dozen speakers harangued an audience of 200 to 300 die-hard supporters of state Senate President Russell Pearce.
They had gathered for a pep rally for the embattled Arizona kingpin, who is staring down the barrel of a recall election in Legislative District 18, one that I predict he will lose narrowly to Republican challenger Jerry Lewis, a Mesa educator.
Tellingly, the audience consisted of the usual suspects, longtime Pearce supporters such as convicted public urinator "Buffalo" Rick Galeener, Legislative District 19 GOP committee persons Pat Oldroyd and Dan Grimm (simultaneously, Pearce stalwarts and signature-gatherers for sham recall candidate Olivia Cortes), plus-size nativist masseuse Brandy Baron, and Rusty Childress, once head of the now-defunct anti-immigrant organization United for a Sovereign America.
"Some of you I see at every event," Pearce told his groupies when he spoke. "Your dedication overwhelms me."
Generally, these were not LD 18 voters, the people who will decide Pearce's fate on Tuesday, November 8. When one speaker asked how many of the attendees were from out of town, more than half cheered, oblivious to the inadvertent message they were sending.
As Sheriff Joe Arpaio gushed on Pearce's behalf, he acknowledged this telling fact: "I know most of you are probably not from District 18. It's nice that you're all here supporting [Pearce], but we've got to get the voters of 18 to do the right thing."
Correspondingly, most of Pearce's financial support has come from outside his district. Of the nearly $230,000 raised by Pearce's re-election committee, Patriots for Pearce (also the sponsor of the rally), only about 12 percent was from Mesa residents. About 20 percent of the donations were not even from Arizona residents.
By contrast, nearly 70 percent of the financial support for Lewis came from Mesans, and most of that from LD18 itself, which comprises much of Mesa.
It is the qualified electors of LD 18 — more than 10,000 of them — who signed a petition circulated by Citizens for a Better Arizona to force the recall. And yet, on this night, the outsiders railed against those LD 18 residents, decrying the recall itself as un-American.
State Senator Frank Antenori, who represents LD 30 (in Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz Counties), called the recall "an ambush." Tom Morrissey, chairman of the state GOP and a Phoenix resident, referred to it as "a power grab by the left."
Indeed, a common theme of the pro-Pearce camp has been that the recall is illegitimate, despite its being part of the Arizona Constitution.
But such arguments were not in vogue when, earlier this year, Pearce supported a failed recall effort against Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik or when such Pearce supporters as East Valley Tea Party chairman Greg Western backed a recall of LD 19 state Senator Rich Crandall, a fellow Republican. As with the Dupnik effort, that bid went nowhere.
Western, it's important to note, was the guy who recruited Cortes to run in the LD 18 recall as a means of siphoning votes from Lewis. This Richard Nixon-style dirty trickery — which arguably is a felony under Arizona law — backfired on the Pearce camp and has led to the defections of many of Pearce's conservative Mormon followers.
One who has stayed true to Pearce recently told a member of Lewis' campaign that if Pearce goes down in LD 18, it will be in large part because of the Cortes affair, and the numerous efforts to slime Lewis, himself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These efforts included fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, anonymous anti-Lewis websites, and YouTube videos that slandered Pearce's opponent, trying to gin up false charges of him stealing money from homeless kids he helps educate at Children First Academy in Tempe.
Not to mention the physical attack on Lewis shortly before he officially announced, when a man lobbed a padlock at Lewis' groin while he was jogging in Mesa. No one was caught, but it's hard to believe the perpetrator was a Lewis supporter.
None of this is important to Pearce's wingnutty cult of Kool-Aid drinkers, of course. But such strong-arm tactics and chicanery have alienated many LDS faithful who voted for Pearce in the past.
Drive around Mesa, and you'll notice signs of a Mormon civil war. Literally. Whole rows of houses boast white Jerry Lewis yard signs, despite the best efforts of Pearce loyalists who by night have driven around stealing them.
On other streets, blue Pearce signs dominate. And on yet others, Pearce signs battle it out with Lewis signs.
The signs themselves have become points of contention among friends, neighbors, and even family. Pearce's brother, Justice of the Peace Lester Pearce, approached a source of mine, asking that this person remove a Lewis yard sign and replace it with a Pearce placard. The source refused.
Questioned about this at an LD 18 meeting where his sibling spoke, Lester Pearce told me it was all a joke on his part. He denied campaigning on his brother's behalf, in defiance of Arizona's Judicial Code of Conduct, though he later admitted to another reporter that he was present when one of his nieces solicited signatures to place Cortes on the ballot.
Moreover, minutes from a September LD 19 meeting, where a pro-Pearce resolution was proposed, reveal that Lester Pearce advocated for the senator and against the recall. He once blocked videographer Dennis Gilman and me from questioning a Pearce supporter who circulated Cortes petitions. On another occasion, he violently grabbed Gilman's camera as I peppered him with questions.
These are mere examples of what has turned off Mormon and non-Mormon Republicans from supporting Pearce in the recall effort.
There also are the lies, many of them from the senator's own mouth, including his contention during one recent Republican gathering that the LDS church backed Senate Bill 1070, the controversial "papers please" law, whose "intent" is making "attrition through enforcement" state policy.
Though the Mormon Church, headquartered in Utah, officially has rejected an enforcement-only approach to immigration and supported the Utah Compact — which calls for a humane, common-sense approach to the issue — it was forced to contradict Pearce's statement and reiterate its view that even those in the United States illegally are "children of God."
The thing is, untruths, half-truths, and distortions fly from Pearce's mouth as regularly as spittle.
I cornered the senator after the same LD 18 meeting where he misspoke about the LDS church's support of 1070 and asked him about his contention that he had never taken campaign contributions from the Fiesta Bowl, despite the $40,000 worth of free trips and football tickets for him and his family that he had accepted.
I noted that several Fiesta Bowl executives donated to his 2010 re-election campaign, and he denied it out of hand. When I began to list names, including former CEO John Junker and his wife, he acted like this was news to him.
At Hohokam Stadium, the canards continued. He bragged that he had fostered a "constitutionally balanced [state] budget."
In reality, Arizona suffers from an $8.5 billion debt. The deficit is getting managed, for now, with the help of a onetime uptick in tax revenue, brought partly because people are not taking a deduction on their home mortgages.
Why are fewer people taking the deduction? Because Arizona's housing market remains in shambles. Hard to take a deduction on your house when it's been foreclosed upon.
In other words, Pearce had nothing to do with this onetime windfall.
In fact, Pearce has helped make the debt worse by selling off state buildings, including the Capitol. (This added $1 billion in debt.) And though Pearce blames the state's budget woes on the administration of ex-Governor Janet Napolitano, he conveniently omits that for much of the time Napolitano was governor, he was chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the budget process.
Finally, in 2014, the state potentially faces another massive shortfall because the temporary one-cent sales tax pushed by Governor Jan Brewer will have expired.
Following the rally, after listening to state Senator Steve Smith blurt hyperbole, calling Pearce a "Superman" and the "Babe Ruth of Arizona politics," I approached Pearce to do what reporters do (ask questions), but Pearce — protected by admirers and his nonstop security detail from the Arizona Department of Public Safety — ignored me.
Sheriff Joe, however, bantered with me for a moment and then leaned in confidentially: "You're a human being," he said to me, then gestured toward Pearce. "You've got to feel sorry for this guy, having to go through this."
I responded that Pearce's problems are of his own making. His hardball style has been ill-suited for this recall campaign, in which Pearce should be going, hat in hand, door to door, asking humbly for the support of his constituents.
Instead, he's been as bellicose as always, falsely portraying the recall effort as one brought against him by "outsiders," "unions," and "open-borders anarchists," and incorrectly painting conservative Republican Jerry Lewis as a tool of such interests (Lewis, in fact, was recruited by GOPers in LD 18 to run).
Privately, members of the Lewis campaign believe the vote will be close, within a couple hundred votes. If Pearce ekes out a win, they believe, it will be because of the shamster Cortes, doing what she was put on the ballot for: siphoning votes from Lewis.
