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Russell Pearce's Recall Downfall May Come in the Form of Jerry Lewis, One of LD18's Good Guys

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They came out in droves in the triple-digit heat to help the man who would topple the most powerful politician in Arizona.

Republican Jerry Lewis, the main challenger to state Senate President Russell Pearce in the upcoming November 8 recall election in Legislative District 18, stood beneath a tarp in the driveway of his Mesa home, handing out petitions to eager supporters, as his wife and kids offered water, juice, and watermelon to volunteers.

Lewis, 54, needs 621 signatures from qualified electors to place his name on the ballot, but given the scores who stopped by Lewis' house this sunny Saturday to grab a petition, that seems a done deal.


Stephen Lemons

Many know Lewis, and Lewis asks about their families as he greets them. One of the few whom Lewis doesn't know is a Latino. He switches between Spanish and English to address the gent.

Not out of need — the man is a U.S. citizen, and his English is perfect — but more out of friendliness. The genial, blue-eyed Lewis strikes you as a Mormon Andy Griffith, with a glad hand and a good word for all.

There's only one doubting Thomas, a middle-aged woman who expresses her fears about illegal immigration, wondering if Pearce, who has banked his entire political career on the issue, should be removed.

"One of the reasons I'm running," Lewis, himself a supporter of secure borders, told the woman, "is that other people can carry that banner in a way we can all be proud of. I hope I can be one of those people."

For a man who is not a career politician, who was practically drafted by Republican Mesans to run against Pearce, and who says he agreed to do so only after prayer and fasting with his family, it is the perfect reply, one that sums up the differences between the two candidates.

Indeed, the groundswell of support for Lewis since he officially announced his candidacy on July 27, has less to do with ideology or partisanship than it does the fact that many Mesans are fed up with Pearce and his my-way-or-the-highway tactics.

To staunch conservatives and to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pearce has become an embarrassment, a mean-spirited, self-centered politician who represents the worst of Arizona, Mesa, and the GOP.

Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, whose district encompasses LD 18, was on hand at the Lewis announcement to lend support. He expressed the hopes of many that Lewis would offer a more civilized face for Mesa and the Republican Party.

"Instead of this concept that we're going to rule by fear," he explained to me after Lewis' announcement, "Jerry is one who will listen to all sides and then make the right decision."

Indeed, Lewis' bio befits the rank of Eagle Scout that he attained as a youth and exemplifies his service to church and community.

His missionary work as a young man was in Hong Kong, where he learned to speak Cantonese and nurtured a curiosity about other cultures.

He's been an LDS bishop and a stake president, volunteer leadership positions that come with tremendous duties and attendant respect.

Over the years, he's taught seminary classes to thousands of Mormon students, who get a daily hour-long break from public school to attend religious instruction at nearby facilities.

Additionally, he's taught seminary classes on the community college level and been a seminary principal.

"It's interesting," he told me after the petition handout. "Once you've taught in an area like this, where everyone kind of knows everyone else, you can't go too many places without seeing a former student."

This experience of being recognized by the young people he's influenced and their parents is common for Lewis, a former CPA turned educator who now is a superintendent of Sequoia Schools, a group of nonprofit charter schools in the Valley and a few other areas of Arizona.

Moreover, Lewis long has been associated with scouting and serves as a vice president with the Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Among other duties, Lewis is the principal of Sequoia's Children First Academy in Tempe, formerly a Thomas J. Pappas school for homeless kids, which Sequoia took over in 2008 after financial troubles threatened its permanent closure.

"These kids are precious," Lewis said. "They come from situations that break your heart. You go into some of these homes, you see where they're coming from, and you go, man, how can they come [to class] every day with a smile on their face?

"They love school," he added. "School is a safe place for them."

He points out that he's a product of public schools, having grown up in California's San Fernando Valley, and that he's supportive of public education. All of his seven children have attended Mesa public schools.

But as an erstwhile numbers cruncher for Deloitte & Touche, Lewis believes education should be results-oriented, preparing students for employment and the wider world.

He also cites a religious basis for his faith in education.

"In the church, we believe the glory of God is intelligence," he said. "One of the main reasons we're here is to learn."

Lewis declines to speak ill of his adversary. At his announcement, he called Pearce "a friend" and swore off personal attacks against him during the campaign.

However, his declaration during his address that safeguarding Arizona's investment in education would be "one of my top priorities as a state senator" presents one of the starkest contrasts to Pearce, who continues to be overtly hostile to that same investment.

