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“Tea Party in Sonora”: Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Says Arizona is Laboratory for Radical GOP Policies

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A new article by Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein argues that Arizona has become a laboratory not just for immigration policy, but a broad range of issues. It’s a place, he writes, where the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party, and should the Republicans retake nationwide power, “the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Arizona. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, in Arizona, a state that’s become infamous for its crackdown on undocumented immigrants and racial profiling of Latinos, last week the Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit over the state’s controversial anti-immigrant law that is scheduled to take effect at the end of this month. The new law requires police officers to stop and interrogate anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant.

But in a sign that Arizona may not be alone, on Wednesday nine other states, led by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, filed a legal brief supporting the Arizona law. The other states that joined are Michigan, Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: So, is Arizona a bellwether state on conservative policymaking around immigration? Well, a new article by Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein argues Arizona is becoming a laboratory not just for immigration policy, but a broad range of issues. It’s a place, he writes, where the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party. Should the Republicans retake nationwide power, quote, “the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become.” The article is in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s called “Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona.” Ken Silverstein joins us now from Washington, DC.

Lay out the political landscape for us in Arizona, Ken Silverstein, and why you’re focusing there.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, I looked at Arizona in a much broader way than merely the immigration issue, because immigration is sort of — it illustrates what’s going on in Arizona, but the problem there, the dysfunction, is far broader. I mean, you have the sort of radical right in control in Arizona. You’ve got every component of the sort of extreme right wing running around, whether it’s the Minutemen, you know, guarding the borders, or the anti-tax crowd, the religious conservatives. They’re all very, very active and vibrant in Arizona.

And I really looked at the economic situation there, because Arizona — I mean, everybody’s focusing on immigration, but you’ve got this economic crisis there that is quite stunning, resembling California in many ways, where the state is just completely bankrupt. It has huge deficits, which they’re addressing by cutting social spending in an extraordinary way, where, you know, they’re doing away with all-day kindergarten, and they’re kicking kids off of healthcare programs, taking very, very dramatic steps in order to control the budget deficit. And meanwhile, because, as I wrote on our web, on the Harper’s site, about Arizona, as well, you know, it was described to me sort of as a Grover Norquist lab experiment run amok, in a way. I mean, you’ve just got this anti-tax fanaticism in Arizona where it doesn’t matter whether the state is doing well or doing poorly, the answer of the legislature is always “Let’s cut taxes.” So, fifteen of the last seventeen years, they’ve slashed taxes in Arizona, so you’ve just got this expanding budget deficit. You know, it’s all this sort of Reagan-era belief, or even pre-Reagan, but, you know, where this whole belief took hold during those years that, you know, you cut taxes and the economy will grow. Well, you can look at the record in Arizona, and there’s no real indication that cutting taxes will always make the economy grow. I mean, there are situations where it may help, but it is not a cure-all. But that’s the only thing the legislature there knows how to do. And so they have collectively managed to bankrupt the state and create a crisis that is going to drag on for years and years and years, and they’ve locked themselves, really, into a situation where they can’t fix it, because so many of the lawmakers — it’s a pretty big Republican majority — so many of the Republicans have signed the Norquist anti-tax pledge, so that they — under no circumstances, will they raise taxes. So they’re really locked into a box, and the state is in terrible, terrible shape. And the people of the state are paying the price.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ken, I was struck also in your article that you also focused on the impact of the subprime — the housing crisis in Arizona, which is really like ground zero. Sixty-one percent, I think you said, of the homes in Phoenix are underwater; they’re worth less than the mortgages that their owners have on them. So, in essence, the wealth — the collapse of wealth, that many people in America have been faced with as the values of their homes have gone down, has been especially felt in Arizona, hasn’t it?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, the housing crash in Arizona was just brutal. And I focused on it, because it’s been key to what’s happened to the state in terms of this recession. I mean, Arizona got by for years. People like to move to Arizona. The climate’s nice. You have a big influx of senior citizens over the years. You’ve had all sorts of people escaping the cold in various parts of the country and flocking into Arizona. And so, the state really has grown on the basis of growth, as people there put it to me. I mean, there hasn’t really been — there’s not a lot of industry. You know, you don’t really have much driving growth other than growth, if that makes sense. You’ve had people coming in, and you’ve had this huge real estate market, and then all the affiliated industries, you know, so it’s — you know, contractors have had a great time. You know, people who install pools have done very well. I mean, anything related to housing, real estate and growth has boomed in Arizona. But it was a bit of a mirage, because, you know, they kept cutting taxes, so that the state was generating less revenue. But it was papered over by the fact that you still had people moving in. You know, even if they cut the sales tax, you had more people buying things, and so the state was getting by. But when the housing market crashed, Arizona, you know, the state economy just completely tanked, because you suddenly — you know, you had this end of this sort of papered-over growth economy. You know, the sales taxes plunged. They had already slashed income taxes, and incomes plunged, as well. So you just had this, you know, cycle of spinning downward.

