Pima County the 51st state?
A political committee made up of attorneys, including the former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, has been formed to try to get Southern Arizona to secede from the rest of the state.
Start Our State, which is asking other like-minded counties to join the effort, hopes to put the question before Pima County voters in 2012.
The concept of a Southern Arizona state - Baja Arizona - has been around for ages as a way to differentiate the region from its more conservative brethren to the north. The notion of secession has been bandied about, but there was never a serious effort in that direction - until now.
Overcoming that historical inertia, and the initial reaction from political observers, highlights the problem the group will face.
Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías teased that given his generational roots in Tucson, his family could serve as a namesake for the new state.
And Pima County Republican Chairman Brian Miller joked that his position would make him the leader of the new state's GOP. "I'm all for a promotion," he quipped.
But Paul Eckerstrom, co-chair of Save Our State, said it's not a ploy and not merely a political statement. He said the state Legislature has gone too far to the right.
In particular, a round of legislative measures challenging federal supremacy "really does border on them saying they don't want to be part of the Union any longer," he said.
"Well, I want to be part of the United States," Eckerstrom said. At a minimum, he said, the drive will send a message that Pima County doesn't want to go along with the priorities being outlined in Phoenix.
"It's no longer a laughing matter to me," Eckerstrom said, adding that his kids' futures are at stake. "I'm tired of hoping and praying that rationality will come to Phoenix."
The group's treasurer, Libertarian and public defender David Euchner, comes from a different political mind-set.
Euchner said Republicans were swept into office nationwide on a promise of helping to fix the economic and spending problems. "Meanwhile, every bill we've heard about here is either anti-abortion laws or anti-Mexican laws. These are not laws that are geared toward solving the real problems that we have."
Organizers concede that there are daunting hurdles. They must first get on the ballot, then get approval from the Legislature or from state voters to allow the exodus. A new state constitution would have to be approved, plus they'd have to get the OK from Congress and the president.
The committee hit its first hurdle hours after announcing the effort. It wanted the Pima County Board of Supervisors to put the issue on the ballot, but Chris Straub, chief civil deputy attorney in the County Attorney's Office, torpedoed that idea, saying the board doesn't have the authority. Straub also said citizens don't have the right to do something by initiative that the board can't do.
Eckerstrom said that doesn't matter. His group is prepared to circulate petitions statewide if need be.
"Our attitude is whatever it takes, we are going to follow that process," Eckerstrom said.
But is such a state viable?
Pima County has more than 1 million residents. That's comparable to the size of Rhode Island, and the county actually has a bigger population than seven other states, including Montana, Vermont, the Dakotas and Wyoming, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 estimates.
At 9,186 square miles, the county is also bigger than seven states, including Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware, according to the World Almanac.
And it has been done before, although the circumstances were far different.
Maine, once a province of Massachusetts, petitioned for statehood. It took a long time, and the Missouri Compromise, to get it done in 1820.
And West Virginia broke away from Virginia after Virginia seceded from the Union. It was granted statehood in 1863.
Republican Supervisor Ray Carroll said the move doesn't make a lot of sense, and he chalked it up to political opportunism.
"The better solution would be to find candidates that better represent them to win campaigns and win seats, and take government in the direction they want to take it," Carroll said.
But Elías, a Democrat, said it's been clear that sections of Southern Arizona identify themselves with "a very different set of politics than our friends to the north. And as those sides become more polarized, those differences become more pronounced, and people's frustration level grows. That's what we're talking about here."
For this idea to go anywhere, the community needs to discuss the financial impacts, Elías said. That means looking at what services the people here would expect from the new state government, "and what impact it would have on the local economy," he said.
Peter Hormel, a Democrat and the other co-chair of the effort, said the group has gotten a positive response since it put the concept up on Facebook, but he knows there are skeptics.
"It isn't a new idea, but it's gotten so bad in Phoenix that at some point, you're obligated to do something about it," he said. "All we can do is put it on the ballot and see what happens."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at firstname.lastname@example.org and 573-4243. Contact reporter Andrea Kelly at email@example.com or 807-7790.