TUCSON, Ariz. – Mitt Romney’s tough stance on illegal immigration during the 2012 campaign has won him the support of an influential conservative voice on the issue -- Russell Pearce, the former Arizona state Senate president and author of the state’s controversial anti-illegal immigration law.
In an interview Tuesday night after a tea party dinner in Gilbert, Ariz., Pearce – who, in part due to his authorship of the SB 1070 law, late last year became the first Arizona legislator to be ousted from office in a recall election – described the former Massachusetts governor’s stand on illegal immigration as the same as his own.
“His immigration policy is identical to mine,” Pearce said. “Attrition by enforcement. It’s identical to mine – enforce the laws. We have good laws, just enforce them.”
A Romney spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The statement by Pearce could give Romney further support among conservatives – but it also could hand national Democrats ammunition as they seek to portray Romney as out-of-step with Hispanics, many of whom strongly oppose a law they argue would open the door to racial profiling.
SB 1070 was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in April 2010, but the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to block its implementation. The Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on the law on April 25.
National Democrats have argued that Romney has called SB 1070 a “model” law, but Romney’s statement, made at a GOP debate earlier this year, was in fact referring to Arizona’s E-verify requirements, not the sweeping anti-illegal immigration law. Romney has previously said that the Justice Department should drop its lawsuit over SB 1070.
Romney supports self-deportation, which is the idea at the root of SB 1070.
In Tuesday’s interview, which took place after an Arizona Liberty Project dinner at which former presidential candidate Herman Cain was the keynote speaker, Pearce said that he had originally backed both Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in the GOP race. But now, Pearce said, he is throwing his support behind Romney.
“In this entire debate, you always are looking for a hero,” Pearce said. “And you look for a Ronald Reagan -- one of my heroes -- and you have to recognize, you don’t have a Ronald Reagan. You have some of them that’re pretty close, maybe. But we tend to look at their faults – because they all have warts. But I’m a supporter of Romney. It took me a long time to get there because I looked very carefully – I vetted every single candidate carefully.”
Of Romney’s position on illegal immigration, Pearce said, “I don’t want to take credit for being there and helping him write it, but much of his policy was modeled -- by people who I’ve worked with -- after my legislation.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who has played an instrumental role in authorizing illegal immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere, has served as a Romney adviser since the beginning of this year.
Pearce, who recently announced that he is making another run for state Senate in the wake of his recall loss, strongly defended the illegal law, arguing that it has been effective in reducing crime and also was instrumental to Republicans’ 2010 wins in the state.
“[Democrats] thought they were going to take over the Senate and the House two years ago,” he said. “We got the largest majority ever in the history of the state of Arizona in the Senate and the House. And you know what brought it there? SB 1070. Everybody ran on SB 1070. We won districts that Republicans have never won before. So, it’s nice to have hope and dreams, you know, but it ain’t gonna happen.”
Of his own race, Pearce said that “it’ll be a fair fight this time.” He also disputed the notion that he was voted out of office by members of his own party when he lost in the GOP primary to now-state Sen. Jerry Lewis.
“I got about 70 percent of the Republican vote during the recall,” he said. “The thing you have to understand about a recall is that it’s not a normal election. It’s the minority overturning the will of the majority, because the Democrats didn’t put in a candidate. Well, they did initially, then they took them out. Libertarians took their candidate out, and they all decided to endorse the other so-called Republican in that race. So, it was difficult. They only needed 10 percent of the Republican vote to win – people need to understand that. And the press needs to understand that too. I was not thrown out by my party.”
Asked whether he had any advice for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who faces his own recall election on June 5, Pearce said that he’s proud of the embattled Republican for keeping his word in pushing through tough legislation on collective bargaining.
“I’m proud of Scott Walker for standing tall – doing what’s right, knowing they were going to come,” Pearce said. “Just like I’ve known the left was coming after me for years. You know, you don’t retreat in the defense of freedom. You don’t retreat in the defense of moral government and limited government. You don’t retreat because people are going to defend bad things.”
In the end, Pearce argued, “good people can disagree -- all you want is honesty, because you know, if I disagree, I’m willing to debate you on that, and then let the public decide what’s good policy and bad policy.”
“One of the things I’m always proud of is ‘Promises made, promises kept,’” he said. “I’ve never ever not done what I’ve said I’m going to do. And the recall really was not about me doing anything wrong. I was recalled for keeping my promises. I mean, that’s a sad day in America when you’re recalled because you did what you said you were going to do, and the public voted you in to do that.”