Recall Election Targets Ariz. Immigration Law Author

Correction Oct. 17, 2011

A previous headline incorrectly referred to Alabama instead of Arizona.

A relatively small election is getting intense interest in Arizona. It's an election to recall State Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona's strict immigration laws. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, the recall election is splitting the community along religious as much as political lines.

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A relatively small election in Arizona is drawing intense interest. It's a vote to recall state Senator Russell Pearce. Senator Pearce is the architect of Arizona's strict immigration laws, most notably SB 1070, requiring police to question people's immigration status. NPR's Ted Robbins reports that the recall election is splitting the community along religious as much as political lines.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: More than 60 members of the media packed into an auditorium already crowded with supporters, all there for a debate between senate candidates for Arizona Legislative District 18. LD18 is in Mesa, a largely Mormon community. Both candidates are Mormon and Republican.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd like to introduce Jerry Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And also the president of our senate, Senator Russell Pearce.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ROBBINS: Clearly, this is no ordinary local election, though for the first hour of the debate, it seemed like it. Both men described themselves as conservative Republicans, anti-tax, small government, pro-business. Then, candidate Jerry Lewis was asked how he'd attract business to Arizona. His response? Start by changing the state's image.

JERRY LEWIS: We are seen as a very unfriendly business state. We are seen as something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama. People do not want to move their businesses here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

ROBBINS: That answer, and the audience response, hint at what this election is really all about: whether or not Russell Pearce's forceful focus on immigration has been good or bad for Arizona. Jerry Lewis says SB 1070 has caused boycotts which cost the state money and given it a black eye. Russell Pearce says Arizona has rid itself of illegal immigrants who cost the state money, and now other places are following Arizona's lead.

STATE SENATOR RUSSELL PEARCE: You know, 30 states are writing model legislation after what Arizona has done. We are in the front of the parade, we have changed the debate in Washington, D.C. in a good way.

ROBBINS: In this case, in this place, which side of the immigration issue a voter is on may depend on their interpretation of Mormon doctrine. Whether, like Russell Pearce, the rule of law is most important, or, like Jerry Lewis, that the church's higher value is to welcome the stranger.

DAVE RICHINS: This is, at its very core, Mormon families that are offended by a certain style of politics.

ROBBINS: Dave Richins is on the Mesa City Council.

RICHINS: A certain way of politicking is putting a bad name on a church that they love and an LDS church who has worked locally, statewide, nationally and internationally to develop a reputation of inclusion.

ROBBINS: The LDS Church has not taken a position on Arizona's legislation, but it has officially said that an enforcement-only approach is inadequate. Voters I spoke with outside the debate reflected the split Dave Richins has observed. Itzel Carreon says Russell Pearce gives a bad name to the district and to her Mormon faith.

ITZEL CARREON: He's not a man of family values. I mean, Prop 300, SB 1070, that's not Christ-like legislation.

ROBBINS: Ron Widders is proud of what Russell Pearce has done in Arizona. He said he resents Jerry Lewis' comparison to racially intolerant 1964 Alabama.

RON WIDDERS: I don't believe that for a minute. That was just a big mistake that he made, but that's a rookie.

ROBBINS: Jerry Lewis has never run for office before. He's a CPA, a school administrator and a local Mormon Church official. Russell Pearce is a former sheriff's deputy and a long-time legislator. There's a third candidate on the ballot, Olivia Cortes, whose name remains though she quit after a judge said there was evidence that she was recruited by Pearce supporters to siphon-off Lewis votes. This is a local election, but if Arizona's powerful Senate President Russell Pearce is ousted next month it will affect the state's agenda, and on the immigration issue, it could affect the rest of the nation. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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