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Freshman state senator focused on immigration

Republican creates website for donations to build border structure

PHOENIX – Despite the crushing recall election defeat of his political mentor and lagging contributions to his signature project to collect citizen donations to build the border fence, state Sen. Steve Smith remains resolute in his quest to deter illegal immigration.

Smith, a freshman Republican legislator from the city of Maricopa, is devoted to backing his pet project, buildtheborderfence.com, with same type of religious fervor that guides his life.

The website was approved by the state Legislature, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer and started collecting donations in July to finish building the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“(The website) was just a reaction to the federal government’s inaction,” Smith said.

Smith, a 35-year-old Tea Party adherent and the marketing director of a talent agency, touted the website’s early success in multiple appearances on Fox News, noting that it had gathered donations from people in all 50 states within the first 24 hours of its launch.

Despite the initial steady trickle of cash, the site has raised only $273,000, not enough to build even one-tenth of a mile of fencing, according to the most recent estimates from the Government Accountability Office.

A mile of fencing costs an average of $2.8 million, according to the GAO, and roughly 80 miles of Arizona’s 370-mile border with Mexico have no fencing. That means the state of Arizona would have to raise $224 million through buildtheborderfence.com to complete the border separating from Arizona from Mexico.

Smith remains characteristically undaunted, claiming he can build the fence for less by “doing things the good ol’ American way in the private sector.”

Smith said he is determined for construction of the fence to begin in the beginning of 2012.

“My goal is… (to) get something put in that ground as fast as we can and as often as we can until the job is done,” Smith said.

Smith is familiar with beating the odds. In his 2010 race for state senator in a district encompassing one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, he beat then-Democratic incumbent Rebecca Rios despite being outspent and never having run for political office.

Legislative District 23 includes parts of Maricopa and Gila counties and most of the fast-growing Pinal County. Although now in the process of redistricting following new census figures, LD 23 currently encompasses areas of the cities of Florence, Casa Grande, Eloy, Coolidge and Smith’s home base of Maricopa.

Rios said Smith was focused on one issue during his campaign: illegal immigration.

“Regardless of the question in a debate, the answer was always immigration,” Rios said. “If the question was education, the answer was, ‘We’re spending too much on illegals.’ If the question was health care, the answer was, ‘We’re spending too much on illegals.’ No matter what the question was, it always went back to immigration.”

Smith kept his focus in his first year in office. Several of the bills he wrote were immigration-related: one to require hospitals to both verify a patient’s immigration status and contact Immigration Customs Enforcement if that person is found to be here illegally; one to extend the time limit for the state to fight lawsuits waged over Arizona’s controversial anti-illegal immigration legislation, SB 1070; another to force schools to keep information on undocumented students; one to require any state materials, including voting materials, to be published in English only; and the bill that created buildtheborderfence.com.

Only the bill that proposed the border fence donation site and the one related to SB 1070 garnered enough support from members of Smith’s own party to pass both the Senate and the House.

In an interview in his Capitol office, Smith said he created the site because he feels illegal immigration is “the biggest problem in the state.”

“You want more jobs, look at illegal immigration, you want lower taxes, look at immigration, you want lower violence, look at immigration,” Smith said.

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Backing from hardliners

Smith found strong support in his fledgling run for office from Arizona’s most hard-line illegal immigration critics. He gained endorsements from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and the man who came to be his political mentor, SB 1070 author Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa.

Pearce has been both admired and despised for writing SB 1070, the controversial anti-illegal immigration bill that at the time of its passage in July 2010 was the toughest in the country. SB 1070 makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant in Arizona. Sections of the law have been stayed by the federal courts. It is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will rule on its constitutionality.

But Pearce, a former chief deputy to Arpaio whose sheriff’s deputy son was wounded by an illegal immigrant and whose anti-illegal immigrant push had catapulted him to the top leadership spot in the state Senate, saw his fortunes turn in November. After 11 years in the Legislature, Pearce was defeated in a recall election during a campaign in which the victor stressed more moderation in dealing with issues.

