PHOENIX – The ousted state senator who championed Arizona's illegal immigration law says he has no regrets but that he'd like voters to give him a second chance.
Removed from office in a November 2011 recall election in which the immigration issue was a major focus, Russell Pearce is now running to return to the Arizona Legislature, where he was Senate president.
Pearce appears to be in a tough battle as he faces prominent businessman Bob Worsley in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for the state Senate seat for a redrawn district in suburban Mesa.
Worsley, founder of the SkyMall in-flight shopping catalog and now involved in energy and mining businesses, has been endorsed by several major business groups and by all members of the Mesa City Council.
And Pearce trails in fundraising. He began the year with a campaign war chest of $35,555, but he reported raising only $2,822 through May 31. Meanwhile, Worsley raised over $67,000, which includes a $50,000 personal loan but also $17,445 in contributions.
By contrast, Pearce's recall election campaign, "Patriots for Pearce," raised and spent approximately $260,000, according to his final campaign-finance report.
"It's definitely harder to raise money when your first name isn't 'president,'" said Lee Miller, an attorney and Republican Party activist, referring to Pearce's former Senate leadership post.
One advantage that Pearce has going for him this time is that, unlike the recall election, Democrats cannot vote in the Republican primary.
"It will be a primary this time. It will be a fair fight," Pearce said. "It was the left that came in and removed me for keeping promises."
The Republican primary winner will be heavily favored in November because Republicans hold a 2-to-1 registration edge over Democrats in the district.
And Pearce and his supporters said he can draw vindication in the U.S. Supreme Court's June 25 decision on the constitutionality of provisions of the 2010 immigration law known as SB1070. The justices struck down several of the measure' key components, but upheld the so-called "show me your papers" provision that one Pearce supporter called the law's heart and soul.
The provision requires police to question people about their immigration status if they've been stopped for another reason and there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally.
Police in Arizona already can do that, but it'll be a requirement under state law once a lower court lifts an injunction blocking enforcement.
Approval of the law in April 2010 stirred protests, boycotts and court fights that embroiled the state in controversy.
The economic impact was hard to quantify because the law was enacted during the Great Recession, but a November 2010 study conducted by a respected Scottsdale economic consulting firm for a liberal-leaning think tank said boycotts cost the state more than $140 million in lost meeting and convention business.
The state Senate in 2011 rebuffed attempts by Pearce and other hardliners to enact more get-tough laws on immigration, including measures that would have put hospitals and schools on the front lines.
Business groups that helped squelch those efforts are now backing Worsley, providing endorsements that Pearce attributes to the immigration issue.
"What's the objection to me? One only — they want cheap labor," he said. "If that's the price of doing what's right, I'd gladly play that price."
Representatives of the Arizona and Phoenix chambers of commerce acknowledged their groups differ with Pearce over immigration policy but they denied his cheap-labor allegation. They said Worsley's business background was decisive in drawing the groups' separate endorsements and that economic development is paramount.
Pearce "is a nice man ... but at this point we like some of the different perspectives that Mr. Worsley has talked about," said Michelle Bolton, a Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce executive. "It's no indictment of Mr. Pearce."
Worsley said SB1070 served the function of highlighting the federal government's lack of sufficient attention to the burden that illegal immigration placed on Arizona, but he said Pearce is obsessed by the immigration issue. "It's been one bill after another to focus on that topic," Worsley said.
Proposed state legislation on immigration and on gun owners' rights "cast Arizona in an extreme and unfavorable light," he said. "Some people are afraid to come here — everybody's got guns and they're shooting people."
Those are themes used by Jerry Lewis, the charter school executive who beat Pearce in the recall election. Lewis is now running in an adjacent legislative district for a full term in the Senate.
In his current race, Pearce said he regards education as the top policy issue facing the state and that he has a record of accomplishments on a wide range of issues of concern to conservatives, but he said he has no regrets about immigration policy or anything else.
"I did nothing wrong. I still have the majority of my party's support," he said, noting that party activists elected him to a statewide party office earlier this year.
Immigration, he said, "is still a critical issue until the problem is solved."