Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

Something about Arizona

A state that gets under skin

Phoenix, Ariz. —

Toward the end of summer, President Obama came to this hot city, the capital of Arizona and the Southwest, to address the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention. Outside the Convention Center, some citizens staged a little protest, or stunt: They carried guns, openly, emphasizing their right to do so — and expressing a concern that such rights are under siege. This created a small national furor, putting Arizona in the spotlight once again. There’s something about Arizona: It gets under some skin, particularly liberal skin.

The most prominent protester was a Christopher Broughton, who sported both a rifle and a pistol: the former slung over his shoulder, the latter holstered at his side. Otherwise, he looked like a typical businessman, in a white dress shirt and dark tie. MSNBC showed the middle of his body, only: zeroing in on those weapons. Anchorwoman Contessa Brewer said, “There are questions about whether this” — meaning the anti-Obama, pro-gun protest — “has racial overtones. I mean, here you have a man of color in the presidency and white people showing up with guns.” Embarrassingly for MSNBC — one would think — Mr. Broughton is black. The Arizona Republic asked him why he had shown up armed. He answered, “Because I can do it. In Arizona, I still have some freedoms left.”

One of the people scandalized by Christopher Broughton and his fellow protesters was Arthur Frommer, the veteran travel guru, author of the famous Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. (The price has gone up.) On his blog, Frommer confessed to being “shocked beyond measure” at the gun-bearing Arizonans. He said, “For myself, without yet suggesting that others follow me in an open boycott, I will not personally travel in a state where civilians carry loaded weapons onto the sidewalks and as a means of political protest. I not only believe such practices are a threat to the future of our democracy, but I am firmly convinced that they would also endanger my own personal safety there.”

The national media piled on. For example, the New York Times editorialized, “It is hard to know what is more shocking: the sight of a dozen Americans showing up to flaunt guns outside the venue for President Obama’s speech . . . or the fact that the swaggering display was completely legal.” In Arizona, citizens may carry a gun openly without a permit or license — this is known as a “permissive open-carry law,” and states that have it are “permissive open-carry states.” There are eleven such states. Some are “red” states, for which liberals would have little use: Idaho, South Dakota, Kentucky. Others are states for which liberals have more fondness: such as Arizona’s neighbor New Mexico, land of New Age religion and the Santa Fe Opera; and even that great liberal bastion Vermont, home of Howard Dean (and no longer the home of Calvin Coolidge). But no one is boycotting, or threatening a boycott, of those states. And Arthur Frommer, incidentally, is a great booster of travel to Cuba, which is a police state, under a totalitarian dictatorship. It is true, however, that citizens there aren’t allowed to carry guns.

Frommer went on National Public Radio, where the interviewer said, “You almost make it sound like it’s Mogadishu, but we’re talking about Arizona.” Frommer replied, “Well, it’s getting that way. It’s getting that way.” Hardly. As Tom Patterson, a physician and the former Republican leader in the state senate, says, “This is very much a cultural thing.” People in other places in the country may be shocked at the sight of guns carried openly. But, in Arizona, this is normal, not aberrant or worrisome. “I’m not a gun guy myself,” says Patterson, “wouldn’t know how to shoot one. But I have a lot of respect for gun rights. I like living in a state where guns are commonly carried, because I think the evidence is clear that you’re safer in such an environment”: safer from criminality. And “in Arizona, people are responsible about their guns. I don’t think a thing of it to see a guy with a gun. Doesn’t bother me as a non–gun person in the least.”

When the national heat was turned on, some Arizonans got “all wee-weed up,” to borrow a phrase from our president. An article in the Republic said that the state had been branded “gun-crazy.” A Phoenix councilman told the paper, “We’re an urban city, and there are individuals trying to hold on to the old ways of the Wild West. We’re going to lose a lot of conventions because of one knucklehead.” (Was that Christopher Broughton?) As the paper reported, “more than a dozen civic leaders, tourism officials and media strategists” had “huddled” in the office of Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon “to discuss how to stanch the flow of bad publicity.” These people fretted about the “perception” of the state, for tourism is a key part of its economy. Mayor Gordon — a Democrat, though his office is nonpartisan — phoned Arthur Frommer to invite him to Phoenix: so that he could see for himself that the city is not Mogadishu.

