Down South, a New State in Waiting

Fed up with modern conservatism? Baja Arizona’s got a movement for you!

We’re not all crazy in Arizona,” says attorney Paul Eckerstrom from the stage of the Rialto Theatre in Tucson.

Start Our State, a group Eckerstrom co-founded to counter Arizona’s growing fame for political wacko-ism, hosted a rock show July 2 to celebrate Independence Day—for southern Arizona.

S.O.S., as the group is known, is out to establish a breakaway state called Baja Arizona, marked by the same boundaries as Pima County where Tucson is located. The first step is putting a secession initiative on the ballot in 2012, which is, incidentally, Arizona statehood’s centennial year.

Carving a new state from an existing one might reasonably be viewed as kind of wacko itself, if it weren’t for recent events.

The antics of Arizona’s boldly antediluvian state Legislature have long set eyeballs rolling in Tucson, but the caper that touched off the S.O.S. rebellion was the passage of SB 1070, the controversial, civil-rights-flogging immigration law that was almost immediately constrained by a federal judge—and then copied by several other states.

Eckerstrom, a former Pima County Democratic chairman, and attorney Peter Hormel promptly rounded up a few other lawyers, mostly Democrats plus a Libertarian, and launched S.O.S. It is as much about starting a state as it is about nettling extremist lawmakers and dissing Phoenix, the state capital, sixth-largest U.S. city and Tucson’s eternal nemesis. The two cities certainly do define opposite approaches to urbanizing the Sonoran desert. Despite its size, Tucson remains at heart a small town, where the landscape continues to sustain mostly desert vegetation. Phoenix’s mall culture and desert-vanquishing blankets of irrigated lawn seem much farther away than a two-hour drive north. Tucson (population, 520,000) preserves its centuries-old Hispanic heritage; Phoenix (population: 1,446,000) is known more for its teardowns, build-outs and roundups of suspected undocumented Hispanics. Arizona’s wealth is centered in Phoenix, where voter registration runs 40 percent Republican to the Democrats’ 30 percent. In Tucson, it’s the opposite.

Because Baja Arizonans are less numerous than their neighbors to the north, S.O.S. says Phoenix has more muscle in state government, gets more state revenue and keeps electing the extremists who keep it that way.

“We are sick of how we are treated by the Phoenix-dominated Legislature,” Eckerstrom tells the hundred or so rock fans in the Rialto. The anti-Phoenix theme sits well with the crowd. They love Eckerstrom’s “fed-up” call-and-response.

“Are people upset here about the fact that schools are not funded?” he asks. Damn straight. He spouts a list of gripes: crumbling roads, high college tuition, racially driven laws and the “Phoenix-dominated Legislature” turning down millions in federal unemployment dollars and trying to pass a law empowering itself to ignore any federal laws it wants to.

With little prompting from a reporter, attendees soon are privately sharing their own lively varieties of Phoenix-bashing.

Adam Karu, a Tucson hospice counselor originally from South Africa, calls the Phoenix legislators “nincompoops elected by American dropouts” whom he likens to the Prisoners of Her Majesty’s Service who once populated Australia. “The lawmakers are like the gum you can’t get off the bottom of your shoe,” he says. Richard Roati, an S.O.S. volunteer, thinks it’s significant that when Time ran a “Smart Cities” feature, Tucson was listed, not Phoenix. And Bill Risner, a prominent Tucson attorney active in the Democratic Party, says, “I think ‘Johannesburg’ every time I head to Phoenix. When I cross the Gila [River] I realize I’ve crossed the border.”

The south, in short, is in the mood to throw a little weight around. “Southern Arizona has never gotten its fair share,” says one Tucson native who wishes to remain anonymous. “We need to show Phoenix that we object to what’s going on.” When Hormel, the rock show’s emcee, thanks the Tucson band Yardsale Heart, he can’t resist adding a little spice: “They’re better than anything you would see in Phoenix.”

But the problem isn’t necessarily Phoenix, says Luis Heredia, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. The problem, Heredia says, is that the Republican leadership has changed. (Republicans didn’t respond to phone calls for this story.)

“This is the Legislature that gave us the country’s first Tea Party license plate,” Heredia said. (The new state vehicle plates, which raise funds for local Tea Party groups, were slated to go on sale July 20.)

“In the past, there were Republican moderates in the Legislature that came from Tucson and worked with the Tucson Democrats, but they no longer exist. That compounds the lack of representation for Pima County,” says Heredia, a former Tucson resident who now lives in a Phoenix suburb. The irony, he says, is that polling shows most Arizonans are political moderates, whether Republicans or Democrats.

Heredia is not eager to lose Baja Arizona’s half-million registered Democrats. “Pima County plays a critical role in statewide victories. I would certainly advocate for keeping them in this state,” he said, noting he wouldn’t mind secession by Yavapai County or Mohave County, where there are twice as many Republicans as Democrats.

If the secession initiative passes, Baja Arizona would still require a thumbs-up from both the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress to become the 51st state. So what happens if the S.O.S. initiative passes and goes to the state lawmakers? Eckerstrom is optimistic. For once, he trusts the Legislature.

“They’ll let us go,” he says. “They really don’t like us.”