Smith, however, said he doesn’t believe voters were showing their disenchantment with Pearce’s anti-illegal immigration tactics by voting him out of office.

Smith maintains the recall election wasn’t “a repudiation of Russell Pearce or his issues or mine that I share with him. It’s simply an abuse of the recall system that allowed it to happen.”

Smith’s loyalty to Pearce is understandable. Pearce was still attempting to pass his anti-illegal immigration legislation when Smith decided to run for office. Although they hadn’t yet met, Smith looked to Pearce for guidance.

“I looked through the whole Legislature (from) the governor on down and I said: ‘Who do I really consider myself most closely aligned with who stands for the same principles and ideals that I do?’” Smith said. “One name came to the top and that was Russell Pearce.”

After the two emailed and met, the admiration proved to be mutual. Pearce was on board to help Smith win.

“He (Pearce) said, ‘Gee how are we going to do this? You have no money, you have no name. How are we going to beat this person?’” Smith said.

During his campaign, Smith was up against what he and some local news outlets called a “political dynasty” led first by Rebecca Rios’ father, Pete Rios, who had held the LD 23 Senate seat for 24 years before his daughter took it over in 2008.

The political dynamics of the district had been changing, however. An influx of people drawn to Pinal County’s inexpensive and new housing created a population boom over the past decade. Since 2000, the population has doubled to more than 370,000 residents.

Demographically, the district is a stark contrast to what’s happening in most of Arizona. It has the fewest Hispanics compared to any other district in the state. Only 5.5 percent of LD 23’s population is Hispanic, compared to 29 percent overall in Arizona, according to data from the Census Bureau and Independent Redistricting Commission in Arizona. Whites comprise more than 87 percent of the population in LD 23, according to data from the IRC.

The racial makeup of the district has become less diverse over the years. In 2002, whites made up only half the population in LD 23 and Hispanics accounted for more than 34 percent, according to redistricting demographics compiled after the 2000 census.

Smith five years ago became one of many who relocated to the city of Maricopa following his 2001 move to Arizona from Michigan.

Transplants such as Smith changed the political climate of the district, according to Pete Rios, now a Pinal County supervisor.

“The Republicans that were already in Pinal County … were fairly moderate …,” Rios said. “Then you have the new influx of Republicans …. They were more ultraconservative (and) many of them then became tea party members, which is even further right …”

Long a Democratic-leaning district, political affiliation in LD 23 is now split almost evenly in thirds among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

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The changing political dynamics coupled with an energized Republican base created a “perfect storm” in which Smith could win, Rebecca Rios said.

Pete Rios agreed. “Steve Smith happened to be at the right place at the right time, and it didn’t matter whether it was Steve Smith or Attila the Hun, Attila the Hun would have won that office as well,” he said.

Another boost to Smith’s Senate bid was an Arizona law providing for public financing of campaigns called Clean Elections.

Smith and Rebecca Rios both took part in Clean Elections. Clean Elections was approved by Arizona voters in 1998 and allows candidates to accept a certain number of $5 donations and receive public funds in exchange for not taking money from special interest groups.

Both Smith and Rios spent nearly the same amount of money from Clean Elections– just under $40,000 – during their campaign, but Rios had more than five times the amount of independent money spent on her behalf by supporters. Independent expenditures on Rios’ behalf totaled close to $90,000, the third highest total in the state with only candidates for governor and secretary of state receiving more.

While Rios had an incumbent’s advantage with a strong financial base, Smith was an underdog working to get name recognition and support.

He went door to door and made phone calls to introduce himself to voters.

'A one-man show'

It’s not hard to imagine the 6’3” Smith leaving an impression on voter’s minds with his earnest delivery and boy-next-door good looks. His voice often rises in volume in relation to his passion on a given topic, with it reaching a crescendo when speaking about his frustrations concerning illegal immigration.

