Former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce dies at 75

By Kathy Ritchie, KJZZ News
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2023 - 2:59pm
Updated: Thursday, January 5, 2023 - 4:32pm

Former state Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, testifies about his bill, Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law, before a U.S. Senate subcommittee Wednesday as Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, listens.
Dustin Volz/Cronkite News
Former state Sen. Russell Pearce testifies about his bill, Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law, before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2012.

Former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce has died. He was 75.

Pearce is perhaps best known as the architect of the controversial anti-immigration legislation SB 1070, which allowed police to question and detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.

Following Gov. Jan Brewer’s signing of SB 1070 into law in 2010, Pearce was being referred to by many as the most powerful politician in Arizona.

The Mesa senator had used his influence to get the legislation passed by colleagues, even as there were warning signs that it wouldn’t be good for the state’s reputation or economy.

A little more than a year later, Pearce became the first state lawmaker in Arizona history to be recalled by voters. 

Mesa City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who represented about half of Pearce's legislative district, said the defeat was no surprise. He said the district had become more politically diverse, especially among independents.

And Pearce's views on immigration also had caused a stir in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he was a member. That gave an edge in the recall election to Jerry Lewis, another member of the church.

SB 1070 was not Pearce's sole foray into the issue of illegal immigration.

In 2004 he was a supporter of Proposition 200. The measure, approved by voters, made proof of citizenship a legal requirement not only to vote but also to receive any public benefits.

But even that did not fully survive.

Just last year Arizona voters approved a measure partly repealing that initiative. It allows children who were brought to this country illegally, to pay the same tuition at state universities and community colleges as any other resident if they meet other conditions.

He also was the author of a 2006 ballot measure to have English declared the state's official language.

Pearce also was a staunch advocate of what he said are Second Amendment rights and ushered through Arizona's first law in 2010 allowing people to carry concealed weapons. Prior to that, all adults could be armed — but only if the weapon were visible.

Prior to being in the Legislature, he was a deputy in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, including being the chief deputy under Joe Arpaio. Pearce said he was responsible for creation in 1993 of the "Tent City.'' which ensured that the county would never run out of space to house inmates. But that was shut down in 2017 amid issues of cruel conditions especially during the summer heat.

In 1995, he became director of the Motor Vehicle Division of the state Department of Transportation.

Pearce was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 and served three two-year terms there before moving to the Senate in 2006 where he remained until the recall.

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