bTucson : a Tucson, Arizona Community Driven Directory

Arizona Divided


2011-08-09 : by Golda Velez
"I have never been so active before in my life"

Elizabeth Savino is a small business owner from the midwest, not a political activist.  But the Mesa resident spent weekend after weekend volunteering with the effort to recall the ultra-conservative Az state senator Russell Pearce.

Becky H's hands trembled after speaking up at a public meeting in support of the Ethnic studies program. "I don't like to speak in public."  But she did it, because the program had meant so much to her daughter.

If the Tea Party in Arizona is full of angry people, the 'Coffee Party' - the heterogeneous collection of volunteers and organizers who are opposed to right-wingers such as Russell Pearce - seems to be full of people driven to activism reluctantly by passion about something else, such as education or health care. The moderates don't really have a name - there was an attempt to organize a 'Coffee Party' but according to Savino "it went in fits and starts - we kind of branched out and everyone started doing their own things," pursuing specific issues they each cared about.  Whatever you call them, passionate moderates, people who want to fix things and do not care for extremism of any flavor, are on the rise.

It may be none too soon for Arizona.  Ranked 49th in education funding per-pupil, the current climate prompted former Intel CEO Craig Barrett to comment that "Arizona would not be in the top 10 locales" if Intel were choosing now where to locate. "Quality education is extremely important to a place like Intel."1  General Fund revenue, where education and health care funding comes from, has taken a dramatic nose dive in recent years even more than would be expected from the recession alone.


Meanwhile, Senate President Russell Pearce sponsored numerous bills attacking illegal immigrants (most notably the infamous SB1070), attempting to terminate Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), repeal the clean elections act, and making the Colt Revolver the state firearm shortly after  US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head..  

Immigration may be a hot-button issue for Pearce's supporters, but his opponents see it as a red herring, a scapegoating tactic to distract from the real problems in the state. Randy Parraz, the organizer of the successful recall campaign, said that conversations with voters who signed the petition were "all about education, health care, the constitution, our jobs...We gave him a 21 day notice to focus on things that are important to us.  He failed to do that."  Parraz was able to tap into a growing dissatisfaction even in conservative Mesa, Arizona.  "Most of our volunteers were white folks over 55.  The reason Arizona got to where it's at, is a lot of good people, especially a lot of good white people stayed quiet.  They knew their values were being violated, and they did nothing.  This campaign was the beginning of those folks getting reengaged."

Pearce is only one of a cohort of ultra-conservative politicians currently calling the shots in Arizona.  Joe Arapio, the Maricopa County sheriff known for housing prisoners in tent cities in over 110 degree weather is perhaps the most extreme.  Savino credits Arapio with her wake-up call: "Joe Arapio and his crapola!  I think that's what got me so whipped up - seeing him and thinking, 'this guy is nuts!'"  John Huppenthal, State Superintendent of Education, appears to be on a witch hunt against individual teachers in Tucson for developing an ethnic studies program to reach out to minority students.  Governor Jan Brewer has actually vetoed some of the most extreme legislation, but has generally supported the ultra-conservative line.  Brewer has come under fire for her connections to the private prison system, which stands to profit significantly from the detention provisions of SB1070.  Brewer's chief of staff, Paul Senseman, is a former lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and her campaign manager Chuck Coughlin has ties to CCA as well.4

"Follow the money" has always been good advice to those trying to make sense of political posturing.  Arizona spends $6,515 per pupil in school, but $22,346 per prisoner.  Corrections Corporation of America, the largest operator of private prisons in the state, spent $2.7 nationally from 2006-08 lobbying for stricter laws.5  CCA associates donated upwards of $60,000 to Brewer's campaign for governor, and has also donated to other ranking Arizona Republicans such as Appropriations Committee chair John Kavanaugh.

Prisoners may be more expensive than pupils, but prisons don't appear to be feeling the spending crunch as much as schools.  According to Tom Rex, Associate Director at the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at Arizona State University, "ninety-five percent of the general fund appropriations go to just three purposes: education, health and welfare, and public safety.  Funding per $1,000 of personal income already has fallen considerably for health and welfare and higher education.  In contrast, funding has increased for the correctional system."

Paul Eckerstrom, a former head of the Democratic Party, was so fed up he started the Baja Arizona initiative to start a separate state for Southern Arizona.  "This is a self-inflicted crisis.  Arizona used to be a state that took care of our kids.  We've always been moderately conservative, but we've always believed in a good education.  Universities were always inexpensive for in-state residents....but in recent years, tax cut after tax cut has put in a structural deficit that requires us to make drastic cuts."

What changed?  Ten years ago the independent redistricting commission, lead by Steve Lynn, drew a lot of non-competitive districts.  Lynn cited the Voting Rights Act and the concept of communities of interest to explain why so many districts were not competitive6, but Eckerstrom feels "that was just an excuse" for protecting Lynn's friend Jim Kolbe and others.  Whatever the motivation, the result was the replacement of a lot of moderate Republicans with far-right candidates who could win in the primaries.  

It�s time for redistricting once again, and new chair Colleen Mathis is already feeling the pressure, with right-wing legislator Frank Antenori using violent imagery - "the gun is loaded and it is just figuring out what target to point it at and when to pull the trigger" - in response to the commission's choice of a mapping consultant.7  

Battle lines are drawn, the future of Arizona at stake. Staying on the sidelines isn't an option for many.  "Not voting allows the extremists to control the agenda," explains Eckerstrom.  "It's not whether the house or senate is democratic or republican, we need reasonable people."   Savino sees a fundamental difference between the approaches of the two sides. In talking with others who oppose Pearce and support various specific causes, "people are all about researching the facts, knowing the statistics, before they go off to change something.  To me that is the major difference between those sort of folks and tea partiersartiers.  Tea Partiers don't even know who is funding them.  They are screwing themselves, but you can't get past that emotion and fear to get them to look at the facts.  We have met a lot of people who are just interested in stuff- they don't always agree on everything, but they're well informed, and they're willing to change their mind.  That's what I've found with these groups that is really refreshing."

Imagine if a majority of politicians took such an approach.  Now that would be refreshing.

Thanks to Spot.Us Community-Funded Reporting for helping fund this article!


1 shows Arizona 49th in per pupil spending for 2009-10







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