PHOENIX — The Prince of Darkness recommends the French toast.
We're sitting in a Cracker Barrel restaurant filled — no, jammed — with customers, many of them tourists in town to take in the March sun, play golf, or see an exhibition baseball game. It isn't long before the meal arrives — and here it's never contained to a single plate. Food thuds on the table like mortars. "This is a don't-judge-me breakfast," Constantin Querard says.
Plenty of people judge Querard anyway. He's been described in the local press as a "political-sleaze maestro," a "vision of Republican darkness," and the "dark prince of the Sand Land." A decade ago, he was a local nobody, a carpetbagger from Colorado in his early 30s, working the edges of state politics, trying to see a way in. He launched a nonprofit, the Arizona Family Project, devoted to supporting conservative causes. But that wasn't enough. He wanted to run campaigns.
But he soon found his seam. In 1998, after a string of corruption scandals, state voters had approved a so-called clean-elections law that allowed for taxpayer financing of campaigns. The standard for qualifying for public support was ludicrously low. A candidate simply had to put together 200 contributions of $5 to qualify for state matching funds — a total of just $1,000.
Passed to the acclaim of good-government liberals, the clean-elections law became Querard's weapon of choice. "I cracked the code," he says. The measure benefited fringe candidates who had a harder time raising money through traditional means like PACs and corporate money — and it gave them enough support to survive against a better-funded challenger, particularly in GOP primaries. The other component for success was message. The Querard candidate had to be louder, bolder, more provocative than the other guy. He or she had to turn hard right — and then keep going down the block. "These are my people!" he says over slabs of sourdough.
But the greatest gift to Querard's fortunes wasn't the public-financing law; it was the election of Barack Obama. His presidency crystallized antigovernment, anti-amnesty, anti-Democrat sentiment on the right, and Querard was perfectly positioned to take advantage. After the 2010 midterms gave the GOP a supermajority in the Arizona Legislature, there were almost more legislators who were Querard clients (25) than surviving Democrats (29). The success has allowed Querard, a fan of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to move into managing more traditional money-driven campaigns, albeit still for "true believers," as he calls them. Today, he estimates that one-third of the 90-member Legislature owe their positions to him.
One Querard client is state Sen. Al Melvin, the Tucson Republican who was embarrassed on air earlier this year by CNN's Anderson Cooper over his support of S.B. 1062, the "religious freedom" bill that critics said targeted the gay community. Another was Russell Pearce, the architect of the infamous S.B. 1070, known better as the anti-immigrant "papers" law. Pearce later became the first sitting state senator to be recalled by voters.
The best way to understand why such measures see the light of day here — and earn Arizona national scorn — where in other states they would either never be proposed or would quickly be buried is to recognize that much of it involves a pileup of good intentions. The clean-elections law was supposed to minimize the influence of big business and outside groups. Term limits were intended to rein in so-called professional politicians. And outsiders such as Constantin Querard, son of a Russian mother and a French father, should have been able to, in the tradition of the American West, reinvent himself as a canny play-the-angles insider.
But together, these forces have conspired to give the state a throwback Legislature that seems to be picking fights most residents would rather not have. While to the casual CNN-watcher Arizona sometimes looks to be a place that has lost its ever-loving mind, it feels different on the ground. If there was one unappreciated aspect to the sideshow that was the religious-freedom bill, it might be that it fully awakened apathetic voters and a checked-out business community to what was being done in their name. They aren't happy — and having surrendered their state to the right wing, they're looking to take it back. "It's populism gone awry," says Jim Kolbe, the former Republican House member.
But regaining power won't come easy. The vacuum has been filled by those who are determined to make Arizona the most conservative state in the nation — and in doing so, rescue it, in their minds, from craven compromisers, like, say, the state Chamber of Commerce or, you know, the Republican governor. "You had a state that was a Republican state that was No. 22 in everything, with a Legislature that was left of where it needed to be," Querard says. Now, he says, "we're No. 1 in school choice, in the top three on guns, and No. 1 on pro-life."