“Look at what we spend on illegal immigrants – we spend nearly $3 billion a year in the state of Arizona only on free services for illegals,” Smith said. “And people wonder why Arizona’s broke? We have a billion dollar deficit but we spend about $3 billion a year on illegal immigrants. So you do the math – why are we broke? I told people, ‘Send me there and I’ll change it.’”

Smith said he had about 10 people who helped with putting out fliers and signs. But other than that core group, he said, the campaign “was kind of a one-man show.”

Smith led his one-man show to victory, winning by 53 percent of the vote with about 4,200 more votes than Rios. Only 44 percent of registered voters in LD 23 voted, meaning Smith won with less than a quarter of the votes of all those registered to vote in his district.

Smith, a devout Christian, ran with the campaign slogan “God, Family and Country."

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Smith is quick to point out that he believes God helped him win.

“By the grace of God I managed to win,” Smith said. “First and foremost all credit and glory go to God and he decides what happens.”

A middle school gym and auditorium serves as the meeting space on Sunday for the non-denominational church Smith and his family attend, Church of Celebration, whose website proclaims “our music is ROCKIN (and) our PREACHIN is OFF THE HOOK!”

Church of Celebration sits across from a new housing development, which, like much of the subdivisions in Maricopa, is lined with rows of houses that are mirror images of their neighbors’

Jeans-clad church members clutching coffee in one hand and a Bible in the other stroll in casually late as the pounding rhythm of the church’s “worship” band is amplified across the auditorium through loud speakers.

One church member and volunteer, George Farrell, gyrates and sings while he manages the church’s sophisticated multi-media displays which are projected onto two large-screen TVs at the front of the auditorium.

Farrell, who moved to Maricopa in the midst of the population boom in 2006, has known Smith and his family for years. Farrell said Smith’s gregarious and friendly nature means he’s a familiar presence at the church.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people he knows,” Farrell said.

Farrell, precinct committeeman and self-proclaimed “face” of the Maricopa Republican Club, said even before Smith made a run for senator he was focused on border issues.

“He was so upset about everything back then,” according to Farrell, who said he believes most of the church’s congregation of about 1,000 are politically conservative.

“There’s not that many people to the left that are in this church, (because) of course we have conservative attitudes here….,” Farrell said. “(Liberals) don’t stay around real long.”

Smith volunteers at the church as a “Yes Worker,” a sort of spiritual counselor to anyone who “makes a decision for Jesus,” said Josh Barrett, the church’s minister.

During one of Barrett’s recent sermons entitled “Satan’s Tactics,” Barrett tells church members that he’ll teach them how to “go toe-to-toe with Satan.”

“You need to recognize that your enemy is Satan,” Barrett preached to the congregation. “He is the one who is wreaking havoc and making a mess of your lives. We are in a…tactical war with Satan.”

Barrett started his church about five years ago with a group of 12 people who met in his living room. The venue of the church has changed several times over the years to accommodate the growing number of people pouring in for the music and message.

'Moral political issues'

Smith was one of the people who flocked to the church about three and a half years ago, Barrett said.

Smith “genuinely cares for people,” Barrett said, which is “what makes him a successful senator. He wants to know what people think and make sure he’s representing the district in the right way.”

One way Smith determines which is the “right way,” according to Barrett, is by receiving counseling from Barrett about “moral political issues” such as abortion. Barrett said he doesn’t believe illegal immigration is a “moral political issue.”

Moral political issue or not, Smith indicated he finds no inconsistencies between his religious faith and his tough stance on illegal immigration.

“People will say, ‘Well wait a minute, didn’t Jesus teach to love thy neighbor? So shouldn’t you be  loving on all these immigrants?’” Smith said. “And I say, ‘Yeah, but the Bible also talks about respect(ing) your local authorities.’”

Smith said before he votes on legislation, he prays to remind himself that, “I’m defending God and country.” Serving as a visual reminder to his prayers are a cross and an American flag sitting on his Senate floor desk.

