Monday, October 10, 2011

Judge Finds Manipulation in Recall Vote in Arizona By MARC LACEY - The New York Times

MESA, Ariz. — At first glance, it had the makings of a spirited election: the leader of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration facing off at the polls with an immigrant from Mexico who believed that the state had gone too far.

But the immigrant, Olivia Cortes, a retiree who filed papers in July to challenge the State Senate president, Russell Pearce, disappeared from the political scene last week just as quickly as she had appeared. Ms. Cortes’s candidacy for a legislative district in this working-class community east of Phoenix, it now appears, had been a dirty trick.

Critics of Mr. Pearce’s hard-line approach to illegal immigration collected enough signatures to force him into a recall election in November. But allies of Mr. Pearce, who is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, did not take that humiliation lightly. They recruited Ms. Cortes in what was an effort to split the anti-Pearce vote, particularly among Latinos, a judge later found.

Greg Western, a Pearce ally who is the chairman of the East Valley Tea Party, was a central figure in the scheme and became Ms. Cortes’s campaign adviser. Soon, signs promoting Ms. Cortes’s candidacy appeared on street corners, bearing the motto made famous by Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers: “Sí, Se Puede!”

Ms. Cortes avoided the news media for weeks, and the few interviews she did give showed her to be shaky on the issues. Her candidacy began falling apart after another candidate, Jerry Lewis, who like Mr. Pearce is a Republican, began his own campaign. Allies of Mr. Lewis’s went to court to challenge Ms. Cortes’s election bid as a sham.

The judge, Edward O. Burke of Superior Court of Maricopa County, declined to remove her from the ballot but did say that the evidence suggested that some of her so-called supporters really supported Mr. Pearce.
“The court finds that Pearce supporters recruited Cortes, a political neophyte, to run in the recall election to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis to advance Pearce’s recall election bid,” the judge said in his ruling.

Still, Judge Burke said he found no wrongdoing by Ms. Cortes herself and believed her testimony that she, a naturalized American citizen from Veracruz, Mexico, opposes “what she believes is Pearce’s harsh legislative treatment and comments about illegal Hispanic immigrants.”

The judge said the Cortes case was distinct from others in which sham candidates were put forward, including a dispute from upstate New York in which opponents of Linda H. Overbaugh, a candidate for the Greene County Legislature, circulated petitions in 2009 on behalf of a Linda L. Overbaugh, who had not given her consent to run.

The judge also said Ms. Cortes’s case did not resemble the subterfuge displayed in “The Distinguished Gentleman,” a movie in which the actor Eddie Murphy, playing a character named Jeff Johnson, runs for Congress after an incumbent with the same name dies.

“The court assumes that candidates have run for office for less than the noble motive of serving the public, which could include getting a better-paying job, pension benefits, achieving a position of perceived importance, boredom, or no reason at all,” Judge Burke said. “Divining candidates’ motives and acting on them is more properly the role of voters.”

But Ms. Cortes’s candidacy fell apart after Mr. Lewis’s allies said they had uncovered evidence of even more links between Ms. Cortes and Mr. Pearce, noting for instance that Mr. Pearce’s nieces had helped collect signatures to get Ms. Cortes on the ballot and that one of Mr. Pearce’s brothers, Lester, who is a justice of the peace and is prohibited from campaigning, accompanied them.

Instead of facing another court hearing on Friday, in which Mr. Pearce’s relatives were subpoenaed, Ms. Cortes agreed through her lawyer to pull out of the race.

But ballots listing the names of Mr. Pearce, Mr. Lewis and Ms. Cortes have already been prepared. Election officials said they would post notices at polling places for Election Day on Nov. 8, informing voters that Ms. Cortes was no longer running.

Mr. Pearce’s detractors insisted on Friday that new ballots that do not mention Ms. Cortes should be printed so that no voter would be confused.

It remained unclear who exactly financed Ms. Cortes’s short-lived campaign, which employed a professional signature gatherer, produced untold lawn signs, created a Web site and issued occasional news releases that borrow Superman’s theme, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

At a debate on Thursday that was supposed to be Ms. Cortes’s first public appearance in the race, there were only two candidates, Mr. Pearce and Mr. Lewis. They clashed on immigration, with Mr. Pearce arguing that illegal immigrants are a burden on the state and Mr. Lewis pushing for what he called a more humane approach on the issue.

At one point, Mr. Lewis lamented Arizona’s poor image, which he said is “something akin to 1964 Alabama.”

Pearce allies in the crowd groaned heartily.

Mr. Pearce said he liked the state’s image just as it is. “We are in the front of the parade,” he said, noting that other states, among them 2011 Alabama, had followed Arizona’s attempt to drive illegal immigrants away.

Ms. Cortes’s candidacy was not debated, but afterward Mr. Pearce was called by reporters, who grilled him on the issue. He denied being behind Ms. Cortes’s candidacy and said he had spoken to his nieces about their involvement. “I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done it.”

Outside the debate, partisans for each candidate waved signs at the other side.

“Russell Pearce mentioned the Constitution six times tonight, and Jerry Lewis mentioned it zero,” said Craig Ray, a Pearce ally who was convinced that his candidate would stave off the challenge.

“He’s a one-issue senator,” Al Moncayo, a retired building inspector of Mexican descent, said of Mr. Pearce, whom he wants ousted. “It’s all about immigration to him. As for Olivia Cortes, she’s probably a nice lady. I don’t know her personally. But, come on.”

Ms. Cortes did not respond to a telephone call, an e-mail or a knock at her door.

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