Arizona has an image problem.
Boycotted after the passage of SB1070, the harsh anti-immigration bill, mocked as the "meth lab of democracy" by Jon Stewart, pilloried in editorials editorials from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, it seems the Grand Canyon State has lately become as famous for its extremist politics as for its famous national park. Some Arizona residents say they've had enough, they're ready to leave Arizona. But they're not talking about moving to another state.
They want to start a state of their own.
A group of southern Arizona residents have formed Start our State, "dedicated to creating the 51st state in southern Arizona." And no, said Tucson attorney and organization co-founder Paul Eckerstrom, it's not a joke. As Baja Arizona, Arizona's Pima County would be larger in square miles than four states, more populated than seven. Eckerstrom feels the region has always felt "culturally different" from the rest of the state partly due to the strong Latino and Native American influence, and is even historically different, since southern Arizona was tacked on to the already formed state of Arizona through the Gadsden Purchase.
But is it really so different that it needs to be its own state? It is now, said Eckerstrom, and the reason is political. "For the last ten to twenty years we've watched the state legislature grow more and more extreme. We watched them cut education spending and we went from having one of the best education state education systems to dead last. We watched them pass extremist immigration laws that are racist, pure and simple."
But what pushed Eckerstrom and others over the edge was the legislature's recent attempt to pass a nullification bill, by which the Arizona legislature would decide which federal laws it deemed unconstitutional, then nullify those it didn't agree with. That, said Eckerstrom, smacked of a state that didn't want to be part of the rest of the country.
"That nullification statute was exactly the kind of statute South Carolina passed before it seceded from the United States, " Eckerstrom said," and we don't want any part of that." He saw further evidence of what he called the Arizona legislature's "anti-American path" with the recent introduction of an 'eminent domain' bill which would allow the state to take ownership of any piece of federal land in Arizona. These bills, Eckerstrom contended, showed that Arizona's Republican-controlled state legislature doesn't want to be part of the United States. "And we do! We, the people in southern Arizona want to be part of the United States." The only way to signal that, and differentiate itself from what Eckerstrom called Arizona's "anti-federal extremist politics," was to start the legal process of forming a new state.
Eckerstrom is hardly a political neophyte. An active member of Tucson's political scene for many years, he worked on campaigns for Congressman Mo Udall and former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt's presidential bid and served as Chair of Pima County Democrats. The current Chair of Pima County Democrats, Jeffrey Rogers, said he has "the highest respect for Paul Eckerstrom."
Michael Bryan, founder of the political website Blog for Arizona, said the Tucson attorney is "dead serious" about forming a new state. And Bryan said if anyone's capable of "delivering the people of Baja Arizona from the tyranny of Maricopa County," it's Paul Eckerstrom. Continued Bryan:
Clearly, what everyone wants is for state government to serve the people of Arizona, not continually embarrass us befor,e and alienate us from, the nation, and the idea of a separate state is a means of conveying that message.
Eckerstrom agreed that the sense of embarassment by association mentioned by Bryan is certainly one element fueling the Start our State group: "We do want to send a message to the rest of the country; not everyone in Arizona is an extremist, not everyone in Arizona is crazy." Tucson, he said emphatically, is "tired of being tainted." And as word gets out about Start our State, "we hope Americans might say, OK, Arizona is crazy, but those people in Tucson, they're OK."
Eckerstrom added that the political climate in Tucson has always been different than that of Phoenix: "Tucson is a moderate town. Republicans, Democrats, we're mostly moderates here. But the State Legislature is so politically extreme that they treat us like we're some sort of Bolsheviks." Eckerstrom chuckled at the thought, adding, "We're not."
As another example of the difference between the two regions, Eckerstrom mentioned the response of the Arizona State Legislature to the horrendous tragedy that occured in Tucson earlier this year, a mass shooting which left six people dead and thirteen wounded including southern Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. While Tucson was still reeling from the tragedy the state legislature proposed the naming of an official state gun, and Eckerstrom was particularly appalled that the Arizona Legislature continued to push forward with plans for a bill that would allow guns on college campuses, including Tucson's University of Arizona. "That was a slap in the face of Tucson," Eckerstrom said heatedly.
In the two weeks that have passed since the launch of the 51st state movement interest in Baja Arizona is growing. Unscientific polls conducted by local media showed strong backing the idea, and Eckerstrom's received support from all over the state, including Phoenix. "Oh, yes, we've had lots of calls from Phoenix. These people feel like we do, that the people running this state are so extreme that we don't feel like we're represented at all."
Forming a new state isn't easy. The path to Baja Arizona would, according to Eckerstrom, mirror that taken by Maine when it broke away from Massachusetts in 1820. Step one would be a county-wide vote, and judging from the reaction to the still-nascent idea, Eckerstrom's "sense" is that it would pass; that alone, he feels, would make the state legislature take notice. But step two would certainly get their attention; the state legislature would have to give permission for Pima County to secede from Arizona. Impossible? According to Eckerstrom, maybe not. "If Pima County voted yes we'd be able to show the State Legislature that maybe they have been too extreme, maybe they should be more moderate." And if that's not a welcome message Eckerstrom mused that, just possibly, the state legislature would agree to the new state, "just to be rid of us."
Whether or not Baja Arizona actually becomes the 51st state, it's hard to deny the sense of frustration that caused the movement to begin. Rogers called the formation of a new state "a tough hurdle, logistically," but said the idea was born out of "our extraordinary frustration with all of the nutty things coming out of the state legislature on a daily basis." Bryan went even further, calling it "an expression of how marginalized and ignored the people of Baja Arizona feel." He added:
The bosses of Maricopa ignore that frustration at the peril of dissolving the current political bonds that constitute our state. Baja Arizona is a wish to remain a part if America while radicals in Marcopa are trying to separate Arizona from the national community.
Paul Eckerstrom has no problem visualizing Baja Arizona, "a place where our kids get a quality education, where we have a fair tax system, where hi-tech businesses-particularly solar energy-would be encouraged."
Right now that's just a vision. But, he added, "It's a very possible thing."