This US Campaign Has It All
By Gerard WrightNovember 5, 2012
There is another race going on between a Mormon and a minority candidate — for an Arizona seat in the US Senate. But this one will be decided by Latinos — both coveted and held at bay in American politics.
IT'S ON. Here in Arizona, there is nothing senatorial, let alone near-presidential, about United States senator John McCain’s words as he criticises President Barack Obama, the man who dealt him a resounding defeat in the 2008 presidential election. Less maverick now than fist-shaker, McCain will have his revenge, even if it is merely an extemporaneous speech to an audience of 70, the first of four he will make on this Saturday in late October for Jeff Flake.
Flake is the Republican candidate for the seat of departing GOP senator Jon Kyl, whose tenure in the upper house began in 1994. Arizona has a record of long-serving senators, having elected just 10 senators in its 100-year history. Therefore this battleground is seeing the big guns. Flake’s Democrat opponent, Dr Richard Carmona, had former president Bill Clinton at a rally of 5,500 people in Phoenix two weeks before senators McCain and Kyl addressed this rather smaller gathering, in a suburb called Fountain Hills.
The contest between Flake and Carmona is one of eight Senate races where polls show a margin of less than 5 per cent. At stake is control of the Senate, which Robert Caro, award-winning biographer of former president Lyndon Johnson, describes as the final arbiter of American political decisions.
The Arizona Senate race is the present and future of American politics, writ small.
Arizona is where the issue of illegal immigration, once a guaranteed vote-winner for conservative Republicans, runs head on into demographic reality. The state’s largest city, Phoenix, is on the verge of becoming minority majority; that is, Latinos, mainly from Mexico, which borders Arizona to the south, are about to become the single largest ethnic group in that city. The 2010 national census shows that in the previous decade, the Latino population had increased 43 per cent, compared with overall population growth of 10 per cent.
Flake, a 49-year-old father of five, grandfather of one, is a Mormon blueblood who can trace his Arizona lineage back 140 years, to the days when the state was still a territory. Carmona, a former Republican-appointed US surgeon-general, among other things, is Latino, born in America to struggling immigrant parents from Puerto Rico.
The Flake-Carmona US Senate contest, a tight race, also presents a showcase for modern campaign finance. Let us take a moment to consider the Super PAC.
Arizona is awash in political advertising, much of it paid for with anonymously sourced money, directed to groups that can say anything through Political Action Committees, or Super PACs, which were given the same freedom of speech rights as your everyday punter, under a 2010 Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United.
Super PACs have sprung up across America on both sides of politics. The law forbids contact with the candidate they favour, making them all but impossible to police. For Flake, who has a history including positions contrary to official Republican Party doctrine, it means elements of the campaign are out of his hands.
“That’s right,” Flake says. “It’s a brave new world. When Super PACs are involved, all you can do is run your own campaign and hope that if the other side has friends on the outside, you do too. But it’s a really different environment.
“In some ways,” Flake continues, “you have less control of your message.” Flake is personable, about as genuine as you can expect anyone to be when they make the brief acquaintance of hundreds or thousands of strangers in any single day of campaigning.
A line of “Flake for Senate” signs serves as a sort of breadcrumb trail to a Super PAC office in Phoenix. This branch of the Super PAC Freedom Works has a $900,000 budget, according to its co-ordinator, Sam Stone. It exists in one of a warren of office spaces housing a childcare centre, the Internal Revenue Service, and a store selling pianos, in the suburb of Mesa, a Mormon enclave since the 1870s. There is no direct signage.
A whiteboard in the conference room offers a diagram that has lines connecting FWA (for Freedom Works America) with “Tea Party” and “9/12 Groups” (the 9/12 Project, named for the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when America was a supposed utopia of united states and beliefs, is organised by conservative media personality Glenn Beck). Here, though, it is for organising the grassroots, including in Fountain Hills.
AMERICA IS FULL OF SUBURBS LIKE Fountain Hills, places with no history other than the need to get a place started in the middle of nowhere, making a vault-load of money developing it. The crowd at Flake’s rally this day in the Fountain Hills Unified School District is largely white, trending older.
One of the few black faces belongs to Dr C.T. Wright, vice president of the school district, and founder and chief executive of the Light of Hope Institute, who offers the pre-event invocation beseeching the Almighty for blessings and, presumably, endorsement, and nominating Fountain Hills as “the most beautiful town in the world” and “the greatest town in the world”. It’s as though Americans need constant reinforcement.
McCain is first speaker. Ignoring the lectern and microphone, he advances towards the audience. His voice is at conversation level but easily heard. He sets the scene, saying that he’s been fighting the good fight in this Arizona campaign; and in Ohio and Virginia, for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
McCain then turns his attention to the attack on an American diplomatic compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed, including ambassador Christopher Stephens. “What happened in Libya is a disgrace. We are watching a cover-up, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Watergate,” he says
He’s tossing incendiary goodies to the audience, who process the information in unforeseen ways. For example, McCain is asked about the possibility of Obama being impeached over the events in Libya, or tried for treason — a query which prompts “Hear, hear!” from the back of the room.
“This is something of enormous proportions,” McCain responds. “I can reach conclusions about the failure to protect, [about] the cover-up. I can’t make a case for treason. I can make a case for deceptions and incompetence.”
It’s left to the departing Senator Kyl to re-introduce sanity to the proceedings. “Let’s not be talking about treason or impeachment,” he says.
The purpose of such talk, known as “red meat” is to fire up the base, and put sufficient rev in their engines that they can get up and do the hard, thankless work of campaigning, inserting fliers in letterboxes, or knocking on doors and selling the candidate to strangers.
McCAIN’S FIGHTING WORDS HAVE LITTLE to do with the real issues around which the Arizona Senate election revolve. One of these is that rising influence of the Latino vote. The increasing numbers of Latinos, and consequent impact as an electoral force, runs head-on into the Republicans’ anti-immigration platform.
The last time Arizona was at the forefront of attention was two years ago, when it introduced legislation designed to make life in the state unbearable for anyone of Latino origin. Republican-led state Senate Bill 1070 gave police the power to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped, detained or arrested.
This was easily decipherable code for the capacity to harass anyone who looked even slightly non-white, another way to describe racial profiling. The US Supreme Court struck down three of the four pillars of the bill earlier this year.
The Democrats’ Carmona, was chosen in part because of his professional and public service background, but also because he is Latino (although he’s Puerto Rican, not Mexican, as the majority of Latinos in the western states are).
Carmona, who lives in the southern Arizona city of Tucson, has shaped up as the perfect candidate. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, he was a high school dropout. But then:
He served in the Army’s Special Forces unit in Vietnam as a combat medic and received two Purple Hearts, awarded for injuries suffered in combat.
He went to a community college before getting a university scholarship and a degree in medicine.
He served as a sheriff’s deputy in southern Arizona, where he once prevailed in a shootout, killing the man who was shooting at him.
He was appointed surgeon-general of the United States — “the doctor of the nation”, as Carmona likes to introduce himself — by President George W. Bush.
He had an open invitation from both parties to join them and run for office.
He was hand-picked by Democratic Party headquarters in Washington to run for this Senate seat.
All of it the American Dream, in one biographical nutshell.
One formerly Republican-connected lawyer in Tucson contends that both parties had been vying for Carmona’s attentions before the Democrats ultimately won.
The Democrats are convinced that in Carmona they have a triple-word score.
“He’s a badass, he’s a cop, he was a soldier,” the lawyer says. “People love that in Arizona. They eat that up.
“He was the opposition (working under Bush); he was a tough guy, a tough guy doctor. You don’t see that very often.”
THE PARADOX OF BEING MEXICAN — being both wanted and held at bay in American politics — is best illustrated in the Arizona border town of San Luis, 60 kilometres southeast of Yuma. The songs blaring from loudspeakers on the main shopping strip are Spanish; ditto for the signage. Friendship Park is off Urtuzastegui Street. The border crossing is next to it. All of the humanity who live in Mexico but commute for work or schooling to the US, the workers, the shoppers – urged to leave their shopping carts in a space next to the park – the schoolkids, chatting and skipping, the grown-ups trudging, the drivers, are funneled into two lanes, alongside a narrow pedestrian walkway, and thence in semi-orderly fashion to the border checkpoint.
Earlier on this day, Richard Carmona and Jeff Flake met in the third of three candidate debates in Yuma. Among the few points of common agreement in the debate is that the farms throughout Yuma County need more Mexicans, and they need their workers to be less constrained in their movements.
The cars in San Luis pass by mounted security cameras, positioned to monitor front and rear number plates. The fence is on either side of the crossing. Five metres high, sunk two metres into the desert soil, it’s rusted red-brown with a close-link wire frame attached to steel pillars, also five metres apart. Towering over the fence are the floodlights, four per pole, one pole every 25 metres. It’s a statement: Entry to this country is on our terms, at the point of our choosing.
Its presence is symbolic, as much as preventative. At least it looks like it can keep people out. An alternate attempt at shutting off the 595 kilometre Arizona border with Mexico has been an expensive failure.
Built and installed by the Boeing company at a cost of $850 million, the high-tech border fence known as SBInet was supposed to be able to track illegal border crossers through thermal heat detection, radar, and ground sensors. It covered 65 kilometres.
The thermal detectors were stymied by the heat of the desert, where summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celcius. The radar was confounded by the dips and hollows of the desert landscape. The ground sensors could not distinguish between the weight of a human and that of the larger desert predators, leading to innumerable false alarms.
The understanding that border control resists even the massive amounts of money so far thrown at it has begun to dawn on Arizonans.
An attempt last year by an Arizona Republican legislator to raise $50 million in private funding to continue construction of the fence fell $2.5 million short of its initial goal of $2.8 million — to build just the first mile of the proposed barrier.
But as political science professor Kim Fridkin of Arizona State University points out, the notion of walling off all of Mexico seems to have become as dated as the Blackberry, and not only because drug cartels have the money and engineering sophistication to construct 100-metre tunnels underneath any above-ground barrier.
If the polls — and experts such as Fridkin, Randy Parazz of Citizens for a Better Arizona, and even candidates such as Jeff Flake — are correct, then more residents of Arizona seem inclined to show to the people across the border an open hand than a clenched fist.
EVEN JOHN KAVANAGH, a state Republican who introduced the worthies at the Fountain Hills event — and who was a co-sponsor of the SB1070 — seems to accept that the demographic and cultural tide has turned. The bill, he says, “may have alienated some [Latino voters, but] it was more some of the rhetoric that surrounded it. Some of the vitriol obviously turned them.”
Vitriol such as this, from the bill’s author, State Senate President Russell Pearce, in emails revealed by the American Civil Liberties Union in a court filing opposing the bill: “Can we maintain our social fabric as a nation with Spanish fighting English for dominance ... It’s like importing leper colonies and hope we don’t catch leprosy. It’s like importing thousands of Islamic jihadists and hope they adapt to the American Dream.”
Kavanagh noted that Latino voters favour the Democrats “because of the immigration policies”.
Those policies include the proposed Dream Act, which allows anyone who entered the US illegally under the age of 15 to begin the process to citizenship if they complete a university degree or two years of military service. Another policy, which took effect in August allows illegal immigrants who came to the US as children to remain in the country, work legally, and obtain official forms of identification such as drivers license. This would reportedly affect 800,000 of the 12 million-plus believed to be in the United States illegally.
A December 2011 survey of Latino voters found that 91 per cent supported the Dream Act. The illegal immigration question appears to be fading as an issue of concern for the electorate. A January survey found that only 39 per cent considered it a “top priority” for the president and congress, compared with 55 per cent, five years earlier. This may also be due to the fact that net migration to the US from Mexico is now at zero for the first time in 40 years.
Still, Kavanagh added, a little hopefully, that Latinos were still listening to Republicans. “They are also pro-life, pro-family”, causes the Republicans claim as their own.
Optimism, delusion, amnesia. No politician would ever leave home without them.
Update: With 95 per cent of voted counted, Republican Jeff Flake has beaten the Democratic candidate, Richard Carmona, taking 50.45% of the vote.