Arizona has been through image agonies before, which explains much of its present nervousness. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a great controversy over a Martin Luther King holiday. One governor, Bruce Babbitt, established the holiday by executive order after approval of the holiday failed in the legislature by one vote. His successor, Evan Mecham, rescinded the order, claiming it was illegal. He offered instead a Civil Rights Day that would be observed on a Sunday. In 1990, Arizonans had a chance to vote on a couple of referenda: One referendum would have eliminated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday while putting in MLK Day instead; the other would have added MLK Day as a paid state holiday, while keeping all others. Both failed, the second one extremely narrowly.

Before going to the polls, Arizonans had faced some pressure. Their racial morality, and even their patriotism, was on the line. The Super Bowl was scheduled to be played in Tempe in 1993, and, just before Election Day, the commissioner of the National Football League, Paul Tagliabue, issued a threat: He said that the league would yank the Super Bowl from Arizona if the voters rejected the holiday. He succeeded only in creating a backlash. Many Arizonans reacted indignantly to this sort of coercion or accusation. One bumper sticker said, NFL Go to Hell and Play the Super Bowl There.

Arizona endured a national boycott for a couple of years, losing hundreds of millions in tourism. Something like 160 groups canceled their conventions. (There is a lot of conventioneering in America.) Stevie Wonder canceled a concert. Then, in 1992, Arizonans had another chance: There was a new referendum, this one consolidating Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays and offering an MLK Day. It passed overwhelmingly. And many in Arizona breathed a huge sigh of relief. Phoenix’s mayor, Paul Johnson, said, “We won our dignity back.” And Arizonans were able to say they were the only Americans who actually chose the holiday by direct popular vote: not through legislative or executive action. The NFL blessed and absolved Arizona by granting it the 1996 Super Bowl. As that day approached, an article in the Dallas Morning News, datelined Phoenix, said, “When Super Bowl XXX comes to town Jan. 28, officials hope they will be able to permanently shake off claims that Arizona is a redneck, racist state.” Arizona was in a sense back in the national fold. But there is still something about it.

It is our 48th state — the last of the continental states — entering the Union in 1912. And Clint Bolick, the famed conservative public-interest lawyer, says its constitution is peculiar. It was written by people “deeply skeptical about government power, and about government power combined with corporate interests.” The state has “pretty much a dream constitution, from the standpoint of conservatives and libertarians.” Arizona developed a reputation for being the quintessential conservative-libertarian state: the Goldwater state. Indeed, William F. Buckley Jr. liked to point out that Arizona — and western conservatism — was practically written into Barry Goldwater’s face: strong, rugged, independent, handsome, confident, defiant. Arizona has always done things a little differently, even cussedly. They do not do Daylight Saving Time (except for the Navajos). They were the last state to accept Medicaid — doing without federal funds rather than creating a state program.

And they have been about as Republican as you can get. For example, Arizona has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952, with one exception: 1996, when Bill Clinton won reelection over Bob Dole. And yet some famous Democrats and liberals have come out of Arizona. Carl Hayden served longer in Congress than anyone else ever (1912, the statehood year, to 1969). You remember the Udall brothers, Stewart and Mo. Bruce Babbitt ran for president in 1988, and another former governor, Janet Napolitano, is now Obama’s secretary of homeland security.

But Republicans have dominated. Today, they have a majority in both houses of the legislature, although their hold on those majorities is insecure. They have the governor — Napolitano’s successor Jan Brewer. They have the two U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl. But the U.S. House delegation is five-to-three Democratic. According to Tom Patterson, the next governor will be a Democrat: the current attorney general, Terry Goddard. 

The state’s electorate is evolving. Party registration is now pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. And the Democrats are outraising the GOP: That is, they are bringing in more money, a striking turn of events. The Republican party is suffering some divisions. For example, Arizona is running the largest budget deficit of any state in America, by at least one measure (having to do with the percentage of the general fund). That is not very Goldwaterian. And Governor Brewer is proposing a tax increase. Other Republicans gag and rebel at this, saying that a tax increase is particularly nutty in a recession, deficit or no deficit.

The state’s electorate evolves because the population evolves: is added to, changes, in a Democratic direction. John Norton can testify to this. He is a businessman, a former official in the Reagan Agriculture Department, and a third-generation Arizonan. His grandfather arrived here in 1880. Very few others can boast such roots here. He says, “When I was a kid, we had a dinky little town” — Phoenix — “surrounded by farmland. Now we have a huge city with no farmland.” For decades, “our influx of people came from the Upper Midwest, where it’s cold. We had a lot of North Dakotans and so on. They came down here to warm up, and they tended to be conservative. They didn’t upset our political composition. But now the people coming our way are from California, and they are of a less reliable bent” — meaning, they are pretty unconservative.