Ironically, the Cracker Barrel favored by Querard sits across the street from Phoenix's sun-dappled football stadium, the site of next year's Super Bowl. It was the NFL's implicit threat of moving the game, amid other corporate pressure, that many believe convinced Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the religious-freedom bill. Brewer was praised nationally for her move, but shortly afterward, the local press reported that the governor's staff had helped tailor the bill before its passage, suggesting that she only torpedoed it once the NFL and others started to squawk.
The bill's supporters aren't chastened. Querard talks of how the debate became "distorted" and "dishonest." Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a sponsor of the legislation, tells me the same thing on a phone call as I stare across the street at the stadium. "It was apparent that the LGBT community had determined to make this a battleground," Yarbrough says. "It really wasn't about them at all."
But others hope the debate over S.B. 1062 heralds a new era in Arizona politics, one that ushers in the decline of conservative hegemony and helps repair what they see as the state's tattered national image. "They have been in control for far too long; they believe they can do anything, that no one's paying attention," says Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat from Phoenix. "This bill blew up right in front of them."
TYRANNY OF THE MINORITY
If there's one promise the West has fulfilled, it's that there is plenty of free parking.
You can drive right up to the state Capitol, the site of so many protests and battles over the last few years, and park as easily as you would at a Wal-Mart. No tickets or time limits — freedom is just another word for not having to fork over $3.50. And don't let the men in the orange jumpsuits startle you. They're inmates trimming the grounds on the orders of notorious get-tough Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That's one of his things.
The historic Capitol itself has long been retired from service, having been transformed into a museum, and it looms over the twin modern structures that house the state Senate and the House like an indifferent deity. Today is Motorcycle Day. Bikes line the avenue in front of the Legislature. A tent dedicated to "motorcycle rights" has been set up on the lawn.
Laurie Roberts greets me in the plaza where the three buildings meet. A columnist for The Arizona Republic, she's covered the Legislature since the 1980s. "I think they had a hearing on the gold standard yesterday," Roberts says as we stroll past the House.
The House, in fact, had held a hearing on a bill that would allow state residents to use gold or silver to purchase goods. It was part of a busy legislative slate this session that included a bill that would allow snap inspections of abortion clinics; one that protects the right to take a gun into a public building or to a public event; one that makes it a felony to take someone's gun away; one that bans the use of federal government standards in education; one that requires "navigators" for the Affordable Care Act to first obtain licensing as an insurance agents — and for good measure, an anti-traffic-cam bill.
There was also the bill, supported by more than two dozen senators, that would require federal agents to obtain written approval from a county sheriff before engaging in any law-enforcement activity. That bill was needed, it was said at a committee hearing, to guard against federal "atrocities" like the FBI siege in Waco, Texas, 20 years ago. And there's the bill that would allow state access to federal land "during a state of emergency." And then the one that would invalidate the federal Endangered Species Act. And the one that would simply take all federal land in Arizona (some 25 million acres) and hand it to the state.
"We have a Legislature that is completely out of touch with the state of Arizona," Roberts says. "That's not their fault. It's our fault."
The Legislature is actually more balanced now than it was before the 2012 elections, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats 17-13 in the Senate and 36-24 in the House. But the edge is still enough to allow the GOP to rule both chambers with impunity. The religious-freedom bill passed on mostly party-line votes. And the conservatism that marks the Legislature goes beyond Querard's clientele. Yarbrough, for example, who sponsored S.B. 1062 and heads a caucus known as the Arizona Values Action Team, isn't a Querard client and has run traditional campaigns. "Arizona is a right-of-center state," Yarbrough says. "Our legislation represents that."
