What is it about Arizona?
Did the state's political culture contribute to the shootings last Saturday in Tucson? The short answers: Arizona's political climate has in recent years become poisonous. But, as with other such violent events historically, the shootings themselves had less to do with politics than with the confused brain of a probable psycopath with a perceived personal grievance against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
When I attended the Seattle City Council's presentation of its 2011 priorities Monday, I marked how different the session was from a city council meeting I had attended the week before in a central Arizona city where I have spent part of my time over the past 10 years — and how different our local cultures and politics are.
It has not always been that way in the past. Our 2011 Seattle City Council can lack critical faculties and acuity, but its members without exception are honest and devoted to the public interest, as they see it.
In the Arizona city, the mayor and council members operate as wholly owned subsidiaries of a small group of contractors, large landowners, and conservative political-campaign donors. Whereas we value public dialogue and involvement, in the Arizona city dissenters are stifled and punished by a good-ole-boy network, which runs the town. The local radio-station owner runs only hard-conservative commentary and gives free airtime to incumbent officeholders — without any attempt to present balancing opinion.
The local newspaper shies from controversy that might offend local advertisers who are part of the network. (When the current mayor was elected a few years ago, the newspaper held back until just days before the election a story that he had bankrupted several businesses, leaving creditors and employees in the lurch, and had on several occasions not paid his federal taxes. Since almost all ballots were cast by mail, the story was published too late to influence the election). City and county elected officials, state legislators representing the region, and local judges are all economic and social conservatives.
A longtime councilman in the town last year objected that a mural painted on an elementary school exterior wall included the face of a black child. It was, he said, due to the "Obama craze." The school principal and superintendent caved and ordered that the child's skin be lightened on the mural. Then it was discovered that the child depicted in the mural was Latino and, in fact, a current student at the school. The council member backed off, but he and his allies keep criticizing the mural as a waste of taxpayer money. Here, we would have insisted that such a mural reflect Seattle's diversity.
In one respect Seattle and the Arizona city are similar. Both have substantial populations of well-educated, prosperous citizens who focus on lifestyle and have little political involvement. My life partner, who lives in the Arizona city, is one of a handful of Arizona-born local citizens who challenge the status quo. In 2006, they succeeded in electing a reform mayor and a couple council members. But that was a onetime thing, reversed two years later.
That is one Arizona city, generally regarded in the state as representative. What of the state as a whole?
I first set foot in Arizona in 1964, during the Johnson-Humphrey campaign against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. It was less than a year after President John Kennedy's assassination. Yet, at a Tucson rally being addressed by Sen. Humphrey, I was shocked to see that maybe 100 spectators were wearing holsters and carrying sidearms. Nothing unusual, I was told.
Goldwater was not the fire-breathing conservative he pretended to be. He rode a populist wave to his party's nomination and did so while wearing Western clothing and making outspoken statements about the Eastern elites of both major political parties. He was respected within the state for his efforts on its behalf. He was a talented photographer of Western scenes whose work was published. In his later years he became a devoted libertarian, First Amendment advocate, and gay-rights supporter.
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