Story highlights

A petition drive forces the recall election for Russell Pearce

The state senator wrote and sponsored Arizona's controversial immigration law

Pearce is challenged by another Republican in Tuesday's vote

Opponents of Pearce accuse his campaign of dirty tricks

CNN —  

The state senator who wrote Arizona’s controversial immigration law faces a recall election Tuesday in what is considered a referendum on public support for tough measures against illegal immigrants.

Russell Pearce, a fifth-generation Arizonan representing a suburban Phoenix district, is challenged by fellow Republican Jerry Lewis in the election forced by recall petitions seeking Pearce’s ouster.

The heated campaign has included accusations of dirty tricks, with Lewis supporters saying a third candidate who later dropped out but remains on the ballot – Olivia Cortes – was intended to siphon votes from Lewis.

Cortes cited “constant intimidation and harassment” against herself, her family, friends and neighbors for her decision to drop out.

In recent days, Lewis supporters complained of campaign robo-calls that they said targeted Hispanic voters and advised them to protest the election because no Democratic candidate was running. To Lewis supporters, the calls were an attempt to dissuade likely Pearce opponents from voting for Lewis.

A statement by Lewis’ campaign blamed a Pearce supporter for the robo-calls.

On Saturday, Pearce, 64, issued a statement that called for cooling down the campaign rhetoric in the final days before Tuesday’s vote.

“I call upon my supporters and those supporting my opponent to bring the rhetoric and personal attacks to an end,” Pearce said in the statement posted on his website. “In recent days, personal attacks against me and my opponent have reached a fevered pitch. This is a disservice to the voters in District 18. Out of respect for them, I ask that in the closing days of this campaign that both sides focus on the issues.”

The recall petition drive against Pearce collected more than 10,000 signatures.

Supporters of Pearce had hoped to block the recall on the grounds that there were problems with petitions calling for the vote.

In September, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld an August ruling by a lower court that threw out those arguments and allowed the recall to go ahead.

Pearce, a former Phoenix-area sheriff’s deputy known for his tough stance against illegal immigration, sponsored the state immigration law that became the focus of national media and legal attention.

Passed in 2010, the Arizona law aimed to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.”

Among other provisions, it would require that local police, during the enforcement of other laws, check the immigration status of anyone who they suspected of being undocumented.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the measure overstepped Arizona’s authority, and the state is seeking a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to settle the issue.

Now, the measure is the focal point of Tuesday’s recall vote, with Lewis saying it made Arizona a national pariah considered a bastion of intolerance and discrimination.

Pearce contends dozens of other states are trying to pass similar legislation, showing the popular support and need for such measures.

A biography of Pearce on his website includes an accolade from conservative activist Bay Buchanan of the Team America political action committee, who calls him “the most effective legislator on immigration issues in the country” and describes the Arizona law as “the most effective piece of legislation against illegal immigration ever written and passed.”

Lewis, a charter school superintendent with an accounting background, denies any role in the recall process and said he is running out of dissatisfaction with how Pearce has represented the 18th district.

Rather than the combative approach to immigration taken by Pearce, Lewis calls for a more cooperative stance that seeks solutions working with the federal government and other players.

“Immigration has polarized Arizona more than any other issue in recent memory,” Lewis says on his website. “I support law enforcement’s efforts to carry out their duties as defined by their constitutionally enforceable city, county and state laws.”

In addition, Lewis says, he recognizes “that we need to move beyond the polarizing, contentious and fear-based rhetoric that undermines the chance for any real solutions.”