The author of Arizona's landmark immigration law is facing a recall election that's as wild and unpredictable as the state's southern border.
Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce is fighting for his political life against foes of Senate Bill 1070, the tough immigration enforcement legislation he sponsored in 2010. He faces a formidable opponent in charter-school executive Jerry Lewis, who, like Mr. Pearce, is a Mormon Republican in a GOP district dominated by conservative Mormons.
But it's a little-known immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who may decide the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.
Olivia Cortes, a retiree, entered the race with little fanfare, but withdrew Oct. 6 after a judge ruled that she was a sham candidate put up by Pearce supporters in hopes of siphoning votes from Mr. Lewis. Even so, her name will appear on the ballots because they were printed before her withdrawal.
Her departure means Ms. Cortes cannot serve as the senator from the Mesa-based legislative district even if she receives the most votes, but analysts say she's still likely draw a small percentage of the balloting from voters who either don't realize she's no longer running or don't like the other two candidates.
In a race that could be decided by a few hundred votes, Ms. Cortes' non-candidacy may well make the difference, said Arizona political consultant Jason Rose.
"She could have gotten 7 to 9 percent [if she had stayed in the race]; now she could get 2 to 3 percent," said Mr. Rose. "In almost any scenario, a vote for Olivia Cortes is a vote for Russell Pearce. Despite the bad optics and bad choreography, it's still an effective potential tactic."
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke ruled Oct. 3 there is evidence the Cortes candidacy was being directed by Pearce supporters, notably Greg Western, chairman of the East Valley Tea Party and a Pearce ally. Two of Mr. Pearce's nieces helped collect signatures for her campaign and were accompanied by their father, Justice of the Peace Lester Pearce, according to testimony.
"The court finds that Pearce supporters recruited Cortes, a political neophyte, to run in the recall election to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis to advance Pearce's recall election bid," the judge said in his decision.
At the same time, the judge ruled that Ms. Cortes had done nothing wrong and could remain on the ballot. However, citing the "constant intimidation and harassment" of her family and neighbors, she dropped out a few days later.
The episode delivered a public relations blow to the Pearce campaign, despite Mr. Pearce's insistence that he had never met Ms. Cortes, which she confirmed. The liberal Phoenix New Times called it "one of the sleaziest acts of voter manipulation we've ever seen."
Even so, Lewis campaign co-chairman John Giles said he fears the Cortes non-candidacy will serve its purpose. Mr. Giles said internal campaign polling shows Ms. Cortes still receiving support from a small but significant segment of the electorate.
"Unfortunately, it's going to accomplish its goal because the ballots aren't going to be reprinted. There will be some signage in the polling places, but that's going to be inadequate," said Mr. Giles. "In the polling we've done, some people are still voting for Olivia Cortes."
As for Pearce versus Lewis, the polling shows "it's very, very close, and the Olivia Cortes factor is going to play a role in the election," said Mr. Giles. "It's a new low in Arizona politics."
Pearce supporters say Ms. Cortes' brief entry wasn't the only artificial tactic in the race. After gathering enough signatures to force the recall, foes of Mr. Pearce actively sought a Mormon Republican candidate and discouraged Democrats from running for office in order to increase their chances of success.
"The Democratic Party in that district was doing everything it could to prevent any Democratic candidate from getting into the race," said political consultant Stan Barnes, a former Republican state legislator. "Olivia Cortes' connection to the Pearce camp is easily identifiable, but this episode of the Democratic Party forcing its voters to choose between two Mormon Republicans has its own controversy. It just hasn't gotten as much attention as Olivia Cortes."
Given Mr. Pearce's reputation as a hard-liner on border security, it's no surprise that immigration has emerged as a key issue dividing the otherwise conservative Republicans. Mr. Lewis has expressed reservations about S.B. 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine the status of suspected illegal immigrants. He said the bill has hurt Arizona's reputation.
"First off, we have to change the image that we have in Mesa and in Arizona," Mr. Lewis said in an Oct. 6 debate. "We are seen as a very unfriendly business state. We are seen as something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama. Business owners do not want to move their businesses here in the current environment."
The Pearce camp has pounced on that statement, sending out a mailer last week that calls Mr. Lewis "embarrassed to be an Arizonan" and "embarrassed to be from Mesa."
Mr. Pearce has dominated the endorsement contest — his backers include Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and a host of elected officials — but this recall is the first in Arizona history. As a result, there's no template, analysts say.
"We're in such rare air in the Arizona political environment that no one knows what to expect," Mr. Barnes said.
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