Two years ago, using her perch at the newspaper, Roberts launched a public crusade to "de-kook" the Legislature, one that came complete with pennants and campaign-style buttons. She identified her top 10 "kooks" and advocated for their ouster. No. 1 was Carl Seel, a Republican representative from Phoenix. At the time, Seel, a former member of "minuteman" militia on the border, was best known for being an adherent to the "birther" movement who met with Donald Trump in Manhattan to discuss how to push President Obama to certify his origins.
Seel, a client of Querard who was first elected in 2008, won again in 2012 despite Roberts's efforts. He sponsored a bill this session that would it make it a crime for an undocumented alien to attend a public school, drive on a public road, or use a public bathroom. Second on the list was Republican Sen. Judy Burges of Sun City, another Querard client. She won, too. She's the prime sponsor of the bill this session that would require the feds to obtain permission from the local sheriff before enforcing any laws.
"Sadly, the kooks still reign," Roberts says. "It's a damn shame. It's a beautiful state. We're held hostage by a small group of ideologues. But we let it. We don't vote."
ON THE SIDELINES
Arizona lags behind the nation in terms of voter turnout, and it's especially true in the state primaries, which occur in the dead of the Arizona summer (read: when it's an egg-frying 110 degrees). In 2012, just 28 percent of all registered voters cast a primary ballot — and because the legislative districts have been fashioned to give the GOP strong registration edges in a majority of districts, voters had little reason to come out. Few of the races promised to be competitive.
"It isn't hard to get elected to the Legislature," says Scott Smith, the Republican mayor of Mesa who is running to replace Brewer. "I think we have a new silent majority. Now the people who used to be engaged aren't engaged."
Figures released this month by the Arizona Secretary of State's Office help make Smith's argument. A plurality of state voters (34.9 percent) now outnumber both Republicans (34.7 percent) and Democrats (29.5 percent), a rarity matched by just eight other states, including Colorado and New Jersey, according to the centrist think tank Third Way.
And these independents appear to be the voters most alienated from the political process. In 2012, a mere 7 percent of them voted in the primaries — and state law allows them do so as long as they register beforehand and pick one party for the duration of that election cycle.
All of it means that a small slice of the electorate dominates legislative races. Michael O'Neil, a Phoenix-based political analyst, estimates that in the 2012 elections, because of the narrowly drawn districts and the fact that several Republicans ran unopposed, 35,500 voters — barely more than 1 percent of Arizona's 3.2 million registered voters — determined the Legislature's composition. And those voters were the most highly motivated ones of all — what Querard would call his "people," a disproportionately influential set of ballot-casters.
"You want to talk tea party," O'Neil says over coffee in Tempe. "This is tea party."
That explains, he says, the disconnect between the Legislature and Arizona's largely urban and suburban population. (An overwhelming share of the state is clustered around Phoenix and Tucson; more than 4 million people live in the Phoenix metro area.) "The myth is that Arizona is hyper-conservative," he says.
It is, as the state's new voter stats show, where, absent independents, GOP registration outpaces Democratic enrollment by just 5 percent. Where Democrats hold the majority of the delegation's seats in the U.S. House (although that may change this fall), and where the state recently elected a two-term Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, Brewer's predecessor. It's a state where voters passed, through referendum, not only the clean-elections campaign-reform law but a medical-marijuana initiative, a children's health program, increased education spending, and several tax increases.
Surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this year showed S.B. 1062 to be overwhelmingly unpopular — and also showed widespread support for Brewer's veto. The pollster also found that more Arizonians (49 percent) support gay marriage than oppose it (41 percent).
Earlier this month, in the heat of the legislative session, a group of more than 60 citizens took out an ad in The Arizona Republic, urging the public to "take back Arizona."
"Be represented," the ad implored. "We don't need an overthrow or a revolution. Change can be free, and bloodless. We can vote." The ad concluded: "Let's generate headlines in a positive way."
That would be a change. Most of the headlines emanating from the Legislature still sound like Fox News cranked up to 11. Take, for instance, the recent move by the Arizona Republican Party to censure Sen. John McCain. ("The leadership didn't drive that. It came from the grassroots," says Robert Graham, the director of the state party.)
A recent PPP survey found McCain, a war hero and former presidential nominee who has represented the state for 30 years, to be the least popular senator in the country, apparently reviled both by Democrats and hard-core Republicans alike. In a state where independents don't vote, being a maverick is risky business. "If he runs again, I think he loses," Querard sniffs.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
But then, among his many exercises in apostasy, McCain long ago waded into an immigration debate in Arizona that, even if it has cooled here with the drop in border-crossers from Mexico, still ranks among the state's most polarizing issues.
If you want to understand what separates Arizona politically from other states, it's the unswerving, unsettling feeling shared by many residents that their southern border is up for grabs — and that the federal government hasn't done enough to secure it.
The immigration rhetoric out of Washington, says Smith, the Mesa mayor, "does not match the everyday reality in Arizona." It's an issue that cuts across ideology and party lines. When Napolitano was governor, she routinely hectored the federal government for not doing enough to stem the flow of migrants and contain gang violence. So, while the religious-freedom bill enjoyed little support from the masses, S.B. 1070, the "papers" law, was favored by a majority of state residents surveyed (Latinos notwithstanding).
Geography explains part of the issue's pervasiveness. The desert border along Arizona is the least secure (and most dangerous) crossing point for immigrants. Texas has the Rio Grande River as a natural barrier and California has a relatively small, more commercialized border. In addition, U.S. border- security efforts involving checkpoints, drones, and fences have resulted in funneling border-crossers into the arid, expansive Sonoran desert. The overwhelming majority of migrant deaths in the last 15 years have occurred along the Arizona border — more than 2,600, according to No More Deaths, an immigration advocacy group based here.
The porous desert border is also a haven to smugglers and traffickers, tapping into Arizonians' collective sense of unease. Smith talks of signs posted along Interstate 8 as far as 50 to 100 miles inside the state warning travelers about "armed criminals and smuggling vehicles," advising that the region is unsafe. The signs went up in 2010, a year when border rhetoric reached blood-fever levels. It was the year that prominent rancher Robert Krentz was killed on his land in southeastern Arizona. Evidence pointed to either a migrant or a cartel scout, and he was instantly a martyr for the cause.
Arizona was still being hammered by the recession and the foreclosure crisis, adding to the tension. And it was the same year that the Legislature passed S.B. 1070, which sought to give the state more tools on the local level to combat illegal immigration and which Brewer signed over virulent protests. But it was also becoming clear that Arizona was going to pay an economic price for the Legislature's uber-conservative tack.
The bill had passed with little input from the business community, but the state began to lose millions of dollars in convention business as its image as a welcoming place for corporations to relocate began to fray. And when local business owners started to find it difficult to build a labor force, some found their voice. The following year, when the Legislature introduced five more anti-immigration bills, including one that revoked "birthright citizenship" for children of illegal immigrants, "we said enough is enough," says Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce.
This time, 60 CEOs signed a letter opposing the measures. "The business community banded together like it had never banded together," Hamer says, while noting that Mexico is the state's biggest trading partner.
Hamer said that the state's image problem became clear to him when he learned that a girls high school volleyball team in Chicago had canceled a trip to tony Scottsdale over fears of crime and violence. "The worst thing that could happen to them in Scottsdale is that they might be hit by an old lady on a riding mower," he says.
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
That used to be Arizona's image — the sun-drenched haven for retirees and refugees seeking a slo-mo life under empty desert skies. Before the anti-immigration and antigay bills, before warnings of drug cartels and daylight kidnappings, before Sheriff Joe, before the Gabby Giffords shooting, nothing much happened.
It's still maturing, having been granted statehood a century ago. And really, modern Arizona, meaning Phoenix, only began to grow after World War II, with the development of air conditioning and with it the migration to the region of businesses and, especially, the defense industry.