Pearce and the Legislature he led cut nearly half a billion dollars from the state's education budget, and the Senate president has shown little sympathy for cash-strapped institutions of higher learning or K-12 instruction.

Recently, Pearce has attempted political plastic surgery on himself, vowing in his official recall statement, which will appear on the November ballot, to "continue to fight for education excellence."

Right. Only if such "excellence" is achieved by gutting education funds and robbing Mesa (not to mention the rest of Arizona's schools) of millions of much-needed dollars.

Ironically, Pearce recently received a "Golden Apple" award from a shill organization, the misleadingly named "Arizona Parents for Education," headed by Ann Robinett.

The press release announcing the award quickly was posted on right-wing blogs, including the one maintained by Maricopa County GOP chairman Rob Haney, a Pearce loyalist.

A little scrutiny makes clear how rotten this apple really is. Robinett serves as president of Arizona Virtual Academy, which allows students to study at home via computer.

Not to diss long-distance learning, but AVA's hardly a standard-bearer for traditional schools.

Add to this the fact that the guy pimping the organization is Republican operative Brian Murray of Lincoln Strategy Group, headed by GOP strategist Nathan Sproul.

Sproul's infamous in GOP circles for having sent out a series of attack mailers targeting Pearce in the 2008 primary, when Pearce was challenged by immigration attorney Kevin Gibbons.

Could this worm-eaten apple be a peace offering for past sins? When I called Murray to ask him just that, he acknowledged that he reps AVA but said he didn't want to talk to me and hung up.

This "award" is one example of the sort of shenanigans Pearce's camp and its facilitators will be pulling throughout the recall campaign. Because, in reality, the whole of Pearce's strategy comprises lies, shenanigans, and threats.

That and money raised by out-of-state independent expenditure committees, like the one recently created by the Virginia-based Team America PAC, headed by former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan's wingnutty sis Bay Buchanan.

The outside help comes as Pearce's support in LD 18 continues to wither. It's been withering at least since 2010. During the 2010 election cycle, for instance, only eight contributions above $25 came from within LD 18.

Plus, in 2010, Pearce initially was not elected from LD 18 to be on the Republican Party's state committee, failing to become one of the 53 people so chosen.

Pearce was infuriated when this happened, and his supporters pulled strings — with the assistance of Pearce's pal Haney — to exploit a technicality declaring the results void.

Another vote was scheduled, and Pearce squeaked in, coming in dead last when then-chairman Paul Whetten read the names of the winners in the order of votes received.

Several of those present confirmed this to me off the record, asking that their names not be used for fear of retaliation from Pearce's thuggish supporters.

When I ran the tale by Whetten, he confirmed that Pearce was not elected the first time around.

"That's true," Whetten said. "But the results of that election were not valid because the meeting was not valid."

He declined to elaborate. Whetten is no longer LD 18 chair and now lives in LD 19.

The usual price for defying Pearce is harassment. Republicans who've bucked Pearce, inside or outside his district, have suffered screws to their tires, late-night knocks on the door by people who run before they can be eyeballed, threatening phone calls, and the usual blogosphere smears.

Former GOP state Representative Bill Koponicki has gone on the record with an account of the hazing he endured after voting no on a Pearce bill. Among the hate mail he received at his home was an anonymous death threat targeting him and his family.

He's blamed Pearce for helping incite the threats.

"I agree with Pearce on almost every issue," one active Mesa Republican told me on condition of anonymity. "But he's become a law unto himself . . . a vicious, vindictive SOB."

Indeed, Pearce's political adviser, the right-wing Svengali of GOP politics, Chuck Coughlin, recently was quoted in the Arizona Guardian, warning those opposing Pearce that there would be hell to pay.

After Coughlin's statement, a couple of days before Lewis announced, Lewis was assaulted while jogging with a friend. Someone threw a padlock at him from a passing vehicle, nailing Lewis in the groin.

Lewis was completing an early-morning 14-mile run in preparation for an upcoming marathon. The below-the-belt blow brought Lewis to his knees, temporarily.

A police report was filed. No one has yet been nabbed for the assault.

"I think it was random," Lewis told me, shrugging off speculation that a Pearce supporter was the culprit. "At least, I hope it was."

He's still training for the marathon but is varying his route for obvious reasons.

After Lewis took that hit, and after getting his breath back and reporting it to the Mesa cops, what do you think he did?

He finished his run. A lesson of sorts for Pearce, Coughlin, Haney, and their craven cabal of haters.

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