The Politics of Arizona's Great Divide

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Photograph by Zed Nelson

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

(2 of 4)

The question is, Can Arizona get anger management? Can it stop hating itself long enough for the rest of America to fall back in love with it and maybe even learn something from it?

A Structural Problem

A certain level of discord was sewed into the fabric of Arizona from the outset. The center of the state was settled largely by "washed-up 49ers," as Tucson lawyer and history buff David Hardy puts it, who were returning empty-handed and somewhat wild-eyed from California. Among them was a morphine-addicted prospector named Jack Swilling, who founded Phoenix. The libertarian DNA — the same strain that made Giffords a fan of concealed weapons and caused state senator Lori Klein to carry a handgun to Governor Jan Brewer's state of the state address at the capitol two days after the Tucson shootings — remains from those early days. Distant from Washington and hardened by the Apache wars, settlers acted first and asked permission from the federal government later. "The pioneer," wrote Orick Jackson in his 1908 history, "took the matter in hand without any authority, and without a dollar in pay." That group had little in common with the Mormons who settled the north and not much regard for the Hispanic population that was dominant in the south. It was, says Manuel Hernandez, professor of Mexican-American literature at Arizona State University, an "apartheid state" for Hispanics until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In part because of this constant culture clash, Arizona is a land of political opposites, both in the statehouse and the delegations it has sent to Washington: Barry Goldwater and Mo Udall, Evan Mecham and Bruce Babbitt, Janet Napolitano and Jan Brewer, J.D. Hayworth and Gabby Giffords. It's been a reliably Republican state in presidential years since the 1950s (except for 1996, when Clinton took it), but Obama's team believes it may be able to make a run at it in 2012. It was the only state to oppose the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (blacks need jobs, not a holiday, suggested then governor Mecham), but it was also the first state in the U.S. to elect women to its top five statewide offices. The governor's office is precarious: Fife Symington and Mecham were both forced out, Symington after a felony conviction and Mecham after an impeachment, and Napolitano left nearly two years before completing her term to run the Department of Homeland Security. And again, it is young, not even a century old. Arizona has had only a dozen Senators since becoming a state; there are people living in the state now whose grandparents settled the place.

But Arizona is no longer a dusted outpost. Fair weather and cheap housing made the desert boom: a population that was just 700,000 after World War II stands at more than 6.5 million today. The growth in the past 20 years has been nothing short of steroidal: the population mushroomed by 40% in the 1990s and then rose an additional 25% in the first decade of this century. It is now the 16th largest state in the U.S. And that's just the official population.

Like much of the rest of the country, but more so, Arizona managed this growth like a sun-soaked pyramid scheme: cutting taxes and increasing services as if the fun would never stop. As long as new blood and new business kept heading into the state, Arizona met its budget. The first signs of slowdown, however, began tearing the whole structure down.

The state of Arizona's budget is even worse than it looks: a new study estimates that the true deficit is $2.1 billion (more than twice what the legislature says it is). The unemployment rate is exactly that of the U.S. as a whole — 9.4% — but more than half of the homes in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is, are underwater. Most state parks are being shuttered. The public schools are in the bottom 10% of the nation by many metrics.

The current leadership appears singularly unfit to tackle these challenges. Half the legislature seems to treat legislating like an indoor version of the Tombstone 2 p.m. Gunfight Show, giving speeches about pioneer values and then firing a round of blanks. Arizona's legislature has long been warped by low voter turnout and uncontested districts. "Only ideologues go to the polls," says Merrill. "In Arizona, that happens to be the right-wingers." Public financing for campaigns removed most kinds of fundraising and, with them, the moderation that can come with accountability to the business community, so the primaries function as a race to the fringe of acceptable politics.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4