What's Changed in Arizona Politics Since the Giffords Shooting

The tone was supposed to become more civil. Instead, strident anti-immigrant sentiment and partisan backbiting have continued.

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TUCSON, Arizona -- United in grief a year ago, this city on Sunday marked the anniversary of the day when six people who wanted to talk politics with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a local Safeway were killed and 13 others, including the congresswoman, were wounded. Though a bullet pierced her brain that day, Giffords sat smiling and swaying to the music Sunday as the crowd marveled to see her and hear the first words she's spoken -- the Pledge of Allegiance -- at a public event.

Both the candlelight vigil that Giffords and husband Mark Kelly attended and other weekend events sought to celebrate the lives that were lost and the community's determination to move past the tragedy, rather than relive the horrific events of Jan. 8, 2011. Bells rang throughout the city and pleas for civility and kindness echoed across the campus of the University of Arizona.

When Jared Loughner emptied a semiautomatic pistol into the crowd at Giffords' meet-and-greet, Arizona was already in the throes of fevered political incivility, fed by contentious campaigns and the state's battle over illegal immigration. A year later, the tenor of politics in the Grand Canyon state has changed somewhat, but the composition of Arizona's institutional leadership has largely remained the same: leaning to the right, with a Republican governor leading a Republican-controlled legislature.

As she left the vigil Sunday, nurse Anna Berube told me she felt a renewed sense of purpose. "This pulls us together, it gives us a spirit again to go on, work cohesively together." Then she paused. "For a while, anyway, then I think it goes back to the old stuff, unfortunately."

A year later, here's what changed in Arizona -- and what hasn't:

1. Former state Senate President Russell Pearce, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in Arizona politics, was ousted from his seat in a vicious recall election in November. But the legacy of Pearce -- the godfather of the state's strident anti-illegal immigration law and a strong advocate of gun rights -- continues. His political allies are set to again push a controversial bill that would allow guns on college campuses. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill last session. Meanwhile, the state's crackdown on illegal immigration is on pause as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Arizona's appeal. And the most controversial portions of Senate Bill 1070 -- the 2010 law that gives local and state authorities the power to arrest those suspected of being in the country illegally -- are on hold.

2. A Department of Justice civil-rights investigation has severely curtailed Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's enforcement of immigration laws, accusing him of systematic discrimination against Latinos. He also faces questions about possible mismanagement of county funds and a failure to investigate hundreds of sex crimes, including some against children. A defiant Arpaio, who like Pearce rose to national prominence because of his tough stance on illegal immigration, recently announced he is running for re-election.

3. Given Giffords' serious injuries, potential candidates for her seat have mostly stayed quiet as they wait to hear whether she is well enough to seek re-election this fall. But as the May deadline to file papers for public office approaches without a Giffords decision, some are now criticizing her and positioning themselves to run for her seat. Her public appearance Sunday intensified speculation about her political future.

Image credit: REUTERS/Laura Segall

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Lourdes Medrano, a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes about people, politics and immigration from both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. She is currently working on a book about the region.

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