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Politics of an Arizona Crime Scene: Guns and Borders

In Southwest, Immigration Is Undercurrent to Every Political Debate and Goes Across Party Lines

The backdrop for Saturday’s tragic shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the politics of a state and region that political consultants there describe as a “cranky libertarianism.”

Arizona is a land of legendary political figures — a conservative icon in Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and a widely respected Democrat in Rep. Morris Udall. Both died in 1998, which was the year Arizona became the first state to elect women to each of its top five statewide elected positions.

The Southwest is also where illegal immigration looms beneath discussions of nearly every issue. It can cause intensely divisive debates, as it did last year in Arizona, when the state instituted a beefed-up enforcement law. The contentious border issue — touching on crime and socioeconomics — led to the formation of organizations such as the Minuteman Project, a citizen border patrol group, that, along with relaxed gun restriction laws, helps illustrate the uniqueness of the region’s politics.

Longtime Arizona GOP consultant Margaret Kenski, who saw Giffords in the Tucson grocery store parking lot Saturday morning just minutes before she was shot, told Roll Call the region’s politics “doesn’t fit with either political party too well.”

“People kind of like to be left alone and are apt to be like Barry Goldwater,” said Kenski, who once worked for Udall. “They don’t want the government imposing interference on abortion — not that they like abortion, but it’s for the same reason they don’t like taxes. But at the same time, they do have a concept of public good and things that the government should do, like education.”

Consultants in the region who spoke with Roll Call agreed that there is a “Western approach” to government, even as views on specific issues differ among the political parties.

“We’re the state of Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall and Janet Napolitano,” Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said. “It’s an interesting mix of government minimalism, yet also wanting government responsibility for things like education and caring for people. A Western value of independence is at the core of how people view politics in Arizona.”

Kenski said Giffords, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, typified this characterization of a unique politician. “If you look at Gabby’s voting record, it’s very interesting. Like Mo Udall, Gabby is a very strong supporter of gun rights. She supported the compromise tax package, but she also supported the health care reform bill and bigger government.”

Much of the political debate in Arizona last year focused on the state’s new illegal immigration law, which broadened the enforcement powers of police, made it a state crime to be in the country
illegally and required immigrants to carry the paperwork to prove their legal status.

One GOP consultant and longtime state resident noted that while immigration received most of the national press out of Arizona last year, the economy remained the top issue in campaigns heading into the midterm elections.

“Most people here, they’re just trying to get their kids to school on time, pay their mortgage,” he said. “There was some immigration, but the economy was the big one.”

But immigration is not a stand-alone issue in the Southwest. Johnson said because of Arizona’s long border with Mexico, all issue debates are invariably connected to a conversation about immigration.

“It really does frame a lot of other issues,” she said. “The immigration debate filters into the role of other things like the economy, education and health care. As a border state, it affects us on many levels.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) said border violence caused by illegal immigrants led the state to take the step of increasing enforcement. It was also often cited by Sen. John McCain (R) during his re-election race last year, including in a TV ad in which he called for increased National Guard troops and to “complete the danged fence.”

Another issue that typifies Arizona’s independent political nature is the state’s relatively relaxed gun restrictions, which were loosened further last year. Just nine months ago, Arizona became the third state to allow the carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit.

The GOP consultant said the state’s “lax and permissive” gun laws had not previously led to further safety measures at political events. He noted that the October debate between Giffords and her Republican opponent on the Tucson campus of the University of Arizona had little if any security, and he called security at the state Capitol in Phoenix “negligible.”

During the angry protests at health care events, Giffords aides told the Arizona Daily Star they were compelled for the first time to notify law enforcement before her town halls.

During one 2009 Giffords event in Douglas, Ariz., a man’s gun fell out of his holster as he sat down. It did not fire, but the incident alarmed local activists in part because at least two people had carried assault rifles outside one of President Barack Obama’s events in Phoenix.

U.S. District Judge John Roll, among those slain in Tucson, had been the target of death threats after ruling that a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher could go forward in 2009. The Arizona Republic reported that the judge received more than 200 phone calls after talk radio hosts criticized his ruling, prompting authorities to give Roll’s family protection.

While immigration led to a deep political fight in the state and country last year, the bipartisan Congressional delegation worked across the aisle on border issues.

“On issues like immigration there is a lot of cooperation,” Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “Particularly with Gabby Giffords, she has a district where you have to have that cooperation. We have delegation meetings frequently, and it’s an environment where we work together.”

Giffords withstood a tough challenge from a tea-party-backed Republican in 2010, even as the GOP picked up 63 Democratic seats nationwide, including two from the Phoenix area.

Brewer signed the gun bill into law at the same time the immigration bill was being debated in the state Senate. Giffords’ 8th district was front and center in both. It shares a 100-mile border with Mexico and includes the O.K. Corral in Tombstone — home to perhaps the most legendary gunfight in the nation’s history.

“If a person personifies the adage of disagreeing while not being disagreeable, it’s her,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who also represents part of Tucson, said Monday on MSNBC. “She represents her district … a district that is more moderate and conservative than others.”

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