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Advocates who favor more lenient immigration policies said the recall Tuesday of the chief architect of Arizona’s immigration law is the first shot in a battle against “extremism” they will take nationwide in 2012.
In a telephone press conference Wednesday, the advocates said that the rejection of Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican and Senate President, by voters was a rejection of extremism.
The recall election, forced by a petition drive, was the first for an Arizona legislator.
“Our communities were decisive in defeating. . .the most notorious anti-immigrant office-holder in America,” said Rudy Lopez, the national field director of politics for Campaign for Community Change, an Arizona group that worked on the recall campaign.
“The message of this election is clear: Latinos and immigrants will not be scape-goated and will not tolerate those politicians whose attempt to gain or keep power by demonizing us. . .In 2012, we bring to the table the fastest growing voting bloc in America and pro-migrant voters will be heard.”
The victor, Jerry Lewis, a Republican and political newcomer, got 53.4 percent of the vote. Pearce got 45.4 percent. Lewis had portrayed himself as more moderate than Pearce, especially on the subject of immigration. Lewis said that while he supports enforcement of immigration laws, he also favored a compassionate approach to handling the undocumented.
“I support a rational and fair solution for dealing with immigrants who have committed no crime other than being here without proper documentation,” Lewis’s campaign website says.
The message of this election is clear: Latinos and immigrants will not be scape-goated and will not tolerate those politicians whose attempt to gain or keep power by demonizing us.
The press conference participants, who included representatives from groups such as Promize AZ in Action, Citizens for a Better Arizona and Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, said that they are looking at local, state and congressional races around the country and will be targeting their efforts at those where a candidate tries to “vilify” immigrants to get support.
Leaders of Arizona grassroots groups that had worked on the recall campaign said they had gone door to door, worked the phones and sent letters urging those who might not ordinarily vote to participate in the elections.
They said some 300 volunteers went to more than 7,000 homes to make their case for the recall.
“We see what happened with Russell Pearce as a cautionary tale for right-wing extremism,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice: “It mobilizes Latino voters who want acceptance and respect and it angers sensible Republicans, Independents and Democrats who want their leaders to focus on bread and butter issues, not hot-button cultural issues.”
Legislative District 18 still is largely non-Latino white, conservative and Mormon, though the Latino population has been growing.
Political observers say that Arizonans, though initially supportive of Pearce’s measure, SB 1070, grew less comfortable with the stinging rhetoric and national backlash against their state.
After the passage of SB 1070 – parts of which have been blocked by federal courts -- several other immigration measures that Pearce tried to push through the largely Republican legislature met with defeat.
Supporters of Pearce and SB 1070 lamented his defeat Wednesday, and blamed it on forces they say favor cheap undocumented labor.
“A majority of people in Arizona and the country supports SB 1070,” said Dan Stein, executive director of Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington D.C. group that favors strict immigration enforcement.
“There are big powerful interests – business groups, the Mexican government – that want to promote illegal immigration and have alliances with the Republican Party establishment.”
The establishment GOP leaders “oppose the rank and file Republican voters who want illegal immigration stopped,” Stein said. “This [recall] is sort of a revenge payback.”
Beyond the divisions in the GOP over how to address illegal immigration, Stein and others say, Pearce’s defeat also included elements of fissures among Mormons on how to handle the topic.
Both Pearce and Lewis are Mormons, as are many political leaders in their district. Many in the Mormon religion believe in taking a tough approach against the undocumented, while many others see it as inhumane to go after them in a punitive way.
“Hopefully [Pearce] will run again and retake his seat,” Stein said.
Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino