MESA, Ariz. -- The strain of conservatism that propelled Arizona lawmaker Russell Pearce to a powerful perch in state politics could also prove to be his downfall.
Pearce, president of the state Senate, will face off Tuesday against fellow Republican Jerry Lewis in a recall election in their suburban Phoenix district. Both candidates are also members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a distrcit where Mormons are very active in Republican politics.
The election is the culmination of a nearly yearlong effort to oust the controversial Pearce, arguably the state's most powerful politician. Supporters champion his gruff, unwavering commitment to conservative ideals, while critics call him a bully whose tactics are divisive.
Opponents began circulating recall petitions in January, only three weeks after Pearce took over the Senate.
Citizens for a Better Arizona, led by Democrat labor organizer Randy Parraz, turned in about 17,000 signatures in May; more than 10,000 were validated by county election officials. The group needed at least 7,756 to qualify for the ballot.
The group argued that Pearce's focus on illegal immigration -- he wrote the state's controversial immigration law and a host of others -- has distracted him from the needs of his district. His policies, they say, have damaged the image of the state.
Lewis, 55, assistant superintendent of an Arizona charter school chain and a former accountant, has focused his campaign on the state's economic and educational future, while giving less attention to immigration. Lewis has denied that he was involved in the recall effort or was sought out to run by those behind it.
"I'm not beholden to anyone," Lewis said. "I have for a long time seen a need for him to change or be removed from office."
Olivia Cortes, a retiree, amassed enough signatures to join the race, but was challenged by recall backers. They argued that Pearce supporters drafted Cortes, an immigrant from Mexico, to split the anti-Pearce vote, particularly among Latinos.
Pearce opponents asked a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to remove her from the ballot. Though agreeing that Cortes' candidacy was essentially a sham, Judge Edward O. Burke declined to remove her because he found that she had done nothing wrong.
"Pearce supporters recruited Cortes, a political neophyte, to run in the recall election to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis to advance Pearce's recall election bid," Burke said in his ruling.
Pearce opponents requested another hearing, but before one could take place, Cortes quit the race, citing "constant intimidation and harassment" and a financial strain from legal fees.
By then, ballots with all three names had been printed. Election officials will post notices at polling sites to remind voters that Cortes has withdrawn.
Pearce, 64, a fifth-generation Arizonan, has long drawn a strong reaction for his resolute stance on illegal immigration. In 2004 as a member of the state House of Representatives, he wrote legislation that denied state services to illegal immigrants and required picture identification to vote, which passed easily. He wrote the more recent controversial Senate Bill 1070, which forces police to investigate the immigration status of people they have detained. It is being challenged by the Obama administration.
Echoing an argument he made at a debate last month, Lewis said in an interview that the law has created the perception that the state is anti-minority, further damaging the state's struggling economy. Lewis said he would employ a more comprehensive approach, working with the federal government.
"People outside of Arizona see us as something akin to 1964 Alabama," he said. "We are not that way at all. We have a gap as to who we really are and how we are perceived from the outside."
Pearce scoffs at that comparison, and argues that the law has actually boosted the state's reputation.
"We're the envy of the rest of the United States," Pearce said. "We changed the national debate; state after state is copying Arizona."
Pearce conceded that the election could be "dangerous" because both candidates are Republicans, and Democrats can vote. But he also expressed confidence in the district, noting that he hasn't lost there in 16 elections.
"I was born and raised here," he said. "They know me and they know I've kept every promise I've made."
A poll released last week by the Arizona Capitol Times and Phoenix television station ABC 15 showed Lewis and Pearce essentially tied, with 11 percent of respondents either undecided or opting for Cortes, who is no longer running.
Longtime Pearce supporter Earl Rogers, 52, who now sells hot dogs on a Mesa street corner after three years of unemployment, says Pearce went too far with SB 1070: "He's given himself and the state too much of a black eye. So unfortunately, I'll vote for Jerry Lewis."
At a nearby antique store, Craig Wacker, 67, said Pearce was being targeted simply because of the immigration law, not because of his performance. "I think he's doing a great job," he said.
Fred Ash, a 73-year-old retired attorney, said the recall election was an "abomination and totally uncalled for." Ash, whose brother, Cecil Ash, is a Republican state representative, said, "Russell is faulted for his effectiveness."
In one Mesa neighborhood, lawns adorned with Pearce signs far outnumbered those for Lewis. Despite their signs, many Lewis supporters declined to speak out publicly against Pearce, who lives nearby.
But Sandra Simmons, a Democrat, did not mince words when asked why she plans to vote for Lewis.
"He's not Russell Pearce," she said.
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services