For years it’s been clear that Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the progressive Tucson Democrat, drives Southern Arizona Republicans crazy.

He favors illegal immigration and open borders, he’s an environmental radical, and he only cares about Latinos, many have long said.

It hasn’t been clear till now, though, that Grijalva even makes them suicidal, politically speaking.

Last week, Grijalva’s latest challenger, Nick Pierson, unleashed a torrent of pent-up Republican anger and frustration at Grijalva during their first debate in the Congressional District 3 race.

“I’ve been watching the incumbent since I was in college,” Pierson said, in his second statement of the debate. “He’s not a good example of a Mexican, he’s not a good example of a Mexican-American, he’s not a good example of an American. He’s not a good role model for the people in our community. That’s why I’m running.”

Pierson, who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, and is of Mexican ancestry, went on: “I’m very familiar with the Hispanic culture, and in the Hispanic culture, there’s a properness that people should purport. It’s not just education. It’s what you have from your upbringing and your family. People in the community are looking at us as a laughingstock.”

I’m sure it was cathartic for Pierson to say these things to Grijalva’s face, and for many of Grijalva’s critics to hear it said to him. Grijalva’s personality re-emerged as an issue last year when it was revealed he had approved $48,000 in payments to an employee who complained of him being frequently drunk and creating a hostile work environment, though not of sexual harassment.

But I think Pierson unwittingly brought up sensitive and complicated issues that don’t really benefit him, Republicans or anyone, really. Race, class, ethnic identity and national identity all burst into the open and can as easily be turned against Pierson — a light-skinned, chamber-of-commerce-style candidate of Mexican ancestry — as against his opponent.

When we talked Friday, I could almost hear Grijalva, so accustomed to winning without much of a challenge, chuckling at his good luck.

“I think there’s a lot of anger there with Pierson. I can’t figure it out. I don’t have the depth of psychology to figure it out,” he said. “I’ve never had to deal with self-loathing or denial in my life, so it’s hard to put myself in his shoes.”

Ouch.

Now, Pierson would not consider himself a self-loathing person. What he was talking about when he accused Grijalva of being a bad example of a Hispanic man was comparing Grijalva to the courtly, old-fashioned Mexican-American men he grew up around.

“In the Hispanic culture on the border, as I was growing up, everybody tried to be very nice to each other and courteous. What I hear in the community is that’s not the case with the incumbent.”

Let’s assume Pierson is right, though. Why should Grijalva be a good example of a Hispanic, or a Mexican (something he’s not, by nationality), or even a Mexican-American?

Some Republicans may be trying to judge him by an ethnic measure because they’ve seen him playing what they see as racial and ethnic politics for so long. He has regularly criticized politicians and policies he dislikes as “racist.”

When I talked to him after the debate, Pima County Republican Party Chair David Eppihimer was pleased with Pierson for calling out Grijalva on those terms.

“For him to say that is remarkable and I think true,” Eppihimer said. “Nick’s take on that is that he (Grijalva) doesn’t exhibit Mexican character values, which are very high. Honor, integrity, family, reputation — all are so important. And Grijalva is Grijalva. I mean, he’s a mess.”

He went on: “This is strong, and I don’t know if a white guy like me is entitled to say these things: He’s a racist in a different direction than the typical accusation of racism. Grijalva is a raging racist.”

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When I asked if he meant that Grijalva is racist against whites, Eppihimer said “Of course. That’s exactly what I mean. He gets away with it, and he has gotten away with it his entire political career. Now he’s getting called out for it.”

“For me it’s an overall attitude. He seems to have no interest, no desire to interact with, work with or respect, white people. That’s my personal view.”

When I read Grijalva those quotes, he answered, “Whoa.”

Gathering his thoughts, he said, “The fact that I will push back when things are said about Latinos is me representing my constituents. That doesn’t make you a racist. It makes you someone who will defend constitutents’ rights.”

Sergio Arellano, the Republican candidate who took second place to Pierson in the primary, didn’t like Pierson’s or Eppihimer’s criticisms. He likened Pierson’s criticism of Grijalva as a bad Hispanic to “putting yourself on a pedestal.”

“Personally I think that approach is not the best approach. Be knowledgable about policy. Know the policy. Know the issues,” Arellano said. “They’ve called him everything under the sun, but it’s proven not to stick.”

Pierson has blamed Grijalva on substantive issues such as the high poverty of the district and what he called an anti-business attitude, but in the debate he prioritized going after him on these identity and behavior issues.

“I thought it was important because it’s how I feel,” Pierson said. “I could have brought up other things, but I was nervous. It was my first debate. And that’s what I felt in my heart.”

Look, it was never going to be easy to beat Grijalva this year, so maybe it’s a good chance for local Republicans to vent their spleen over frustrating issues of ethnicity, racism and behavior. But it’s unlikely to help them win, because it’s fundamentally unfair to ask an American politician to adhere to an ethnic standard of behavior.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.