Phoenix rose through the strength of local industries, banking and mining among them. And in turn, the industrialists ran the town in a manner not dissimilar from other frontier environs. Dubbed the "Phoenix 40," they were classic civic boosters, from the local banks such as Valley National and First National to the powerful publisher of The Arizona Republic, Eugene Pulliam.
But in the late 1980s the old order began to break down. Gov. Evan Mecham, who was the first conservative to thrust the state into an unwanted spotlight by doing away with the state's Martin Luther King Day holiday, was indicted (but acquitted) and impeached. The "Keating Five" scandal, which enmeshed McCain, involved charges that members of Congress intervened to aid a local savings and loan. And there was "AzScam," a bribery and money-laundering probe that took down seven state legislators and lobbyists.
In 1992, voters approved another populist remedy, a term-limit law that capped legislative terms in one house at eight years. "The Legislature really started to change," says Kolbe, the former House member. There was, he says, "a loss of institutional knowledge and capacity." There would be no more figures such as the legendary Republican leader Burton Barr, who dominated the Capitol for two decades and was dubbed "Mr. Magic" for his ability to forge pragmatic deals with Democrats. Six years later, voters approved the clean-elections act.
The corporate landscape was also being radically altered as Arizona companies were bought, consolidated, and eliminated. (A recent example is the departure of US Airways to Dallas.) There are times driving around the Phoenix area when the entire region feels like one big Panera Bread or Target, as if the town itself is a corporate franchise — with the central office off-site. The Phoenix 40 is long gone and members of the local Rotary Club are likely to be general managers at Best Buy. "You don't have institutions. You don't have a business community that's dominant," says Scott Smith, as we sit at a Starbucks in Scottsdale, with the low-slung McDowell Mountains in the background. (Even the mountains sound like franchises.) "The [corporate] money never touches Arizona," he says. "It goes to Atlanta or Minneapolis."
It's left a vacuum, Smith says, and "nature takes over." In this case, nature means people like Constantin Querard and Russell Pearce. And groups such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, which plays a large role in Arizona; the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative advocacy group that was a driving force behind the religious-freedom bill; and the libertarian Goldwater Institute (named for the iconic senator) which, among other things, champions for charter-school vouchers.
As the business community has sought to reassert itself, it's found much of the turf has been staked out — and not always in the ways it likes. AFP battled the chamber of commerce over whether Arizona should set up its own exchange under the Affordable Care Act. AFP won. The two sides fought over whether the state should accept money for Medicaid expansion under the ACA. The chamber won.
Much of the skirmishing has come down to which side can do a better job of persuading Brewer to get on board. The governor, who announced last month she would not seek another term (to do so would have meant challenging the state's term-limit law), has had to chart the same kind of path as many Republicans who aren't aligned with the Querard faction, alternating between embracing it (as she did when she campaigned on S.B. 1070) and showing her independence, as when she supported Medicaid expansion. The chamber's Hamer is a fan. "I call her the heavyweight champion of the world," he says.
Because Brewer is standing down, she won't have to worry about a primary challenge, but that isn't true for other Republicans who have broken from the pack. Take Sen. Bob Worsley, who represents the same east Mesa district once held by Russell Pearce. Worsley teamed with Democrats to push through the Medicaid bill. Last month, he again stood with a sliver of Republicans and Senate Democrats to beat back a concerted effort to exempt the state from the so-called Common Core national educational standards.
Guess who's been declared Public Enemy No. 1? "I'm clearly the person who has his head on the platter," Worsley says. "I've proven I won't toe the line. I'll make decisions that are better for the state than for my caucus."
Cue primary challenger: In this case, it's Ralph Heap, an orthopedic surgeon and sworn Obamacare foe who is expected to give Worsley a tough time. "This race isn't going to be a tea party versus a traditional Republican," says Heap's campaign manager, Chris Baker. "It's going to be a traditional Republican versus a liberal Republican in the classic sense."