Indeed, some Arizonans joke that a security fence should not be built along the state’s southern border, with Mexico, but along the western border with California. You have perhaps heard of “Vermontization.” Vermont was once one of the most Republican states in the land — a New England Arizona. It was one of the two states won by Alf Landon in 1936. The other was Maine. (The saying had been, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.” That year, the quip was, “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”) But people from New York City, Massachusetts, and other liberal realms decided that they liked Vermont, a lot: So Coolidge’s state became Howard Dean’s, and Patrick Leahy’s, and Bernard Sanders’s. (Sanders is the first avowedly socialist senator in American history.) Arizona is experiencing some Vermontization. And Byron Schlomach, an analyst with the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, makes a key point — a point that is also a complaint: What drew the Californians to Arizona was a healthy economy; but they have little idea of what makes an economy healthy; and they want to make the state more like California, meaning that Arizona will become less a state that people want to come to than one they want to exit.

Some of the newcomers want Arizona to become hipper, trendier, more “coastal,” in spirit — less Arizona-like, in other words. The Goldwater Institute’s president, Darcy Olsen, says that transplants may suffer from a kind of homesickness, perhaps imagining the grass to be greener where they came from. (There is certainly a dearth of grass in the desert.) A Goldwater vice president, Starlee Rhoades, makes a related point: Why do people come wanting to subvert Arizona’s character, its specialness? In the 1980s, we said, “Let Poland be Poland, and “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Why can’t Arizona be Arizona? The name of a recent off-Broadway show has relevance: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

There is also an elephant in the room, or state: a donkey, actually, because this development favors the Democratic party. And that is illegal immigration from Mexico. John Norton puts it bluntly: “Our streets are paved with illegal aliens. The United States government’s handling of the problem makes me want to throw up. Our borders don’t mean anything at all to our government.” Tom Patterson says, “The demographics are all against us” — against the Republicans — “unless we can do something to convince Hispanics that conservatism is something embraceable by them.” For years, he heard, as many of us heard, that Hispanics are “natural conservatives”: family-minded, hard-working, enterprising, church-going, and so on. They are supposed to fall into the conservative camp, but, in reality, “it never happens,” says Patterson. In this part of the world, the Hispanic population suffers from high out-of-wedlock birthrates and inattention to education. Also, they receive government largesse, and duly “vote their pocketbook,” so to speak. These are generalizations, of course, but unfortunately well-founded ones.

Patterson says that “the number of Hispanics in the Republican party is just de minimis,” which is terribly significant, because the Hispanic population stands at 30 percent and is growing “by leaps and bounds.” And those Hispanics who are in the Republican party, continues Patterson, tend to be “professional Hispanics”: “What they like to talk about is being Hispanic, and they like to say that Republicans should do more for Hispanics, rather than talking about how Republicans can convince Hispanics to embrace a conservative or Republican way of thinking.” Arizona Republicans are not united on the issue of immigration, even of illegal immigration: Some businessmen — e.g., fast-food operators — like this immigration, saying it is good not only for them but for the state’s economy at large.

In any case, Arizona is becoming a “purple” state, as Patterson and others say: neither red (conservative) nor blue (liberal), but a blend. And if the state continues to Hispanicize and California-ize, without Republican capturing of hearts and minds, it will be outright blue. Texas too, for that matter, but that’s another — not dissimilar — article.

For now, however, Arizona is recognizably Goldwaterian: a place that Arthur Frommer is probably right to find uncongenial. Jess Yescalis is a political strategist who has worked in about half the American states. Nowhere else, he says, does “a message of individual freedom, free enterprise, self-reliance,” etc., so resonate. Clint Bolick is inclined to agree. He stresses that property rights are exceptionally strong here, and school choice as well. “In primary campaigns, Republicans will try to out-school-choice one another.” Arizonans are also taking steps to shield themselves from federal laws concerning health care and unionization — protecting their distinctiveness.

In August, the Arizona Republic said Christopher Broughton and his gun-bearing brethren had “ignited a media firestorm, reinforcing the stereotype of the Grand Canyon State as a gun-loving vestige of the Wild West.” Traditional Arizonans and their well-wishers can only say, “Long live the vestige.” Or, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, “A vestige, if you can keep it.”

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