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

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.

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.

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