Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce is a self-avowed Tea Party patriot, lover of the Second Amendment and hater of undocumented immigrants. But he discovered his Achilles heel last May when a determined group of disgruntled citizens collected over 10,000 valid signatures in his district to force another election this November. To his great annoyance, Senator Pearce had been recalled.
Pearce’s challenger, Jerry Lewis threw his hat into the ring soon after the recall became official and he is, for all intents and purposes, Russell Pearce’s worst nightmare. Lewis is a conservative republican Mormon like Pearce (Pearce’s district in Mesa is heavily Mormon) but that is where the similarities end. While Lewis is an educator and endorses the Utah Compact approach to immigration,Pearce enacted the tough immigration law SB1070 and approved $450 million in cuts to state education.While Pearce became powerful through bullying and intimidating his fellow legislators, Lewis appears to be a real life embodiment of the elusive “compassionate conservative.”
The other player in this drama is Greg Western, chairman of the East Valley Tea Party Patriots located in Mesa. Western has always been a big supporter of Pearce and has hosted fund raisers for the senate president through his Tea Party chapter. Naturally most members of the Arizona Tea Party were very upset when Peace was recalled and according to court testimony, a group of the Pearce faithful, including Western, got together at a Denny’s in Mesa last summer and hatched a plan to help reelect their hero, Russell Pearce.
Enter Olivia Cortes, a retired semi-conductor worker, Mesa resident, self-described conservative Republican and Mormon Church member. She is also a naturalized US citizen from Mexico who has lived in this country for 40 years. When questioned about her political views, her answers could best be described as very naïve and simplistic. As an immigrant she felt that the government shouldn’t be so hard on people coming into the country but she also believed in border security. She also felt that education needed to be better but didn’t seem to have any concrete ideas on how that could be accomplished.
One day while at church this past summer, Ms. Cortes listened with great interest to a fellow member give his “testimony” about the Constitution and politics. That church member was none other than Greg Western. His speech so moved Olivia that she felt compelled to go up and ask how she too might serve her community.
When Cortes approached Western that day in church, no one would guess he’d look at this diminutive Latina woman with her halting English and glaring political naiveté and suggest she jump into a senate race against Arizona’s most powerful politician. But Western likely saw this as a golden opportunity. Here was the perfect sham candidate; naïve, uninformed, trusting, easily manipulated and carrying a name that could siphon off a vital percentage of the Hispanic voters who harbored an antipathy towards Pearce. He cultivated her in what was described in court as a form of political Pygmalionism and convinced her to run. Olivia Cortes didn’t even know who Russell Pearce was at the time but she willingly went along for the ride.
After that, even though Cortes was listed as the campaign manager, Western took care of almost everything. When it came time to collect signatures to put her on the ballot, Cortes collected about 20 on her own. The remaining 1000+ were collected by paid petition circulators and various members of local Tea Parties recruited by Western. This included two of Russell Pearce’s own nieces, who incongruously braved the triple digit heat of August circulating petitions for a candidate opposing their uncle.
Then Olivia Cortes campaign signs mysteriously appeared across the district with the phrase “Si Se Puede!” (Yes We Can!) emblazoned on them, which was ironically the marching phrase of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement—hardly what a conservative Tea Party or even republican candidate would choose for their axiom.
Many people tried to contact Cortes to find out what her position was and why she was running. They all got the door slammed in their faces, unanswered phone calls and a complete refusal on her part to talk about what she was doing. She made it clear that she did not want any volunteers to help with her campaign and even refused to meet with the media. Of course this only served to intrigue the press further so they camped out in her yard in hopes of getting a glimpse of the elusive woman who was supposedly running for senate. A “No Trespassing” sign was soon displayed on her front porch in an attempt to keep them at bay.
The tipping point came when a paid signature gatherer for Cortes was caught on tape explaining to people that they should sign the petition even if they were Pearce supporters– and especially if they were Pearce supporters– because the sole purpose of Cortes’ run was to dilute the vote and swing the election in Pearce’s favor.
Soon after this “smoking gun” came to light a constituent of Pearce’s Legislative District 18 brought suit against Olivia Cortes. The suit claimed that the Cortes candidacy was a fraud and in violation of Arizona law (a class 5 felony) and the Arizona Constitution prohibiting placing someone on the ballot with the intent of misleading, confusing and deceiving voters. The plaintiffs requested a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent Cortes’ name from being put on the November 8thballot. A hearing was scheduled for September 29th at the Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix.
During the hearing several Tea Party members were put on the stand to account for why they gathered signatures for someone to run against their avowed favorite, Russell Pearce. Their answers were all the same and all equally inexplicable: they wanted Cortes to run because they would “rather vote for her than Jerry Lewis.” Since Russell Pearce has bragged repeatedly that he’s 16-0 in his wins running in the district, their reasoning obviously made no sense. After much questioning, one finally did admit that he and his Tea Party friends had a grudge against the “back door candidate” Jerry Lewis and that was why they put Cortes on the ballot.
Olivia Cortes took the stand and it was immediately apparent that this woman was very far out of her depth. She repeatedly said that Greg Western handled everything concerning her campaign because she really didn’t know what she was doing and she had “no expertise”. She insisted she was a “real” candidate and was “in it to win” but didn’t know where her signs came from, who paid for them, who put them up, who collected signatures aside from the few she got herself, who paid the signature canvassers or who designed her website. She accused the press of harassing her by coming to her home, even though that was her listed campaign address. She came across as a complete neophyte who had little or no idea what was going on.
Western took the stand and in a somewhat argumentative and defensive fashion testified that after Olivia approached him in church that day he was so taken in by her moderate views on immigration that he vowed to help her campaign because “her voice needed to be heard.” Surprisingly when asked who paid for and placed the campaign signs he also claimed he had no idea. He also didn’t know who paid for the signature canvassers. His testimony was very odd for two reasons: For one, he displayed an astonishing lack of curiosity about who this generous and mysterious campaign benefactor was (without which Cortes would likely never have gotten on the ballot since the vast majority of signatures collected were by paid canvassers). Secondly he seemed to see no contradiction at all in his role as a Tea Party Patriot chairman running a candidate against the de-facto Tea Party leader of Arizona, Russell Pearce.
As the hearing proceeded it became apparent to those of us observing that Cortes was nothing more than a willing dupe and that the real fraud was perpetrated by the various Tea Party members under Greg Western along with the unnamed benefactor who bought campaign signs and paid the signature gatherers (the Secretary of State is now investigating the signs as a possible violation of campaign finance laws). The fact that they cynically used Cortes in an attempt to secure the win of Russell Pearce was both sad and even reprehensible. Nor is the irony missed that lies in that fact that Pearce is an avid supporter of the anti-immigration organization FAIR, whose aim is to restrict and eliminate all forms immigration (especially non-European immigration), including those who come via legal channels, like Cortes and her family.
At the end of the hearing, various remedies were suggested to the judge by the plaintiff’s attorney Tom Ryan, including forcing those who created this, as Ryan humorously put it, “Sham Wow” candidate to pay the $67,000 necessary to reprint the ballots for the election. Another remedy would be informing voters at the polls that Cortes was no longer a valid candidate (as is done when a candidate dies prior to an election) and any votes for her would not be tabulated.
However, the ultimate decision will lie with the presiding Judge, Edward Burke. His ruling will take place on Monday and we will be watching.