Three items were corrected or clarified from an earlier version of this piece. First, the previous version stated that Kevin McCarthy and Kari Lake wore cowboy hats at the border, but they did not. Instead, the people surrounding them did. Additionally, this version clarified that Ed Pastor was Arizona's first Mexican American congressman, not the first Mexican American congressman in the U.S., and that Jim Kolbe was the second openly LGBT Republican congressman, not the second openly gay member of the Republican Party.
What’s the matter with Cochise County? As it turns out, its challenges are the same ones facing us all. This borderland of miners and cowboys is a lot more like the rest of the United States than national media portrayals might let on.
While vocal conservative, anti-immigrant Republicans occupy a lot of media attention in the area today, this part of Arizona was once a pro-union, cross-racial Democratic stronghold. And although photo-ops of right-wing politicians like Kevin McCarthy and Kari Lake posing at the border, surrounded by people in cowboy hats are what the nation mostly sees of Cochise County these days, there are still pockets of left-leaning politics that remain in the area. As a result, as recently as a decade ago, moderate Democrats and Republicans in county government could often work together.
In other words, like much of the United States, Cochise County underwent a gradual, then seemingly all-at-once, political migration to the right.
When Arizona became a state in 1912, Cochise County — home to one of the most important copper mining regions in the world — was arguably the most influential county in Arizona. And it was not an outpost for conservative politics, but instead for worker power. Its pro-union delegates to the Arizona Statehood Convention in 1910 dominated the proceedings and helped secure elected positions for a state corporation commission and a state mine inspector and an option to recall elected judges — all measures designed to blunt corporate power.
In 1917, tensions between corporate power and workers came to national attention. The copper mine workforce, made up of immigrants from 34 countries, was demanding equal wages for workers of Mexican descent — like many union campaigns, it was a civil rights movement, too. The radical union the Industrial Workers of the World went on strike to secure these demands. But the strike ended with the violent removal of over 1,200 men. The thousand recently appointed “deputies” who removed them were nothing more than vigilantes empowered by the county sheriff and corporate mining companies to break the strike. The lifetime of divisions that followed the removal and blacklisting of strikers — what became known as the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 — has haunted the region ever since, as the award-winning film “Bisbee ’17,” by Oscar-nominated director Robert Greene, shows (I served as historical adviser).
After 1917, corporate mining power dominated the region — to the chagrin of miners and ranchers alike, although for different reasons. But new federal protections for unions, such as the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II, empowered the next generation of mine workers, many of them Mexican Americans, to create new union locals that raised wages and challenged racial discrimination. These initiatives launched a generation of Mexican American families into the middle-class, sending their children to college, where many joined the Chicano movement, and became Arizona’s first generation of political officeholders. This group included Raul Castro, the only Mexican American governor Arizona has ever had, from 1975-1977, and Ed Pastor, the state’s first Mexican American congressman, elected to the first of 12 terms in 1991.
World War II was a mixed blessing for “rural” counties like Cochise. New protections for workers helped build prosperity among miners, but federal defense contracts and then postwar growth meant that the demographic and economic centers of gravity in Arizona were moving to Phoenix and Tucson, both with major military bases.
Barry Goldwater, who became a conservative Republican U.S. senator from the state and the GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee, came from a pioneer family that had once co-owned a general store in the Cochise County city of Bisbee with a prominent Mexican American family. But with Cold War defense contracts pouring into the state, he launched his political career in Phoenix as an anti-Communist, anti-union civic booster. Like the rest of the state’s population and wealth, his family business moved from mining-town mercantiles to big-city suburbs in economically booming areas of the state. His family’s story is emblematic of the evolution underway in Arizona and other areas of the Sun Belt region that gave birth to a red-baiting, anti-union, pro-business New Right in the decades after World War II.
These political changes solidified when Cochise County’s legendary copper mines in Bisbee closed in 1975. Many of the long-term residents who were staunch union supporters moved away, and the mining towns shrank. From 1983 to 1986, a crippling strike across Arizona’s mine country destroyed the union that had been central to Mexican American power and good working-class jobs. Ronald Reagan’s National Labor Relations Board empowered Phelps Dodge, the major mining employer, to break the union by hiring replacement workers. The union was decertified.
Though less well known, it was the private sector counterpart to Reagan firing striking unionized air traffic controllers a few years before, and signaled the ascension of neoliberal shareholder-driven economics on Wall Street and Main Street. In Cochise County, when the Phelps Dodge copper smelter finally closed in Douglas in 1987, the state promised jobs at a newly expanded state prison there. But many families left the county region to look for industry jobs elsewhere, and Phoenix and Tucson gained population, further shifting power within the state.
Since 1992, the number of Border Patrol jobs in the Southwest have quintupled, while other good-paying rural jobs have disappeared. A border once known more for its cross-cultural family ties and porousness (Cochise County’s once-intermittent fence used to have a “Volkswagen hole” to drive through if the port of entry was closed) has become one of the most impermeable in the nation. White retirees drawn by cheap land and low taxes have flocked to the region, and have no history of the rich cross-border community that once existed. At the same time, the increase in border traffic has alarmed even longtime residents, for whom xenophobia has offered one response.
Still, only in the last two decades could anyone label Cochise County “a heavily Republican area,” as the New York Times did a couple of days ago. Some of the children of union mining families — White and Mexican American — have joined the Border Patrol and have become Donald Trump supporters.
But plenty of Democrats wear cowboy hats, and the border fence is more controversial with locals than one may think. The Malpai Borderlands Group, a coalition of mostly dyed-in-the-wool conservative ranchers, have lobbied for decades to protect natural habitat and sought to prevent Trump’s wall from being constructed. Former mining town and county seat Bisbee has been populated by artists and countercultural types, making the area as far left as Berkeley; yet, its population is one-fifth what it was at the height of the mining era. Some locals volunteer with No Mas Muertes and other organizations that help border-crossing migrants survive, while others belong to militias. Moderate Democrat Gabrielle Giffords (spouse of current Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona) represented the district in Congress just a decade ago before she was shot at a campaign event in 2011 in Tucson; before her was Jim Kolbe (who died on Saturday), another moderate, who was the second openly gay Republican congressman. Voters regularly elected Democrats to county offices, notably Christine Rhodes, a Democrat who served from 1972 to 2016, in the office that handles elections. And yet, it seems that the reasonable middle ground has atrophied, at least when it comes to those in power.
There is an inconsistency here: one of both cooperation and polarization. But is that so different from Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin or Ohio? Don’t let the cowboy hats fool you. As Cochise County has gone, so goes the nation.