There aren't many politicians in Arizona, or Washington for that matter, like Worsley. It might help that he doesn't need the gig. He's the millionaire inventor of SkyMall, the catalog you flip through on the plane when you forget to bring something to read. He likes to talk about how in developing the company, he originally proposed delivering customers' orders to them as soon as they stepped off the flight. But, it turned out passengers didn't want the hassle. They just wanted the stuff shipped to their homes. "It was a solution in search of a problem," Worsley says.
He says the same thing about the religious-freedom bill, which he had voted for. "There was a lot of pressure for the caucus to stay together," he says. But as soon as he cast his vote, "there was a sense of gloom. We walked out to our cars feeling we had just made a huge mistake." He ended up urging Brewer to veto the bill.
The Legislature, he says, needs to move beyond what he calls "symbolic legislation." The state "has water issues, energy issues. We have really significant things we need to do."
But to do that, he says, "we're going to have to slowly turn over the Legislature from the publicly financed ideologues."
FILLING THE VOID
That was always the strange contradiction about the Querard approach: big-government-hating conservatives running campaigns on the dole. But it's less of a problem now. The same conservative groups that have formed an alliance with Querard's legions helped bring much of the public-financing law down by filing a lawsuit. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the matching-funds provision as unconstitutional.
Adios, weapon of choice. But Querard isn't fazed. He's a fixture now — and here, he says, the message matters more than the money. And the pro-guns, antiabortion, antigovernment platform still works. More than that, Querard wonders why anyone would want to return to an era when the establishment governed and insurgents were locked out. "That sort of makes my head explode," he says as the plates are being cleared at the Cracker Barrel.
"Big companies, big business, wealthy folks — their main priority is preservation of the status quo," he adds. "If you had to go to the chamber to get elected, I'm not sure they'd be electing my candidates."
That's the point. The shift to more traditional campaigns could, over time, begin to favor candidates such as Worsley who can rally big business in a way that Querard's candidates cannot. (In fact, Worsley beat Querard's client, Pearce, in a primary — a rare loss for the maestro.) Moreover, the Arizona Republican Party, long viewed as moribund, is looking to get back in the game under its new chairman, Graham. He welcomes the move from the Querard model. "You want to engage the donors," he says. "The business community has engaged us again, the lobbying community isn't afraid anymore."
There is also, of course, the changing demographics that have had Democrats fantasizing about putting the state in play nationally. The Latino population is growing and the white population is declining — although minority turnout remains a serious issue. "It's a real worry for [the GOP]," says Andrei Cherny, a former Democratic candidate for treasurer. "Over the long term, Arizona will be purple. It just depends on when that long term comes."
Graham knows this too: In the 2012 election that sent Jeff Flake to the Senate, 70 percent of Hispanics voted for Flake's Democratic opponent, Richard Carmona. Graham's committing the party to forging a better bond with Latino voters.
The Arizona Legislature took the opposite approach. Last year, it passed (and Brewer signed) a bill that was widely viewed as a vehicle for suppressing votes in Latino and poor communities and making it harder to bring citizen initiatives, a favored tactic here, to overturn legislation. After widespread complaints, the Legislature repealed the measure earlier this session before voters did it themselves this November.
The bill may have been an admission that this group of Republicans at the Capitol knows it's living on borrowed time. That some combination of a reengaged business community, a stronger GOP infrastructure, a galvanized electorate, and shifting demographics will drag the state back to the center and keep it from being a cable-news punch line. All the talk here about Arizona's future focuses on whether it will someday be like true-blue California — or blood-red Texas. There's a tug-of-war for its Western soul.
Querard realizes this, as well. "There is no permanent victory," he says, as he leaves the table and heads out of the Cracker Barrel. He's taking his kids to Legoland for the weekend. And, really, what could be more American than that?