It's "Candidates Day" at North Scottsdale Christian, a conservative, non-denominational place of worship just north of Pima Road and Dynamite Boulevard, where about 60 Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican candidates have assembled on a recent Sunday to introduce themselves.
The politicians are allowed to set up tables with campaign literature in the church's main lobby, not unlike the moneylenders Jesus is said to have driven from the temple. And following Senior Pastor David Friend's sermon, the candidates line up before the dais to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with many of several hundred congregants.
All the GOP candidates for governor are here, though the lone Democratic gubernatorial contender, Fred DuVal, did not attend. Of course, with no primary and about $1 million on hand at last count, DuVal has less to pray for at the moment than those vying to be his general election foil.
To give an idea of how conservative the North Scottsdale church is, during his sermon, Pastor Friend quotes literature from the right-wing Center for Arizona Policy, calls CAP president Cathi Herrod "my good friend," and inveighs against what he refers to as the "false doctrine of the separation of church and state."
So it's no surprise that the candidates, when given the opportunity to make 15-second statements before Friend's sermon, generally tout their religious affiliations, conservative principles, and family ties.
Former California Congressman Frank Riggs, an Army veteran, talks about raising his right hand, his left hand on a Bible, to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.
Disbarred former county attorney Andrew Thomas mentions that he and his family attend Saint Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church. Secretary of State Ken Bennett offers that he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
State treasurer Doug Ducey describes himself as a "cradle Catholic" and becomes the butt of a joke by Friend when the pastor exclaims, apropos of nothing, "I like your hair."
Given that Ducey is cursed with a head of helmet hair that could rival that of a Lego figurine, the chortles of the congregants could not have pleased the former Cold Stone Creamery executive, whom some polls show as the GOP primary's front runner.
The comments of former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith and of former GoDaddy lawyer Christine Jones stand out, however.
Jones goes for broke on religious extremism, explaining that she grew up "in an evangelical church not unlike this one," and then she makes an interesting request.
"I would love your support," she tells the crowd, "but mostly I would covet your prayer, that the truth will be revealed, that lies will be exposed, and that Christians will elect leaders who are followers of Christ."
Meaning, I guess, that the few Jewish candidates for other offices also present that day need not have bothered to show up.
She probably intends the part about the "lies" as a not-so-veiled jab at her nemesis, Ducey, who, along with certain pro-Ducey groups, has been merciless during this primary in ripping apart Jones' statements and biography.
Still, I cannot help recalling the Republican State Committee meeting in January, when Jones sat almost directly behind me toward the end of the event, as state committeemen and committeewomen approached the microphone and tearfully told the assembled of this or that local GOPer who had passed away recently.
Heads bowed to offer a moment of silence or prayer for those who had departed since the last state committee meeting. It was at that point that Jones nodded at the person next to her, and they got up and walked out, while the getting was good.
Smith's turn comes at North Scottsdale Christian. Like Bennett, Smith is an LDS member, and he says he regularly teaches Sunday school -- even now, despite his campaign duties. His most recent class regarded the Old Testament's King Solomon and a dream Solomon had in which God spoke to him, offering anything he wanted.
"I was so impressed with what Solomon said," Smith tells the crowd. "This was my guide as mayor. Solomon asked the Lord 'to give . . . thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.'"
He continues, asking congregants to "remember us in your prayers" and ask God "to bless us with good judgment so that we can be good servants to you."
Corny? Sure, but consider the forum, which probably well-reflects Republican primary voters in this state.
I mean, I'm not looking for anyone to be a "judge" over me, no matter how benign. But I reckon a politician could do worse than aspiring to Solomon-like wisdom, something Smith's opponents most definitely lack.
Indeed, the GOP's current crop of doofs range from the disastrous, such as Thomas, who longs to build a Chinese wall not too far south of the Gila River, to charlatans such as Jones, who is hell-bent on saying whatever she thinks the wingnuts want to hear, to cheesy ice cream hawker Ducey, whose record as a businessman is not what he cracks it up to be and who sounds like he should be selling ShamWows on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Carpetbagger Riggs is the guy you've seen working out shirtless in his campaign commercials. A fervent opponent of higher standards for schoolkids known as Common Core, he intends to "stop the Obamanization of Arizona" and actually is proud of the fact that racist wacko rocker Ted Nugent (who doesn't live here, naturally) has endorsed him.
"Obamanization" of Arizona? Frank, if you think deeply red Arizona is in danger of "Obamanization," then my question is: Do you plan to share any of that good ganja you're smokin'?
I almost forgot about Bennett, um, which is one of Bennett's biggest problems: He's forgettable.
His other fault is that he can't help himself from pandering to the Tea Party, like the time he asked the state of Hawaii to guarantee President Obama's birth certificate.
Also consider his opposition to Medicaid expansion, his willingness to ditch Common Core, and his goofy and dangerous plan to eliminate the state's income tax and replace it with flat, regressive consumption and/or transaction taxes.
By contrast to these nudniks, Smith is as close to a common-sense Republican as we're likely to get. For instance, he supports Governor Jan Brewer's Medicaid expansion plan, an ideological lightning rod for Arizona Teabaggers, who like to refer to it as "Obrewercare."
Moreover, Smith supports Common Core, which is anathema to the far right, and he accepts that climate change is real. In 2009, he signed the U.S. Conference of Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement, which comports with the much-loathed (by conservatives) Kyoto Protocol, the international compact calling on countries to reduce carbon emissions.
Plus in 2013, as president of that same conference, and the first ever to hail from Arizona, he urged Congress to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, the ultimate act of treason for Teabaggers.
That's not to say he'll morph into a Democrat anytime soon. He still opposes the president's Affordable Care Act, and he defends Brewer's Medicaid expansion as something done reluctantly, with the federal government's gun to the state's head. And though he opposed the virulently anti-gay Senate Bill 1062, he's still a defender of "traditional marriage," remains opposed to a woman's right to choose, and is NRA-friendly.
Worse, he remains a disappointment on immigration and the treatment of the undocumented in this state. Sigh . . . but he also remains our best Republican option.
The bright line among Arizona Republican Party activists still is "amnesty," which is construed as anything that ameliorates the plight of anyone in this country without proper paperwork.
The line had faded in the past couple of years, in part because of the backlash to Senate Bill 1070, Arizona's ethnic-cleansing legislation, which sought to make the chilling phrase "attrition through enforcement" official state policy.
With the help of her political Svengali, Chuck Coughlin of HighGround Public Affairs, Brewer rode her signing of SB 1070 to victory in 2010. Yet what benefited Brewer and Coughlin did not benefit the state, which roiled with protests and became the target of national boycotts and widespread derision.
But with the successful recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce in 2011 and the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision on SB 1070 -- reaffirming the federal government's "broad, undoubted power over immigration" and severely limiting what local police could do in the way of immigration enforcement -- it seemed to many of us that the worst part of a hate-filled era was coming to an end.
Then this year, like the "ice bucket challenge" currently making the rounds on YouTube (roping in a few gubernatorial hopefuls along the way), a spike in unaccompanied minors coming to this country from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala threw cold water on our wishful thinking.
The trouble was not so much the kids themselves but the hysterical reaction of far too many Americans to a problem they knew nothing about.
Both the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other entities, issued reports on the phenomenon, linking an increase in such migration over the past couple of years to gang violence and the breakdown of civil society, particularly in Honduras, the world's murder capital.
Last year alone, there were more than 7,000 murders in Honduras, which has a population of more than 8 million people, as opposed to 334 murders in the place Americans love to fear, New York City, which boasts 8.4 million souls.
Apples and oranges, sure. Still, it offers perspective.
Though the U.N. refugee commissioner issued a report on the surge of unaccompanied minors in March, dating the current problem to 2011, most Arizonans did not learn of the issue until late May, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began dropping off large numbers of children accompanied by family members at Greyhound Bus Terminals in Tucson and Phoenix.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security, cognizant of the same facts to which the United Nations was privy, anticipated the surge in unaccompanied minors, according to FactCheck.org.
By now, this bump has declined significantly, with the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection having dropped 50 percent, to more than 5,000 in July from more than 10,000 in June.
At one time, CBP's Nogales Processing Center was holding about 1,000 minors from Central America. Politicians such as Governor Brewer got to tour the facility and denounce the Obama administration immediately afterward.
But by the end of July, the facility was empty.
The actual effect on Arizonans? Zero. But the political impact has been enormous, with Republican politicians scrambling to outdo each other in anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Christine Jones allied herself with noted hypocrite and immigrant-basher Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, whose hopes for a congressional seat were dashed in 2012 when it was revealed that he had threatened his visa-overstaying Mexican boyfriend with deportation, if the boyfriend made good on a threat to out a then-closeted Babeu.
With Babeu as her top immigration adviser, Jones promised a $270 million plan to seal the border with new fencing and technology and 1,200 Arizona National Guard troops. And she famously said in one TV ad that she would "send Obama the bill," a phrase that came back to haunt her in attack ads aimed her way.
Similarly, Ducey berated "Baaa-raaack Ooh-bah-mah" in his annoying Toledo accent, promising an all-of-the-above approach to immigration, light on specifics.
A one-issue zealot with $754,000 from the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission to play with, Andy Thomas has said he'd send 3,000 National Guard troops to the border (take that, Christine!) and build a fence as close to the border as possible, even if he had to cut off Tucson, the Tohono O'odham Nation, and all of so-called "Baja Arizona" in the process of realizing what he called his "Patton Line."
Thomas' first TV ad featured gum-chewing nativists and a Mexican flag in the outline of Arizona with a red line through it, imploring folks to vote for him "before it's too late."
At several gubernatorial debates, even during one sponsored by the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Thomas effectively blamed all of society's ills -- from healthcare to the budget to congested traffic -- on illegal immigration.
During a debate sponsored by Clean Elections, Thomas' nonsense brought a rebuttal from Riggs, who is no anti-amnesty slacker himself, having promised to lead National Guard troops in closing the border.
"To constantly blame illegal immigrants for every challenge that we have as a state is absolutely irresponsible," Riggs lashed back, accusing the Harvard-educated failure of a public official of talking down to voters.
Thomas is, in fact, seriously delusional. For instance, his website states that he "actually stopped illegal immigration" while he was county attorney.
Hilarious, because during the period of early 2005 to April 2010, about 5 million illegal aliens were apprehended by Customs and Border Protection, about 2 million of them in the Tucson and Yuma sectors.
Ergo, Andy did not stop illegal immigration.
Thomas' hyperbole often serves as unintentional self-parody. Like his tirades against "liberal judges," who in Thomas' bizarre brain are responsible for his 2012 disbarment. Or his boast in a recent TV ad that he stood up to both the "gay lobby" and "liberal bullies," delivered in Thomas' drippy falsetto.
Heck, even Republican Boy Scout Ken Bennett's tried out the nativist waters this year, first at a Border Security Summit held by Babeu, who when he is not dissing Mexicans, is dating them.
Concerning the moms and children dropped off at Greyhound terminals by ICE buses, the Arizona Secretary of State said the first of the buses would have been the last in a Bennett administration.
"I would have ordered DPS and the National Guard to arrest anyone involved in bringing the second bus in, whether they are federal officials or not," promised Bennett, doing his best to channel Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but delivering Michael "Superbad" Cera instead.
You might think that Smith, who mostly comes across as the sole adult in the room, would eschew such claptrap completely.
After all, this is the same Smith, who as president of the bipartisan Conference of Mayors, welcomed the U.S. Senate's passage in 2013 of the comprehensive immigration reform package championed by the Senate's so-called "Gang of Eight," calling it "worthy of our heritage as a nation of immigrants."
Smith urged the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the bill -- to "allow the 11 million people residing in the country illegally to get right with the law and earn a pathway to citizenship."
The then-mayor of Mesa also signed on to the principles of the S.A.N.E. immigration platform, sponsored by the bipartisan Real Arizona Coalition, comprising political, business, and community leaders whose stated goal, according to its website, is to move "beyond issues focused only on enforcement" toward "solutions that address the underlying problems with our current immigration system" while encouraging "civil discourse" and respect for the "historic and ongoing contribution of immigrants."
Finally, Smith has offered criticism, albeit somewhat muted, of SB 1070, calling it an "unfunded mandate," though this hasn't stopped him from accepting Brewer's endorsement recently.
And just as Brewer was backed by the Machiavellian Coughlin in 2010, Smith is backed by Coughlin four years later. No doubt Coughlin was instrumental in obtaining Brewer's nod for his client.
Sadly, none of Smith's past embrace of immigration reform of the sort espoused by old-school, business-minded Republicans has stopped him from playing much the same pandering game on immigration as his opponents.
In early July, Smith sent out a fundraising e-mail claiming that President Obama's immigration policy "threatens lives and our national security," though Obama, ironically, has deported more than 2 million people during his time in office -- far more than his Republican predecessor.
Smith's e-mail also wrongly referred to Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as "blanket amnesty to thousands of people who entered our country illegally," meaning so-called DREAM Act kids brought here by their parents.
And like his GOP brethren, he was quoted in the e-mail blast talking tough about little kids.
"If you cross into this country illegally," Smith states in the pitch, "you will be removed just as quickly as you got here, no matter who you are."
Additionally, Smith repeated in the e-mail a claim he's made elsewhere, stating that Homeland Security should "use the Expedited Removal Hearings process" to fast-track the deportations of recent arrivals from Central America, including the more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors who have been taken into custody since October 2013.
But it is a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act, that prevents unaccompanied children coming to this country from Central America from being placed in expedited removal.
In fact, Obama's stated aim regarding these migrant tykes has been to ship 'em back, posthaste. This is why he asked for a change in the law and additional funding from Congress.
But the Republican-controlled House passed bills in July that GOP leaders knew would not get through the Senate, essentially scuttling any chance that Obama would do what they insist he do: boot Central American children back to their home countries without due process.
Immigration-law expert Karen Tumlin, managing attorney of the National Immigration Law Center's Los Angeles office, put it bluntly when I spoke to her about Smith's claims. "Right now, you cannot use expedited removal on an unaccompanied child [from Central America]," Tumlin said. "Whoever is saying that is wrong."
Wrong, schmong. We're talking about Republicans here. They can make up the facts as they go along. Just watch Fox News.
Still, since it was Sunday, and I was in a North Scottsdale sanctuary devoted to the supposedly immutable truth that Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind, I figured I'd ask the guy who wants to be Solomon whether his religious beliefs jibe with his desire to hurry migrant kids back to the hellholes they come from.
Would Christ -- the deity everyone was here to worship, the guy who reportedly said all that stuff about allowing the children to come unto him and tying a millstone to the neck of anyone who would harm a child -- do as Smith wants with the kids?
Being a good politician, Smith dodges the question when I buttonhole him after the service at North Scottsdale Christian.
"Here's how I look at it," he tells me. "Is it a Christian thing to do? I think our whole system is in chaos . . . But you're only looking at one piece of the puzzle. Do I like to send kids back who are in a bad situation? No, I don't like any kid to be in a bad situation. I think it's a tragedy.
"The main reason you need to put a stop to this is, if you've got tens of thousands of children here, you have hundreds of thousands of children still in those countries. If [people down there] believe the [kids] can come to the U.S., they [won't] come on their own; organized crime will be hired [to bring them here]."
He continues, decrying the horrors wrought by human traffickers "feeding on the desperation down in Central America" and offering false hope at exorbitant prices and committing almost certain physical and sexual abuse along the way.
This is a fine argument for helping those countries in America's backyard -- and that America directly has influenced for at least a century -- restore civil society.
Meanwhile, the children at our doorstep beckon for our help, I remind him.
Smith shifts his argument, as many Republicans are wont to do, insisting that the kids were not really fleeing gang violence and, even if they were, there are places in the United States that are just as bad.
But facts are curious things. They do not wash away as quickly as politicians sometimes desire. For instance, the children coming here are not from Nicaragua, which borders Honduras, and suffers from similar poverty. Why?
Nicaragua, though poor, does not suffer from the same crime and violence that its neighbor does.
Notably, conservative columnist George Will, of all people, became the voice of reason, when he told a Fox News interviewer recently that we should just let the kids stay.
"My view is that we have to say to these children, 'Welcome to America. You're going to go to school and get a job and become Americans," Will recently told a flabergasted Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
He continued: "We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 per county. The idea that we can't assimilate these 8-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous."
But Will is not running for office, much less governor of one of the most bigoted states in the nation.
I confront Smith with another issue involving children, DREAMers in this state who qualify for Obama's DACA program yet are are denied driver's licenses by the governor's executive order.
Though the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Brewer's order is unconstitutional, Brewer continues to battle the issue in the courts out of an abundance of spite. This, even though the Ninth Circuit has ruled that the DREAMers likely will succeed on the merits of their lawsuit to upend the discriminatory order.
According to the most recent invoices from the state government's private attorneys, who are defending Brewer's policy with funds supplied by the Arizona Department of Transportation, legal work on the case has cost taxpayers more than $1.35 million so far.
Smith's website promises that he will support "common-sense policies" as governor, and instead of taking ideological stances will "focus on problem-solving."
Sounds good to me. So what's common sense about throwing away $1.35 million defending a case the state is destined to lose just to keep young men and women, allowed a temporary residency because they are not in trouble with the law, from receiving driver's licenses?
Once again, Smith dodged and pivoted.
"The question is," he replied, "what are we gaining by the president's throwing pieces from the table as opposed to truly pushing through a total fix of the system?"
Smith's view is that Obama's executive order harmed the political cause of immigration reform. He also faults Obama for not seizing the chance to affect change during the first two years of his administration, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
I agree with the latter point, though it conveniently ignores the true source of congressional intransigence on immigration reform: the Tea Party's vehement opposition to anything resembling the Gang of Eight's bill.
Smith then offered an apology for his new patron.
"Whether we like it or not, I think Jan Brewer's elevated this [issue] to a national discussion in a way no one has," he told me.
Which is a little like saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made us all more aware of problems in the Ukraine.
All this said, Smith -- a CPA, a lawyer, a successful large-city mayor, and somebody who can work with Democrats and Tuskers alike -- is open to getting cajoled.
And if he were to say, as Fred DuVal has, that he would reverse Brewer's order regarding the DREAMers, it could cost him the primary.
Smith may not prevail in any case. Recent polls suggest Republicans are eating Ducey's, um, ice cream by a slim margin.
Jones has plowed $3 million of her own money into an effort to buy the primary, and her former employer, ex-GoDaddy owner Bob Parsons, is dropping in millions more. Ditto "dark money" groups on all sides.
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Bennett scores moderate votes that otherwise would go to Smith. (Bennett once said he would vote for Smith if he could not vote for himself.) And it is possible that Independents voting GOP are breaking for Smith, depending on whose analysis you accept.
Whether DuVal can best a Republican statewide is not a bet I'd put a lot of cash on, though we've had Democratic governors in the past and likely will again. Some Ds argue that a sleaze like Ducey or a nutty newcomer like Jones would give DuVal a leg up in the general election.
Keep that Kool-Aid to yourselves, pals. Better that we have two sane options for governor come November. Then, either way, the next four years cannot help but be an improvement over the last.