The effort to recall Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation (SB1070), was one of the biggest upsets of 2011. On Election Day, as news of Pearce’s defeat swept across the Twitterverse, activists eagerly cautioned other anti-immigrant state legislators to “watch out” – or else face a similar fate.
They were right to exult.
Victory elsewhere, however, will take finding the right lessons from Arizona. The recall was driven by immigration advocates who understood their success hinged on exploiting demographic realities, building broad coalitions, and accepting strategic trade-offs.
The demographics of Pearce’s district laid a solid foundation for a recall effort, if nowhere near enough to singlehandedly unseat him: about 18% of the registered voters in Pearce’s district are Latino and provided a solid base of support for the recall. Hispanics, who constituted 13% of voters in this election, broke against Pearce more than 3-1. In some other states that are experiencing anti-immigrant efforts, such as Alabama, a district and electorate of this composition would be hard to find.
And the anti-immigrant nonsense wasn’t the only thing Pearce had against him. It likely would not have been enough to recall him, either. In actuality, Pearce’s role in the Fiesta Bowl scandal, which included allegations of illegal straw man donations, and free gifts in the form of tickets and luxury hotel stays, might have been the nail in his political coffin.
“Pearce’s anti-immigrant positions may have made him into a controversial figure,” said David Donnelly, director of Public Campaign Action Fund’s Campaign Money Watch project, which spent $47,000 on direct-mail to defeat Pearce. “But it was his love of campaign cash, special interest perks, and opposition to Clean Elections that led voters to kick him out of the Senate.”
Jerry Lewis, Pearce’s opponent, seized upon this vulnerability by making a gift ban a major part of his campaign platform.
Understanding the various marks against Pearce, his opponents built an unlikely coalition of business leaders, immigrant activists and clean election advocates. Together, they could weave a credible narrative about Pearce’s priorities being out of sync with the district he represented.
They also found a candidate that matched the district: Jerry Lewis is a Mormon, like Pearce, and a pro-business Republican. Had the recall’s organizers been purists and used Pearce’s anti-immigrant positions as their only line of attack, or attempted to run a candidate with no conservative bonafides, it would never have gained this level of traction. Members of the coalition kept their eyes on the prize: this was about beating Pearce, not about just making noise, and certainly not about partisan politics.
Throughout, organizers remained agile and aware of the various constituencies to which they were catering. Promise Arizona, the organization that took a lead on registering and mobilizing Latino voters in the district knew that, given the chance, Latinos would eagerly vote against Pearce.
But many Hispanic voters in Mesa wouldn’t be able to get away from their jobs to vote on Election Day. Promise Arizona doubled down on early voting. Ultimately, 70 percent of voters cast an early vote by mail, according to executive director Petra Falcon, and more than a third of the district’s 13,000 Latino registered voters had requested a ballot.
Above all else, the success of this effort is a reminder that organizers never know exactly which strategies are going to work. When Citizens for a Better Arizona, led by Randy Parraz, decided to start collecting signatures, skeptics – even within the immigrant rights community – said it couldn’t be done. The effort would fly in the face of historical precedence, as no state senator in Arizona– and no state senate president in the country– had ever been successfully recalled. Back in May, just a few months ago, the group turned in 18,315 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office and set this recall into motion. Look where we are now.
The successful ouster of an immigration villain is an undeniable victory for the advocacy community. Should it make just any anti-immigrant nervous? Perhaps not. To say so belies the complex dynamics that worked in favor of this success. But if I were an anti-immigrant legislator, I’d take notice. The immigrant rights community is playing hardball. What’s more: they’re winning.