Arizona: Distasteful political climate didn't breed a sick individual

Spending part of the year in Arizona underlines the troubles in the state's civic life. But a bad atmosphere didn't pull the trigger.

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An apparently disturbed gunman turned a grocery store turned into a crime scene in Tucson, killing six people as he attempted to assassinate a congresswoman.

Spending part of the year in Arizona underlines the troubles in the state's civic life. But a bad atmosphere didn't pull the trigger.

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.

Arizona also had nationally known Democratic officeholders, including Sen. Carl Hayden, who served in the U.S. Senate for 42 years and was its president pro tempore,  Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland, and Reps. Stewart and Morris Udall.  Bruce Babbitt, who served as President Clinton's Interior Secretary, was a former Arizona attorney general and governor.

Even quite recently, Janet Napolitano, now Homeland Security Secretary, served as a Democratic governor and attorney general. Terry Goddard, defeated in the recent gubernatorial race by Gov. Jan Brewer, was a highly succesful Phoenix mayor before serving as attorney general. His father, Sam Goddard, was a former governor.   Democrats traditionally have held Arizona congressional seats in districts bordering Mexico and with high Latino voter registration.

In recent years, though, Arizona politics have taken a particularly nasty turn.

Napolitano had been re-elected governor on the pledge that she had no intention of leaving Arizona, for national service in Washington, D.C., and would serve out her term.  When offered the Homeland Security job, she promptly resigned, making way for the temporary appointment of Brewer as governor.  Brewer, with a high-school education and not particularly influential in the Republican Party, was seen as a placeholder.  But, then, an obscure Republican state legislator introduced a measure calling for tighter enforcement of border security and checks of illegal aliens in the state.  It passed one-sidedly.  (Six other states currently are considering similar legislation).  Brewer rode ths issue, no longer was a placeholder, and now has been re-elected, despite embarrassing pratfalls in her campaign against Goddard.  (I advised Goddard, by the way, to follow up Brewer's public-debate and other gaffes with a fair-but-tough campaign making her competence the central issue in the contest; a high-minded Goddard characteristically shied from that approach).

The immigration issue is a real one in Arizona. Several-hundred thousand illegal immigrants currently reside in the state. Arizona has a long tradition of Latino involvement in its political, economic, and cultural life. But, in recent years, undocumented Mexicans seeking work have increasingly been replaced by criminals undertaking gang activity, drug and human trafficking, and gun running.  Killngs and kidnappings related to this activity have gotten prime media attention.

Sen. John McCain, relating in particular to Arizona employers using illegal workers, had taken a moderate position nationally on the issue, serving as co-sponsor of legislation characterized by its opponents as "amnesty." But over the past two years, he and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, No. 2 in the Republican Senate hierarchy, have taken a far harsher stance focusing almost solely on tighter border security and enforcement of existing immigration laws.

Maricopa County (Phoenix) Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio has parlayed his tough-guy posture on illegals into national prominence.  Pima County (Tucson) Democratic Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has frequently taken the other side of the argument, faulting specifically the local political climate for contributing to the shootings there last weekend.  At the same time as the immigration issue has gained ascendance in Arizona, the overall political climate has taken a populist, anti-government turn as state voters have been part of the national tide focusing on public debt and deficits.

Rep. Giffords narrowly held her congressional seat in November.  She has been a moderate, voting for instance for Obamacare but favoring tighter border enforcement and gun-owner rights.  She was one of 19 House Democrats who voted against Rep. Nancy Pelosi's election as House Minority Leader last week.  Other Arizona Democratic moderates, notably Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell, lost their congressional seats in November.   Republicans now hold not only the Arizona governorship but a majority of the state's congressional seats and majorities in both houses of the legislature.  The party's hard-conservative wing is dominant.

Sheriff Dupnik, after the shootings, cited some of the threats and vandalism against Giffords' office which had followed her vote for the Obama health plan. But, as the story has unfolded, it turns out that Jared Laughner, the alleged shooter, had a several-year grudge against Rep. Giffords because she had given what he regarded as an unstatisfying answer to his (garbled and incoherent) question at an earlier public forum.  He was not angry about Obamacare or immigration or tied to any reactionary political group.

In November 1963, after President Kennedy's murder there, many commentators immediately blamed the poisonous political climate then existing in Dallas as the cause of his death.  Fact was, the Dallas climate then was worse than the Arizona climate today. Sentiment there was strongly against a thaw in the Cold War and even U.S. membership in the United Nations.  U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been booed and spat upon during a visit to Dallas a short time before Kennedy's visit. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, himself a Texan, urged Kennedy not to make the trip to Dallas.  But he did.

As it turned out, Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger. He was a Castro sympathizer and onetime defector to the Soviet Union who a short time before had talked of shooting Gen. Edwin Walker, an arch-conservative Cold Warrior with a strong Dallas following.

John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan, said he did so to impress actress Jody Foster. The Muslim Army major and psychiatrist who undertook mass shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, did have ties to Islamist extremists.  But commentators took great care to separate those ties from his obvious personal psychological problems. Sirhan Sirhan said he killed Sen. Robert Kennedy because Kennedy was a supporter of Israel.  Yet other Democrats were equally or more supportive of Israel than RFK.  James Earl Ray was identified as the shooter of Marin Luther King yet it was clear he was backed by people in Memphis and elsewhere who had racist motives. That clearly was a killing linked to extremist politics. Ray, perhaps, was the only one of the above group not driven by some personal derangement.

I find the present political climate in Arizona to be distasteful and destructive.  Yet I do not blame it for the Tucson shootings.

Blame there lies with a deranged person acting on the instructions of a sick brain.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of