MESA - Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce - architect of some of the nation's toughest state laws against illegal immigration - was ousted by voters Tuesday in an unprecedented recall.
Results late Tuesday showed challenger Jerry Lewis, a political newcomer, with a 53-to-45 percent margin over Pearce in his east Mesa district. Both are Republicans. A small percentage also cast ballots for Olivia Cortes, although she withdrew from the race.
Pearce conceded defeat, saying he is disappointed and will spend some time "with my family and my God" before deciding what to do next. He has not ruled out another run - including to get his seat back.
Pearce is probably best known for proposing several immigration measures - often amid opposition from his own party - including a successful 2004 ballot measure to deny services to people living here illegally, and most recently, last year's Senate Bill 1070 to give police more power to detain and arrest illegal immigrants.
"Obviously, it was a huge part of the recall," said Lewis, who promised a more "civil dialogue and discussion" of the entire immigration issue.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who called for a controversial boycott of Arizona over SB 1070, said Pearce's loss "is a game changer for Arizona and a game changer for politicians who have used the immigration issue to divide people."
Pearce, however, said he makes no apologies for his style, which can come across as confrontational. "Am I vigilant? Yes," he said. "When you take tough positions, people get upset. That's because somebody has to be a leader, and we wouldn't have accomplished what we accomplished without leadership."
He said polls have shown that most Arizonans support SB 1070, and he still believes that.
Pearce said one reason he lost was that this was an unusual race, with no primary. That allowed all voters, including the district's Democrats and independents, to make the final decision.
"This is going around the primary process," Pearce said.
"Jerry Lewis could not win in a (Republican) primary," he added, saying Lewis was the choice of Democrats. "So it doesn't take but 10 to 15 percent of the Republicans to vote for him to make the difference."
Lewis disputed that description of the race, calling it dishonest. He sidestepped the question of whether he could have beaten Pearce in a head-to-head primary where only Republicans were allowed to vote. "That's a hypothetical question," Lewis said. "I don't know the answer to that."
Lewis, a charter school executive, said he never ran for office in a regular primary "because I never wanted to be a politician."
He said one reason he probably won is he had support from Hispanic voters, many of whom are Democrats.
Despite being rejected by the voters in the district, Pearce said he would not have done anything any different since he was first elected to the Legislature in 2000.
"We're Number One in the nation in Second Amendment liberties," said Pearce, who helped push through laws allowing any adult to carry a concealed weapon. "We're one of the top in the nation in laws that protect the unborn. So what else would I do differently? I'm pretty proud of that record."
Pearce blamed his defeat in part on "heavy outside money" from liberal groups and unions, but at the same time boasted about the fact that he received donations from contributors in 40 states.
Lewis, for his part, said he waged a clean race, suggesting Pearce supporters had not done the same.
"I was told from the beginning it would be very hard hitting, below the belt. I just didn't realize I'd have padlocks thrown below the belt as well," he said, in a reference to a July incident where someone threw a lock at him. "That was a symbol of things to come," he said.
But Lewis said he has no animosity for the man he beat.
"I still love him, he's my brother," he said of Pearce. "And I still consider him a friend, and I hope that we can work together in bringing about a fresh voice for Mesa."
The recall election, forced by a petition drive, was the first for an Arizona legislator.
Tuesday's vote has statewide implications in other ways. It means the 21 Senate Republicans - now including Lewis - will have to pick a replacement for Senate president.
That could shuffle the power within the chamber as would-be contenders try to line up support and promise plum committee assignments to supporters.
Arizona Daily Star reporter Carmen Duarte contributed to this report.