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A sheriff’s deputy turned state lawmaker who was the architect of one of Arizona’s most concerted modern-day crackdowns on undocumented immigrants died Thursday. Russell Pearce was 75.
He died at a Mesa hospital, according to his sister, Kathy Pearce. A family statement said Pearce had fallen ill earlier in the week.
The main sponsor of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, the former Senate president became the face of a socially conservative brand of politics that was synonymous with Arizona during the early 21st century. That distinction also led to his ouster from office, and he was the first state lawmaker recalled in Arizona’s history.
At the same time that America elected its first Black president, Pearce pushed for stricter laws on immigration, marriage and more, standing athwart the country’s course and seeking to cast the United States ― or at least Arizona ― in the image of his sliver of the East Valley.
Pearce certainly won his share of battles as a politician, but whether he ultimately won the war over Arizona is likely to remain the subject of fierce debate among activists and historians long after his death. His anti-immigrant policies proved a popular export, the rhetoric that accompanied Senate Bill 1070 echoing years later throughout the GOP in the era of former President Donald Trump.
But the Republican Party’s majorities in the Legislature have only narrowed in the years since Pearce’s departure. And he will be remembered not only for rallying the party’s conservative base but for inspiring a generation of activists who have emerged to counter just about everything he stood for.
Born and raised to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints family in Mesa, Pearce traced his roots in Arizona back to the 19th century. His great-grandfather, James Pearce, was among the homesteaders who founded the town of Taylor. He was also a seemingly natural Republican.
“I can tell you the very first fight I had I think I was six years old and it was with a neighbor and the fight was over Eisenhower and Stevenson,” he recalled in a 2015 oral history.
Pearce’s mother was a Republican, so he supported Eisenhower, too.
“I had strong political views at a very young age and they haven’t changed over time, I’ve been pretty consistent,” he said, citing his reading of the nation’s founders as well as far-right theorists, such as W. Cleon Skousen.
Though Pearce aspired to be a doctor, he ended up as a law enforcement officer instead. He said his family could not afford to send him to medical school.
Pearce joined the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, serving for 23 years. It was a rough beat at times. Pearce was once shot in the chest by a gang member during the 1970s. But he rose through the ranks, eventually serving as chief deputy to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In fact, Pearce claimed credit for one of the more visible initiatives of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office: setting up Arpaio’s Tent City jail.
Leaving the Sheriff’s Office in the mid-1990s, Pearce became director of the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division in 1995. He oversaw the first iteration of the online driver’s license portal, ServiceArizona.com.
Pearce left the office in 1999 amid controversy over staff’s handling of a driver’s record.
A move into politics
Entering politics, Pearce won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2000 and won election to the state Senate in 2008. He quickly rose to become chair of the influential Appropriations Committee.
Pearce had backed proposals like Senate Bill 1070 before 2010. But the departure of Janet Napolitano to serve in President Barack Obama’s cabinet and the ascension of then-Secretary of State Jan Brewer into the Governor’s Office gave the legislation a real shot at becoming law.
The bill banned sanctuary cities in Arizona and required local law enforcement officers to make an effort to determine the citizenship or immigration status of people they had reason to believe may not be in the country legally.
Its passage and Brewer’s signature may have salvaged her run for governor. It also spurred court challenges and protests that catapulted Pearce to national prominence.
Critics denounced the law as racist — a slap to the undocumented immigrants who had labored to build Arizona and an invitation for law enforcement to racially profile American citizens based on the color of their skin or the language they speak. SB 1070 spurred protests and boycotts.
Lydia Guzman, a longtime immigrant advocate who oversaw a hotline created to field complaints of racial profiling in the wake of SB 1070, said Pearce’s death marks the end of a “sad era” that Hispanics and immigrants in Arizona experienced under policies he pushed through.
“I’m sad for all of the terror that he caused our community, all the people who were deported because of his political grandstanding,” said Guzman, now an executive with the social services agency Chicanos Por La Causa.
Guzman said she would love to see one last political cartoon showing Pearce standing at the gates of heaven and being asked to “show his papers.”
Pearce, however, stood by the law to the end. He argued it merely came down to maintaining the rule of law.
Much of SB 1070 was blocked in court and Arizona, but it did not dent Pearce’s career at first. The Senate elected him president in 2011.
The political consistency that he described in his younger years would manifest later, according to his peers, as an unrelenting drive. His critics might call it stubbornness.
“He’s just unstoppable,” former state Rep. Bill Konopnicki told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. Konopnicki died the next year. “He is willing to do whatever it takes to change the world because he thinks he has some divine calling.”
The same year he was elected president of the Senate, a liberal group got enough signatures to force a recall of Pearce. He lost later that year to a fellow Republican, Jerry Lewis.
With that, Pearce gained the dubious distinction of being the first legislator ever recalled in Arizona history. His comeback campaign in the Republican primary the next year floundered when he failed to win the party’s nomination.
It all seemed to send a message that despite SB 1070’s relative popularity among Republicans, many peers nonetheless viewed Pearce as a liability for the party.
Divided views on Pearce’s legacy
Randy Parraz, who led the recall effort as president of the group Citizens for a Better Arizona, said from a Latino perspective, Pearce leaves behind a legacy of divisiveness and extremism.
“From our point of view, from the Latino community, it was a legacy of hate, a legacy of divisiveness, a legacy of extremism that was so far outside normal politics that Republicans came forward and helped get him out of office, other members of the Church of Latter-day Saints helped get him out of office, people who had voted for him in the past because of decisions he made decided to change their vote and remove him from office,” Parraz said.
Parraz said he prefers to focus instead on a legacy of unity that was spawned in response to Pearce’s brand of extremist policies.
Extremism and divisiveness “is not a legacy to be proud of,” he said. “We are proud of what we initiated, citizens coming together to make Arizona the place we deserve.”
Friends and former legislative colleagues said Pearce was misunderstood as a gruff and mean-spirited man, even though his public demeanor often was combative.
Ron Bellus, who knew and worked with Pearce for years, said liberals and a left-leaning media painted Pearce with too narrow of a brush.
“The people who work with him and know him — he’s just a big teddy bear,” Bellus said. “For those that love and appreciate him and respect him, he will always be remembered as a giant in the state of Arizona and as a patriot.”
The Republican majority in the state Senate, where Pearce served as president more than a decade ago, hailed him for his law-and-order approach to everything, especially the border.
“He was an ardent champion for secure borders and gave his all when it came to preventing the violence associated with dangerous cartel encroaching into our communities,” the 16-member caucus said in a joint statement. “He was passionate about public safety and had a fiery approach when it came to conservative causes, like limited government.”
Pearce is survived by his wife, LuAnne, and their five children, Dodi, Sean, Colten, Justin and Joshua. The couple adopted three of their grandchildren, who still live at the family home.
Andrew Oxford is a former reporter for The Arizona Republic.