They acknowledge, however, that they've eaten substantially into Pearce's Republican base, with even members of the Mesa City Council coming out against the incumbent.
The other side of the equation is a get-out-the-vote effort spearheaded by Randy Parraz, Citizens for a Better Arizona's co-founder.
Stop by CBA's Mesa headquarters on Center Street these days, and you'll witness a mix of volunteers and paid campaigners making calls to probable voters and coming in from knocking on hundreds of doors a night. Parraz says the result has been that 80 percent of those contacted plan to vote, and vote for Lewis.
"The response has been overwhelmingly positive," he said. "But it's supposed to be positive. This is our list, mostly high-efficacy voters, Democrats."
These are in the bag for Lewis, but how many Republicans actually will vote and cast their ballots for Lewis?
"It's a tough road to victory for him," Parraz said of Pearce. "Even if Pearce spends $10 million on the race, once you have that division among Republicans, he has to go somewhere else to get the votes. Where does he go?"
Parraz points out that Kevin Gibbons, who ran against Pearce in the 2008 LD 18 Republican primary, pulled about 31 percent of the GOP vote. That was when Pearce still was popular with his base.
He estimates that Lewis, whom he regards as a stronger candidate, could get as much 45 percent of the Republican vote.
"That's why the Cortes thing was so revealing," Parraz noted. "[Pearce supporters] didn't go to her because they wanted to — they went to her because they had to."
And yet the spectacle of Cortes and her people, who doubled as Pearce stalwarts, on the stand in Maricopa County Superior Court answering allegations of election fraud has soured many GOPers on Pearce. Attorney Tom Ryan and co-counsel H. Micheal Wright made fools of Tea Party members, signature-gatherers, and Cortes herself concerning her sham candidacy aimed at assisting Pearce.
The high-powered political consultants running and assisting Pearce's campaign — Chad Willems, Chuck Coughlin, and Constantin Querard — did not count on Tom Ryan taking Cortes to court and, ultimately, forcing her to withdraw her name as a candidate.
Her name remains on the ballot, of course, and she still could take votes from Lewis — though CBAers doing phone-banking to Spanish-speaking voters say everyone they speak with seems aware that Cortes is a fraud. She will not have the draw she would have had before Ryan forced her to take the stand and open up to the media.
The scandal haunts Pearce. The Arizona Secretary of State has referred its investigation of Cortes to the Arizona Attorney General's Office — which, in turn, conflicted it out to Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores. Then, there has been the lack of financial disclosure about who paid for Cortes' campaign signs and professional petition-circulators — as well as Dan Grimm's admitting to the press that he and his cohorts put Cortes on the ballot to hurt Lewis.
As this column went to press, 44 percent of early ballots had been returned to the county, a sign that participation could be better than expected for this historic, off-year election. If so, that's bad for Pearce, as a low turnout would be to his advantage.
If Pearce is clobbered on November 8, his political career is kaput. Disgraced by the defeat, he would not be able to offer his damaged goods for consideration after upcoming redistricting. That is, Pearce's residence could be in a different district, one represented currently by moderate Republican state Senator Rich Crandall.
Could he run for Congress or even for sheriff, should Arpaio opt out for 2012? He could, but he won't get far. Pearce cannot succeed in a larger political entity without being likable. For all his faults, Arpaio is likable. Nefarious, surely, but a schmoozer nonetheless.
By contrast, Pearce is a mean-spirited ideologue, loathed by Dems and, now, by many Republicans. He was able to rise to power in the manner he did only from the conservative postage stamp of LD 18.
But even if I'm wrong, there's a massive consolation prize:
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Pearce will be wounded severely no matter what happens, and attorney Ryan vows to sue again should the incumbent manage a victory. Pearce, Willems, Coughlin, and Querard would be deposed under oath.
"I'm coming at Pearce like stage-four metastatic cancer," Ryan promised, if Pearce wins over Lewis. "We will get to the bottom of what they did and how they did it. We will leave no checkbook unturned."
And in light of that blood oath, the Pearce camp had better pray that Jerry Lewis is the next state senator from LD 18.