The Curious Politics of Arizona

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"What's it like, working for the Jews?"

It was 20 years ago, and I was home visiting my parents in Phoenix. We were chatting in the living room with old family friends; the question was directed at me, a journalist, from one of my father's more serious buddies. The others in the room listened politely, eager to hear my answer.

The moment stays with me, not so much because of the crude anti-Semitism, but due to the many levels of risibility that radiated, goofily, from the question. The men in the room were educated -- most engineers -- but barely knew any Jews, not exactly a prominent population in the state at the time.

Any Jews my parents or their friends might have worked with in Arizona probably avoided them, not wanting to get drawn into a conversation about the latest conspiracy theories -- involving some combination of Jews, the Trilateral Commission, the UN and the gold standard -- purveyed by The Spotlight, the weekly newspaper heavily favored in my parents' circle, or the other, much more overtly anti-Semitic publications they subscribed to.

Back then, those bêtes noires loomed large, along with other random irritants, like seat-belt legislation -- I have an indelible memory of my father defiantly removing the seat belts from a new truck -- and the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit.

To understand Arizona, you have to understand the curious people who live here. Of course there is an enormous population of Hispanics; but they are politically unorganized. There are liberals, certainly, and even academics, but not many. In Phoenix today, blacks are almost nonexistent; but it is a mark of the city's growing tolerance that once in a while, you might see an interracial couple strolling into a restaurant. Gay bars dot the city; and certainly the state is capable of electing Democrats statewide, like Janet Napolitano, the former governor.

Indeed, one of the Obama administration's least-examined consequential political decisions was elevating Napolitano to chief of Homeland Security; this put the state's clumsy but canny lieutenant governor, Jan Brewer, in the governor's office, opening a torrent of iconoclastic legislation that Napolitano had kept the spigot turned tightly down on.

In the months after the last election, Barack Obama seemed to be in town every other month. It seemed plain that the White House thought it might be a transformational battleground in the 2012 presidential election, if the state's reliably red ten (now eleven) electoral votes could be turned blue.

But after the polarizing debate over the new immigration law, the politics of the state seem for now back in the hands of an odd but energized swath of the population -- white, resentful, conservative, and a little dense, complicated by bigotry and an almost childlike ability to be distracted.

A large Mormon population campaigns relentlessly against gay marriage and produces unusual leaders, like Evan Mecham, the sweepingly incompetent governor who was eventually impeached, and Russell Pearce, the blustery state senator behind the immigration bill. Pearce is now the president of the state senate and an ally of both Brewer and Joe Arpaio, the flamboyant sheriff of the state's most populous county.

What will and what won't engender public debate in Arizona is amusingly unpredictable. Arpaio, for example, embarked on a range war against the local alternative newspaper after it published his home address online (as part of a story about his real-estate holdings). In the course of the comical legal battle that ensued, he sent deputies out on a late-night errand to arrest and jail the paper's editor and publisher. A similar move in, say, Manhattan or Chicago would surely have garnered more than the collective shrug the arrests received here.

Two deaths by heat exposure made news in Phoenix in recent years. One captivated the city for weeks, generating literally dozens of news stories and pieces of commentary. The other was noted but then dropped out of the public mind.

The former involved a police dog, inadvertently left in a patrol car by a tearfully regretful officer. The victim in the latter case was a mentally disabled drug addict and prostitute, whom state prison workers deliberately left in an open-air cage on a hot summer day. The woman boiled to death in the sun.

When Ben Quayle, the son of former vice president Dan Quayle, ran for Congress, a delectable story arose; the candidate denied -- and then admitted to -- having written for a skanky, just-this-side-of-pornographic web site. A delectable story it was, too -- except to the Arizona Republic, the state's biggest newspaper, which ran a short wire story about the candidate's denial and then dropped the issue until the political scion had made it through his primary. In the general election, the paper endorsed him, under the headline, "Ben Quayle offers candor, conviction."

Arizona State University, ambitious and mediocre, has launched an omnipresent media campaign around town. "The top tier of U.S. universities," the school proclaims on bright yellow billboards, citing U.S. News & World Report. In that magazine's higher-education rankings, in fact, ASU came in at 121, nowhere near the "top tier."

By comparison, Massachusetts, a state with a population comparable to Arizona's, had eight universities in the top 100 -- and eight more in a separate list of the top 100 liberal-arts colleges. Arizona had an entrant in neither. The Republic, gamely, reported that ASU had "maintained" its position at 121.

Indeed, by most social rankings, Arizona is huddled down near the states in the Deep South. Anecdotally, a visitor sees that the state is very big on, well, bigness, whether it's waist sizes or SUVs. (The latter are collected like commemorative plates, and extras are displayed proudly in many residents' front yards.) The 2007 crash wiped out fully half of the value of the state's residential real estate-the largest segment of its economy-and created a new generation of resentful victims. At the gym I go to, worked-up men in the locker room will explain to you heatedly how Barney Frank single-handedly architected the collapse of the U.S. economy.

Back in the state, at my parents' house I come across this or that souvenir of the old days, including a 76-page pamphlet called "Operation Vampire Killer 2000." Here's the introduction:

"The Police Officers, National Guardsmen and military officers who have contributed to this special publication are aware of a plan to overthrow the Constitutional Republic of these United States of America." The pamphlet, which dates from the mid-1990s, said the plan was to go into effect in the year 2000.

You could say such ideas are in the water out here, but the depleted levels of the lakes and the groundwater tables seem to rule that out.

Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused of trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last weekend, was a troubled youth with an inconsistent and slightly incomprehensible set of beliefs. In this way he was a true native son.

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.

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