Smith’s voting record and proposed legislation have more than met the standards set by a conservative organization in Arizona called the PAChyderm Coalition, which ranks Arizona Republican legislators based on how closely they adhere to principles espoused by Ronald Reagan.

The coalition bases its rankings on how lawmakers’ legislation and voting record stacks up against the Coalition’s conservative principles, which, according to the coalition’s website, include supporting “all legal measures to combat illegal immigration.” Ratings range from the top score of “Reagan Republican” to the lowest score of “RINO” (Republican in Name Only).

In the eyes of the PAChyderm Coalition, Smith even outshone his mentor and ally Pearce, who ranked third in the list of legislators. Smith shot to the No. 1 spot as the most conservative “Reagan Republican.”

Smith has been campaigningfor more national exposure for his border fence project. In October, Smith, Pearce, Arpaio and other Republicans concerned with border issues met with GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann to discuss with her, “Sen. Steve Smith’s border fence initiative and border enforcement in general,” according to a press release from Arizona Republican legislators.

During the brief press conference held in the Senate building in Phoenix, Bachmann spoke about the border but never mentioned the website.

Smith tried to dispel any perceptions that Bachmann had been brought in to bring more publicity to the border fence donation site.

“This is not a media ploy to get her face on our website,” Smith told reporters after the press conference, adding that “I made it very clear I did not want to make this a meeting about the fence. It was not a publicity event.”

Although Bachmann didn’t talk about the donation site, she did echo statements similar to ones on Smith’s site which link border security issues to terrorism.

“This is an international terrorism issue,” Bachmann said during the press conference, adding, “America’s failure to secure the border … is now a terrorism issue,”

The “terrorist threat” is listed on buildtheborderfence.com as one of the reasons Americans should not feel secure and should make a donation through the site.

The website displays a photo of a man stepping over a low, barbed-wire fence with a question below the picture that asks: “Does this look like a secure border?”

Smith said he wrote the text for the site, which draws upon statistics and claims made by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal immigration organization that has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Citing drug cartels, gangs and kidnappings and claiming illegal immigrants have started several forest fires that have ravaged Arizona, the site asks the question, “Do you feel safe?”

According to Smith, the answer should be “no.”

“Forgetting that assault on our social and economic system, and I’ll take it a step further, forgetting that assault on Americana – now we’re pressing 2 for Spanish, and…(there are) billboards in Spanish,” Smith said. “What happened to our country…? (W)hen you come to America, you’re supposed to assimilate, integrate, not have your own country….”

Smith’s background as a marketer will likely come in handy for an upcoming “PR push” to help propel the site forward. Smith is tight-lipped on details about what the marketing campaign will entail, but indicated it could involve direct mailings, newspapers and television.

If the marketing campaign isn’t enough to help the site raise more money during the last year of Smith’s term, he’ll seek a second chance to see the coffers fill. He’s already announced he’s running for re-election in 2012.

Whether the backlash against Pearce and a scathing U.S. Justice Department report released in December that found Arpaio and his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has discriminated against Latinos will in any way impact Smith’s re-election bid remains to be seen.

For right now, possible backlash “doesn’t mean I’m going to get any of my bills passed but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop it either,” Smith said.

With illegal immigration and border security grabbing many voters’ attention, Rebecca Rios seems to think Smith may have a good chance to hold onto his Senate seat.

“As long as immigration remains a hot-button issue in Arizona, he’ll continue to have a career,” she said.

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Karen Schmidt/Cronkite News Service

Steve Smith, at back left, listens to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speak about border issues at a press conference at the Arizona State Capitol on Oct. 17.

About this project

The Cronkite School’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative has students delving in-depth into critical Latino-related issues in the United States and Mexico.

It is led by Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor at the Sacramento Bee and the school’s first Carnegie Professor specializing in Latino and transnational news coverage.

The effort grew out of the Cronkite School’s longtime commitment to giving students fieldwork experience along the U.S.-Mexico border and in Mexico. In recent years, Cronkite students have produced several major multimedia reporting projects focusing on immigration and Latino issues.