Longform

Chris Simcox's Life Arc Mirrors the Nativist Movement's Demise

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Chris Simcox and Ray Ybarra know each other about as well as two enemies can.

In addition to Ybarra's having regularly monitored Simcox's activities up close, the pair also have discussed immigration at some of the same seminars and events.

To Ybarra, speaking in a recent interview, Simcox was responsible for "mainstreaming hatred" toward Latino immigrants. Unlike most other minutemen, Simcox could rub shoulders with powerful politicians and was able to appear sane in the media.

"Pretty much every minuteman sounds reasonable for the first 20 minutes," Ybarra cracked. "If you talk to them for more than 20 minutes, that's when the crazy comes out."

Ybarra grudgingly calls Simcox's movement a success because the minutemen got what they wanted — a more militarized border.

Simcox and others tapped into growing insecurity among Anglos frightened by a burgeoning Latino population.

"Everything they were asking for in the beginning has come to fruition," he said, referring to the increased presence of federal manpower on the border, "regardless of [one leader] being in jail for being a pervert [and another] for shooting people and being on death row."

The actual Minuteman Project, however, petered out rather quickly.

Before the end of April 2005, Simcox and Gilchrist were enemies and Gilchrist returned to California, keeping the organization's name for himself.

Simcox remained in Arizona as the head of his new organization, Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

From this point on, Simcox was dogged by allegations of financial mismanagement.

Before the breakup with Gilchrist, there were signs that Simcox improperly used donations, says David Heppler, a minuteman volunteer who assisted the group with security until he butted heads with Simcox and left.

"Checks were coming in to the Minuteman Project to Simcox's office," Heppler says. "But he was depositing those checks into his bank account. So there was no way to track where all that money went."

He also says Simcox's arrogance drove many people away.

"It was him wanting to control everything," Heppler says. "You're a grown adult, and he wants to tell you exactly what to say and do."

Both the lack of financial transparency and Simcox's imperious reaction to anyone who dared criticize him were the two most common complaints of supporters of the MCDC. Meanwhile, the organization entered a phase of expansion into Texas, Kansas, Washington, California, and New York. At one point, the MCDC claimed scores of branches nationwide.

Although President Bush criticized the "vigilantes" on the border, other politicians, such as then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Texas Governor Rick Perry, rushed to embrace Simcox.

He became a Fox News regular and hundreds of thousands of dollars began flowing in.

That's when Alan Keyes got into the picture.

By 2006, the Washington Times, formerly a supporter of Simcox's, ran a series of articles explaining how the MCDC had transformed into "a project of the Declaration Alliance," which the newspaper described as "part of an intricate weave of conservative organizations founded and chaired by Mr. Keyes or tied to longtime Keyes associates working with [the] MCDC."

Keyes told the Times that "his 'Declaration organizations' had become involved with [the] MCDC in 2005." He denounced those critical of the arrangement as "racists" and "unsavory fringe elements."

But increasingly, MCDC members were the ones objecting, complaining about how money was not getting directed to material and food for volunteers.

The Times noted that 97 percent of $300,000 in donations to an MCDC political action committee went for "operating expenses" provided by vendors associated with Declaration Alliance.

A scheme to build an "Israeli-style fence" on a border rancher's property blew up in Simcox's face when a Fountain Hills man sued the MCDC for $1.2 million, claiming that $100,000 he borrowed on his home to contribute to Simcox's fence project had not gone to build the fortress-like barrier but to put up a cattle barricade instead.

Rebellion in the ranks became commonplace, and Simcox retaliated with excommunications.

Phoenix minuteman Stacey O'Connell formed his own group, Patriots Border Alliance, and joined the chorus of those demanding an independent audit of the MCDC.

Simcox's fence became a joke, even to right-wingers. Fellow border vigilante Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol scoffed online about the fence: "It wouldn't stop a tricycle."

Carmen Mercer, who had taken over the MCDC in 2009, soon became embroiled in her own scandal, when Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard named her in a lawsuit over a real estate fraud scam.

Mercer claimed she'd been duped by an acquaintance. Her name ultimately was dropped from the suit, but the PR damage was done. In March 2010, the MCDC announced its dissolution.

Simcox's Senate campaign was a bust almost from the start. Though he claimed he would not abandon the race, Simcox never inched past "undecided" in opinion polls. By the time he dropped out and endorsed Hayworth, he had raised only $110,898.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons