Feathered Bastard

Russell Pearce-Foe Jerry Lewis Swings and Connects During Thursday's Debate

Eye of the tiger, indeed...

State Senate hopeful Jerry Lewis, the man seeking to topple the most powerful politician in Arizona, landed several verbal blows both during and after his debate in Mesa Thursday with state Senate President Russell Pearce, as you can see in this latest video from my colleague Dennis Gilman.

Though Pearce and Lewis are on the same page (at least in word if not in deed) when it comes to Republican tenets such as small government, less regulation, and privatization, Lewis established himself as a genuine alternative to Pearce, challenging him on issues related to integrity, Arizona's image and immigration.

"Please do not mistake my kindness and civil tone with weakness," Lewis stated in his closing remarks. "I know when and how to be bold and how to stand up for conservative principles."

He acknowledged that some people have told him they would rather he wait a year and challenge Pearce in a GOP primary, rather than in the recall forced upon Pearce. But Lewis had a great comeback, one he repeated as a kind of mantra.

"My response to them and my solemn declaration to you is that our students cannot wait another year for schools to improve, we need educational leadership now," he said, with emphasis.

"Our economy cannot wait another year to be fixed," he continued. "Mesa needs 30 years of private sector experience now."

That 30 years of private sector experience belongs to Lewis, of course, who, unlike his opponent, has not spent his entire life working for the government in one form or another. 

He kept reminding the audience that he was not "a professional politician," and as such, will not take a government pension, and will not accept gifts from lobbyists, like one Senate President we all know.

Indeed, when challenged after the debate for specifics on the first piece of legislation he would propose if elected, Lewis said he would offer legislation to end the gravy train Pearce took advantage of with his free trips and football tickets, paid for by the Fiesta Bowl to the tune of $40,000.

Asked for details on how Arizona can grow itself out of its recession, Lewis took a direct swipe at Pearce's anti-immigrant measures, though this brought a chorus of boos from Pearce partisans in the room.

"First off, we have to change the image that we have in Mesa and in Arizona," he replied. "We are seen as a very unfriendly business state. We are seen as something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama. Business owners do not want to move their businesses here in the current environment. We're having a hard time getting our great message out about this great state that we are."

Right-wing blogs have twisted this to claim that Lewis accused Arizona of being racist. On the contrary, he pointed out the obvious: Arizona is perceived as being a racist state nationally and internationally, particularly in the wake of Pearce's Senate Bill 1070. Anyone who does not acknowledge this simple fact is in serious denial.

Pearce responded with a bit of a canard, claiming that, "Our tourism is up 10 percent over last year," and that everywhere Governor Jan Brewer goes, she's warmly applauded. 

How warmly Brewer's applauded likely depends on whom she's talking to, and as to that 10 percent figure, it's hardly precise. 

According to numbers released in July by the Arizona Office of Tourism, from 2009 to 2010, there was a 4.5 percent increase in total visitation to the state. And there was a 7.9 percent increase in direct travel spending due to these visitors in 2010 over the previous year.

Despite that, direct travel spending is still down 7.3 percent from 2007. In the AOT's press release for the 2010 numbers, it characterized the industry as "cautiously optimistic," though apparently not as optimistic as Pearce.

A study done by the Scottsdale consulting firm Elliott D. Pollack and Co. estimated an ultimate $141 million loss in revenue over the anti-SB 1070 boycott. But even if you dismiss that estimate, none other than AOT executive director Sherry Henry admitted the impact of the boycott on the state in a February interview with Arizona Public Media.

"There's no question that the boycott issue became a huge event," said Henry. "And as a result of that we know there were groups...that actually did cancel. And they said it was a result of the boycott."

Lewis touted the now-famous letter from the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce opposing new Pearce-sponsored immigration legislation in 2011as further evidence that bigotry is bad for business.

"Sixty CEOs from Arizona's top businesses sent a letter to the Arizona Legislature this past March," he said, holding aloft a copy. "Asking them, please, stop regulating this idea of immigration without a real reform in mind."

He added later, "We need to listen to business leaders. And we need to act on what they're saying when it's in our best interest."

Pearce's blather on this point was, well, the usual stuff, "enforce our laws," "enough is enough," and so on. He even quoted the usual bogus stats from the nativist, xenophobic Federation for American Immigration Reform. 

As for the harm his single-issue focus on immigration has inflicted on this state, he contended, "Arizona suffers from a great reputation." True, only if you subtract the last four words from that sentence.

On the subject of students here illegally being denied in-state tuition, Lewis agreed with Pearce that state law is clear on the matter. Nevertheless, he made a bid for compassion, one heckled by the pro-Pearce folks.

"We need to look at this issue, along with countless other issues in the immigration arena to come up with immigration reform that will really work," he stated. "[You need to] consider national security, securing our border, the rule of law, the effect on the economy of piecemeal legislation, as opposed to legislation that looks at all of the issues, including, what does it do to the separation of families.

"We need to consider the education, healthcare, all of the other issues as well. We need to make sure we address this issue in a humane way that we can all be proud of and that we can all live with."

This also happens to be the position of the Mormon church, which in a June statement noted, without mentioning SB 1070 directly, that,

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned that any state legislation that only contains enforcement provisions is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God."

Though the church's immigration stance did not come up during the debate, Lewis did address it in answers to reporters' questions following the forum, as you can see in Gilman's video. 

Lewis and Pearce are both Mormons, and Legislative District 18 is heavily Mormon. Lewis was too much of a gentleman to go there, though which man's position on immigration most closely adheres to current LDS doctrine should be as plain as the slab of oak on Pearce's shoulder.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons