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When Kyrsten Sinema Tried to Stop the Recall of an Anti-Immigrant Zealot

In 2010, far-right Arizona state senator Russell Pearce ignited a firestorm with his anti-immigrant SB 1070 law. Kyrsten Sinema worked to help squash a grassroots effort to recall him from office.

Kyrsten Sinema as an Arizona state senator on June 9, 2011. (Bill Clark / Roll Call via Getty Images)

Long before she gave a thumbs-down to a $15 minimum wage, kowtowed to Big Pharma, and blocked progressives’ efforts to dismantle the filibuster, US senator Kyrsten Sinema, nominal Democrat and onetime Green Party activist, attempted to scuttle the recall of State Senate president Russell Pearce, author of Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, which effectively empowered local cops to stop brown people on “reasonable suspicion” and inquire into their immigration status.

Veteran organizer and former Democratic US Senate candidate Randy Parraz writes about Sinema’s skullduggery in his recent book Dignity by Fire: Dismantling Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Machine, an account of how, in 2011, Parraz pulled together an unlikely coalition of progressives, Latinos, centrist Republicans, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to topple Pearce in a ruby-red legislative district in Pearce’s hometown of Mesa, located some twenty miles east of Phoenix.

In less than a year, Pearce went from being the most powerful politician in the state — referred to by some as Arizona’s “de facto governor,” with immense power over the state’s budget and legislative agenda — to a racist has-been, bested by 12 points in an unprecedented recall election by a moderate, pro-immigration Republican.

The recall put an end to state-sponsored anti-immigration legislation in Arizona, though nativism remained a potent force in state politics, one kept alive first by Donald Trump’s ascension nationally and more recently by the rhetoric of Republican candidates milking the surge in migrants at the US-Mexico border for political gain.

But ten years ago, if it had been up to Sinema and other elected Democrats in Arizona, the Pearce recall might never have happened.

Defying Sinema

In January 2011, Sinema had just been elected to the state senate after a stint in the Arizona House of Representatives and was trying to put her days as a self-described “Prada socialist” behind her. She had opposed Pearce’s SB 1070 the year before, but when she caught wind that Parraz was planning a recall of Pearce and would announce the formation of a new group, Citizens for a Better Arizona (CBA), on January 10, the legislature’s opening day, Sinema sprang into action to try to stop it.

Ostensibly, Parraz and his group were merely holding a press conference to give Pearce a formal “twenty-one day notice.” If Pearce refused their call to focus on issues like education, health care, and job creation — rather than Pearce’s favorite subject, immigration — CBA would be back to “take appropriate action”; the possibility of a recall drive was left unsaid.

Arizona Democrats had been shell-shocked by a disastrous 2010. Republicans used SB 1070 as a blunderbuss to scatter the Dems, painting them as “soft” on immigration. Though the law inspired legal challenges, massive demonstrations, and a devastating economic boycott, it was a winning issue for the Arizona GOP, which swept all statewide offices that year and increased its legislative advantage into a supermajority. Subsequently, Republicans rewarded Pearce by making him their head in the Senate.

According to Parraz’s book — released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Pearce’s defeat on November 8, 2011 — the Arizona Democratic Party’s leadership held a conference call the day of Parraz’s presser to discuss offing the infant recall movement in its crib.

Parraz describes a call he received from Sinema after this meeting in which she told him it had been decided that Democrats would hold no events on the legislature’s opening day, supposedly out of respect for Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who had just survived an assassination attempt in Tucson.

Parraz informed Sinema that he did not work for the Democratic Party or for her, and as the Tea Party would be out in force on January 10, CBA intended to be there to counter them.

“Randy, I am not asking you, I am telling you to cancel your event,” Sinema ordered, raising her voice.

The conversation ended with Sinema screaming and Parraz hanging up on her. Parraz then received two more calls — one from a local labor leader, another from a Democratic Party official — asking him to delay, not cancel the event. He believes both were put up to it by Sinema. (Sinema’s office did not respond to emails and phone calls asking for comment on Parraz’s book.)

But Parraz, a former AFL-CIO organizer, was not one to be easily dissuaded. The press conference went on as planned, and twenty-one days later, the recall campaign was on in earnest.

Sinema’s “Boss”

Parraz had studied the issue. The recall had 120 days to collect 7,756 valid signatures, or 25 percent of the voter turnout from the last election in Pearce’s Legislative District 18. Though Republicans were dominant in LD 18, about forty thousand voters were either registered Democrat or independent.

A recall of Pearce was doable, concluded the charismatic and impassioned strategist. Parraz would also soon learn that, though Mesa was an LDS stronghold, and though Pearce was LDS, there were many Mormons who opposed SB 1070 and Pearce’s harsh immigration stance, as it was adversely affecting Latino families in their congregations.

More important for Parraz personally, he had reached an emotional tipping point upon Pearce becoming senate president — a moment Parraz calls his “threshold for injustice,” a phrase borrowed from the civil rights movement. For years, Pearce had been an Energizer Bunny of xenophobia, targeting the Latino community with laws and propositions that made English the state’s official language, denied the undocumented driver’s licenses, and refused them access to social programs and in-state tuition.

One law, known as “employer sanctions,” became the basis for raids by Arizona’s sheriff, Joe Arpaio, on businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants, with the immigrants being arrested and held non-bondable under another Pearce initiative. Arpaio soon branched out to broad sweeps of Latino neighborhoods, terrorizing nonwhite communities en masse.

SB 1070 was Pearce’s pièce de résistance. As stated in its preamble, its purpose was “attrition through enforcement.” But Pearce also had a wish list of additional legislative cruelties he longed to inflict on Latinos and the poor in general.

“That dude was going to the next level,” Parraz told me recently, referring to Pearce. “For people like Sinema, 1070 did not affect her. No one pulled her over. No one did anything to her.”

Throughout 2011, Sinema continued to denigrate the recall privately and publicly. On one local political TV talk show, not long after the effort was announced, she declared, “I love Russell,” adding, “We get along very well, not always on policy matters, but on personal matters, we do.”

Pearce was responsible for draconian cuts in education, and he opposed expanding Medicaid, despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The pugnacious ex-sheriff’s deputy distributed antisemitic propaganda to his supporters and befriended J. T. Ready, a notorious Arizona neo-Nazi and future murderer. And Pearce had called for the return of the Eisenhower-era migrant roundup “Operation Wetback,” with Pearce unapologetically using that precise language. What’s not to love?

In one particularly egregious moment, Sinema declared that she could not have supported the recall because Pearce, as Senate president, was “her boss.”

For many years, I was a political columnist with the Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly, and in 2012, as Sinema was aiming to run for Congress, I asked her about this. She told me she was trying to explain what it was really like at the state legislature.

“It’s like . . . [Pearce] can stop my bills. He can stop me from getting a hearing in committee if he wants to,” she explained at the time.

Defeating Goliath

To be fair, Sinema was not the only Arizona Democrat to distance herself from the recall. Actually, most did. I know because I talked to many of them. Off the record, they thought Parraz was “crazy” and that the recall would backfire, leaving Pearce more powerful than ever.

In the book, Parraz describes how one Democratic bigwig told him that Pearce was more useful to the party in office than out, because the Dems could use Pearce as a rhetorical bugbear to raise money.

Certainly, there were many party faithful who worked for the recall, including some elected officials, like Democratic firebrand and then state senator Steve Gallardo.

Now a member of the Board of Supervisors for Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, Gallardo recalls the reticence of his fellow Democrats and how Sinema was “adamantly opposed” to the recall. In his opinion, she was already looking to move up the political food chain. And her only way to do so in then firetruck-red (now purplish) Arizona was to be a conservative Democrat, what used to be called a “Pinto Democrat” in this state.

Other Dems were outright afraid of Pearce or thought they needed to placate Republicans in the legislature. Though Gallardo wasn’t sure if the recall would work, he thought many in the state senate were naive to think they could collaborate with Pearce.

“This guy was evil,” Gallardo says of Pearce. “He did not care who he was hurting . . . It was a litmus test. What side are you on? Are you going to be on the side of the people, or on the side of Russell Pearce?”

Indeed, Pearce had a second round of immigration bills in his pocket that he tried to pass in 2011, including one that would have denied birth certificates to US citizen children born to undocumented parents, a proposal that would have been a clear violation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Thankfully, Arizona’s businesses (for their own reasons) opposed the measure. This gave the few moderate Republicans left in the state senate cover to join the Democrats and vote against the package.

Parraz claims in his book that Pearce pushed these draconian bills knowing he didn’t have the votes. Why? To smoke out moderate Republicans, the ones who would not bend to his will, so he could primary them in the future, defeat them, and gain a true “Tea Party” majority in the Senate.

Gallardo agrees that this was Pearce’s game plan. I do as well. Pearce was an abomination. He had to be removed, and the recall was the best chance for doing so.

In the end, Parraz was probably better off without the overt embrace of the Democratic Party. Once the CBA scored the necessary signatures and survived a legal challenge, only a Republican could take on Pearce in this deeply conservative district and win.

The man who did was straight from central casting, with Gary Cooper good looks and impeccable Mormon credentials, not to mention a memorable name: Jerry Lewis. Lewis endured the slanders of the Pearce stalwarts as well as a physical attack, when an unknown assailant threw a padlock at him as he was jogging one day, striking him in the groin. Pearce’s followers also ran a sham candidate against Lewis, a middle-aged Hispanic woman, in an attempt to siphon off votes. After a legal action exposed her true purpose, she returned to obscurity.

Lewis bested Pearce by double digits, and his first official act was to vote in the Republican caucus for a relatively moderate replacement for Senate president. The following year, he was redistricted into a new, Democratic district and did not return to the Senate.

Pearce attempted to revive his career in 2012 with a run in a new, red legislative district in Mesa. But moderate Republicans recruited another ringer, a genteel Mormon millionaire named Bob Worsley, who sent Pearce packing, again by 12 points, with the help of Parraz’s crew, who had refined the collection of mail-in ballots from voters into an art form.

Republicans in the legislature later retaliated against this practice, passing a law in 2016 to outlaw what they called “ballot harvesting,” or picking up a nonrelative’s ballot to turn in to a county’s elections office.

After an interlude in California writing his book, Parraz says he’ll be back in Arizona next year, with a new group, the Organizing Institute for Democracy, to challenge the law with direct action, notwithstanding the fact SCOTUS upheld the statute this year after the DNC sued to stop it.

Orange Caligula

Tyler Montague, a Mesa Mormon and Republican who helped recruit Lewis to run against Pearce, remembers the recall as an LDS civil war, with church members taking sides. Many, like Montague, were pro-immigration and watched with sadness and anger as their Latino friends — fellow church members — fled the state in the wake of SB 1070. He and other Mesa LDS leaped at the opportunity to challenge Pearce once Parraz had made the recall a reality.

Montague recently confided to me that Sinema actually called him sometime after the recall election was scheduled and Lewis had been recruited. She asked if she could help. He suggested that she encourage people to donate to Lewis’s campaign, but he doesn’t know if she actually did that.

“I’m pretty sure she would have told us if she did,” Montague says.

Parraz believes Sinema was in “stage three or four of her remake” into a centrist. Any public support for Pearce’s removal would have hurt her ultimate game plan: to advance her career.

Such careerism is one reason Parraz wants people to think beyond party politics in a time when many Republican-leaning voters in Arizona do not approve of Trumpism or the state’s periodic return to nativism, though the state GOP itself remains in thrall to the Orange Caligula.

But Parraz claims the recall showed that a third path can achieve great things.

“I’m hoping this book can serve as an instruction manual for folks who are organizing in other ways,” he says.

“It shows that you can build power and have an impact in the state that doesn’t require you to go into a party — on either side.”