The Politics of Arizona's Great Divide

Big rifts, bigger challenges. Can the state heal in time?

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Photograph by Zed Nelson

Vigil Arizona's long border is the source of fear — and opportunity

Arizona and its most watched-over daughter, Gabby Giffords, easily had the largest presence at the State of the Union address. It wasn't just the empty chair; it was the entire intramural seating chart. The short, subdued ovations. The lack of score settling in the speech or outbursts from the gallery. Even Representative Michele Bachmann, in her Tea Party retort to President Obama's speech, failed to leap off her usual rhetorical cliffs. A vow to "proclaim liberty throughout the land" was as close as she came.

Other Arizonans were in attendance as Michelle Obama's guests. Some had been at the First Lady's side in Tucson a few weeks earlier, like the family of the little girl who was murdered in the Jan. 8 shooting spree and the young (and gay and Hispanic) hero of that chaotic crime scene. But there was a new face of Arizonan compassion as well: Diego Vasquez, an aspiring aerospace engineer from Laveen who helped design an award-winning wheelchair after seeing a disabled friend struggle in school.

Giffords watched all of this from her hospital bed in Houston, and one wonders whether she was able to appreciate the irony that this bipartisan restraint — no matter how fleeting — should be inspired by Arizona, a state whose politics are, well, unrestrained. Arizona seems to have adopted a role as the fingernails on the chalkboard of American politics: screeching, cringe-inducing, impossible to ignore. And whatever the amount of comity that hit Congress on the night of Jan. 25, Arizona is going to need much more of it.

Arizona is, after all, the Grand Canyon State. Its defining topographical feature is literally a divide. The politics of the state, not just in these past few weeks but in the past few years, has been all about division, as though every argument we are having as a nation plays out there on a breathtaking scale. The budget is a shambles, the schools are among the worst in the country, the governor is accused of running "death panels" for cutting off funding for organ transplants for some Medicaid patients. Representative Giffords' Tea Party — backed opponent held a "Get on target for victory" shoot-out at a gun range as a campaign event. Rallies against a controversial immigration bill last year featured so many tearful calls to prayer and accusations of Nazism that it seemed like an all-Hispanic version of the Glenn Beck show. "It's as bad as I've seen in 40 years of observing Arizona politics," says Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University. "We have so many real problems, and all our leadership has done is [pursue] polarizing issues using very strident language."

You would never know, from all we've seen and heard, that beneath the national headlines about the state lies something of a silent majority — a deep vein of moderate, accommodating citizens. They're everywhere, including Tucson, where the shootings took place. Giffords was, literally and figuratively, their representative: open-minded, solution-oriented and largely ignored until her sudden introduction as a victim of much that is wrong with the state rather than a symbol of what is right with it. The Tucson spirit is what first attracted my great-uncle Bernard Friedman, 95, who moved there in the 1940s. As an architect and board member of Tucson's Chamber of Commerce, he saw a community that managed to grow without growing apart. "In old Tucson," he told me when I visited him recently, "we all just worked together. There were no politics." He was saddened but not worried by the shootings. What worries him more is the inability of his adopted state's leaders to come together. "Today there are politics," he said. "Good people still, but lots of politics."

Half of Tucson now seems to be looking south toward the border and the opportunities there, and half seems to lean toward far more conservative Phoenix in the north, more than a little fearful of the border at its back. Whether these halves can be united is not just a question for Tucson to answer. Arizona's success in wrestling with its demons matters because the state's three core problems — immigration, health care and education — so closely mirror those of the rest of the country. Its gleaming suburbs were once a symbol of a national boom. Its proximity to America's second largest trading partner could actually be a blessing, not a curse. The weather — a blue-sky 60ºF in January while the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest dug out once again from blizzards — will continue to draw people. And thanks in part to the housing crisis, there will be plenty of well-priced homes for them to move into.

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