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Arizona's victory against hate

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 2:47 PM EST, Thu November 17, 2011
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce was defeated Tuesday in a recall election.
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce was defeated Tuesday in a recall election.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arizona voters defeat Senate President Russell Pearce
  • Ruben Navarrette says he was architect of unfair anti-immigrant law
  • He says Pearce compounded his troubles through extreme remarks, actions
  • Navarrette: A coalition of left-wing activists and right-wing business interests won

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

(CNN) -- After all the bad laws and bad publicity, Arizona got some good news this week when Senate President Russell Pearce was toppled in a special election.

Citizens for a Better Arizona, a group led by community organizer Randy Parraz, needed 7,756 signatures to put on the ballot the question of whether Pearce should be recalled. It submitted about 17,000.

Arguably the most powerful politician in the state and certainly the most divisive, Pearce was handily defeated in his suburban Phoenix district by fellow Republican Jerry Lewis -- 53% to 46%. According to the Arizona Republic, this marks the first time a state lawmaker has been recalled in Arizona and the first time a state Senate president has been recalled anywhere in the United States.

The activists argued that Pearce's extreme views on illegal immigration were distracting him from dealing with the state's problems and were creating new ones.

Arizona immigration leader is recalled
Arizona immigration law author loses

In April 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law Pearce's crowning legislative achievement: SB 1070, a recipe for ethnic profiling that requires local and state police to ascertain the legal status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. Businesses complained that the state's brand had been damaged, that out-of-state companies were reluctant to relocate, and that essential immigrant workers had moved on to Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and other states in search of a friendlier climate.

In the end, the coalition of left-wing activists and right-wing business interests carried the day.

The problem with the now disgraced lawmaker wasn't just that he opposed illegal immigration; after all, most Americans feel that way. Or that he broke new ground -- and inspired lawmakers in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama to follow suit -- by insisting that states could stop illegal immigration, even if the U.S. Constitution said otherwise.

The problem was that Pearce went overboard, got drunk on power and proposed one harmful and hateful idea after another. They included a failed attempt to rid the public schools of children whose parents could not produce birth certificates. He also tried to circumvent the 14th Amendment, which Pearce claimed had been "hijacked" by illegal immigrants as part of an "orchestrated effort by them to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we've created," by denying state-issued birth certificates to children born in Arizona if their parents were not U.S. citizens.

He carried on his crusade with a xenophobic zeal that made it clear he wasn't just anti-illegal immigrant but also anti-foreigner. For Pearce, it was all the same.

Last year, during a panel discussion in Washington hosted by the conservative group Judicial Watch, Pearce declared: "I do think there ought to be a moratorium (on immigration), maybe, until we get our act together."

And what if we never get our act together? Obviously, his real objective was grander, to reverse the demographic changes in Arizona over the last few decades and get rid of Latinos.

Little wonder that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and various media in Arizona, Pearce's circle of acquaintances included a former neo-Nazi. J.T. Ready is a white supremacist who Pearce endorsed in a 2006 city council race and ordained into the Mormon Church. The two men recently had a falling out after Pearce tried to distance himself, and Ready took offense.

Pearce himself said offensive things. Last year, during another panel discussion in Washington, he said he didn't understand how hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could come to the United States each year without being detected. After all, Pearce noted, "We can track a cow with mad — mad cow disease, where it came from, um, but somehow we can't find these folks that are within our country?"

Rule of thumb: If you don't want people to call you a xenophobe, don't compare immigrants to farm animals.

Some Arizonans complained about Pearce, and that's when crazy gave way to creepy. This desert saga took a Watergate-like twist last year when a Phoenix television station reported that Pearce had put together a blacklist of individuals who were barred from the Senate building for publicly criticizing the Senate president.

In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Pearce denied there was such a list and insisted he never provided specific names to law enforcement.

But members of the Arizona Capitol Police contradicted Pearce. They said the lawmaker asked officers to "identify and photograph" members of the audience during a raucous committee meeting and deny them access to the Senate building in the future. They also said that "several subjects had been restricted from entering the Arizona State Senate building by Senate President Russell Pearce due to disorderly and disruptive behavior" and that "names and descriptions" were provided to Senate security.

Now that Pearce has been voted off the island, lawmakers in other states who followed his lead should watch out. This is a cautionary tale of what happens when you go too far and derail legitimate concerns by proposing unconstitutional bills, dividing the population, associating with racists, trying to limit legal immigration, dabbling in demagoguery and trying to silence dissent by targeting enemies.

Elsewhere, these sorts of dramas are still playing out. Who knows what twists and turns are in store? But in Arizona, an embarrassing chapter is now closed.

Evil has left the building.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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