The Curious Politics of Arizona


"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.

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

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