And it really is amazing when you drive around some of the neighborhoods in Phoenix, where, you know, every other house has got a for-sale sign, and lots of houses are just empty. I mean, people walked away. I was taken on a tour of Maricopa, which was this town that grew out of nowhere forty years ago and boomed into a few hundred thousand people, I believe. Actually, I think that’s too high. I think there may have been 50,000 people, at the maximum. And, you know, you had nothing out there. This town just arose out of the desert. You had a few fast food joints and, you know, some shopping malls, but otherwise there was no sense of community, no movie theaters, no libraries, no nothing. I mean, the town just sort of emerged out of nowhere. And when the real estate crash hit, lots of people just walked out. I mean, their homes suddenly — you know, you had had this enormous real estate inflation, and so people had paid way more than the homes were worth. You had cheap credit, as you did elsewhere in the country. And when the crash hit, I mean, housing values, they fell in half. I mean, you just — you know, in the couple of years, your home’s value had been cut in half. So lots of people just walked away. I mean, you see this in neighborhoods where they’re sort of middle-class neighborhoods and also in these McMansion neighborhoods, where you’ve got, you know, just streets filled with these enormous mansions, swimming pools in the backyard. Everybody walked away. And so, you’ve just — you’ve got neighborhoods that have been decimated, and that killed the state economy. And the legislature has refused to deal with the situation. The only way to deal with it, you know, is, “Oh, we may have to raise taxes.” It doesn’t always work to cut taxes. But politically, they can’t get away with it, and so they —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, Ken, in essence, then -—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: — you know, stood by and allowed the state to go under.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, then, I guess part of the thesis of your article is that in an effort to sort of get away from the problems they’re not dealing with, the politicians have centered more on the social issue that they can rally the population behind, of immigration, while they are not handling the real problems that are, in essence, creating so much insecurity and sense of crisis in the population?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, you’ve got these various sideshows going on. You know, I mean, the legislature demanded that President Obama produce his birth certificate if he runs for election again. You know, they granted an exemption in fishing license fees to Eagle Scouts.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait. Give me —-

KEN SILVERSTEIN: You know, they passed a bill -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, the first one, about President Obama having to present his birth certificate?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yes, yes. This is — you know, I think it was the entire legislature — I could be wrong; it may have just been the House — that passed a bill demanding that the President show his birth certificate, you know, over this crazy controversy about whether he was actually born in the United States. You know, you have a whole series of things right now. I mean, they passed a bill allowing professors to carry guns onto university campuses, which had previously been banned. You know, the state senator said that — Jack Harper, I believe, was the sponsor of this bill — said that universities had become gun-free zones and that this was creating a climate, you know, conducive to terrorism, and that professors had to be armed in order to make the campuses safe. You can carry your gun into bars. They loosened the restrictions on carrying a loaded gun into bars. They’ve got, you know, any —-

AMY GOODMAN: Environmental legislation?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: They declared a constitutional right to hunt. I mean, there are a variety -— you know, in addition to immigration, which is the big one that’s gotten most attention, there have been all sorts of sort of cuckoo legislative initiatives that have nothing to do with the state’s economy crisis. It’s just a way — I mean, I don’t even think it’s diversion, in the sense that the people who have been elected in the state of Arizona apparently feel very passionately about these issues, but —-

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn, Ken -—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: — you know, it’s not going to help the state of Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, you mentioned a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. “There are only two ways to vote on this,” said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. “Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you.” Isn’t there also a bill that’s just been passed around trees?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: I don’t know if there was a bill passed around trees, but there’s a state senator, Sylvia Allen, who said that trees were stealing Arizona’s water supply. She was quoted as saying that. I mean, the rhetoric is really quite stunning. I mean, it’s — I mean, I knew things were bad in Arizona, but if you sit — you spend a day at the state legislature, as I did, and listen to the rhetoric — I mean, they have a Ten Commandments up at the state capitol. The day I was there, they were, you know, passing a bill to authorize putting another Ten Commandments up, because one apparently isn’t sufficient. You know, there’s just all sorts of action in terms of these peripheral issues that don’t make any difference to the people of the state but are pet projects of various Republican lawmakers.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play —-

KEN SILVERSTEIN: What’s interesting about Arizona, too, and this is -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, I wanted to play a campaign ad —-

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: —- for Pamela Gorman, a Republican congressional candidate from Arizona.

    PAMELA GORMAN AD: This year, a lot of folks think this is our best shot at changing Congress. Course, that all depends on the caliber of our candidates. [gunfire] Meet Pamela Gorman, candidate for Congress in Arizona 3, conservative Christian, and a pretty fair shot. [gunfire] The insiders in the state senate wanted to have her hide when she fought against their plan for higher taxes. [gunfire] But Gorman, she can take care of herself. [gunfire] Rated 100 percent by the NRA, conservative Pamela Gorman is always right on target. [gunfire]

    PAMELA GORMAN: I’m Pamela Gorman, and I approve this message. [gunfire]

AMY GOODMAN: And for our listening audience, the bullets you’re hearing, they’re being shot by Pamela Gorman throughout that commercial. Ken Silverstein?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s fairly standard, run-of-the-mill stuff in Arizona now. I think I may have mentioned this just a moment ago. If I didn’t, the lawmakers passed a — approved a constitutional right to hunt in Arizona. You know, there’s not really a threat to hunting in Arizona, but they felt the need to pass a constitutional right to hunt, as well.

So, what’s interesting in Arizona is that the population actually is not as right-wing as the legislature. You’ve actually got a pretty even split between Democrats and Republicans, and independents are growing faster than either of the two parties. But what you have is a situation where, because the way that the districts are drawn up in Arizona, it’s been gerrymandered, and so if you win your primary in Arizona, you pretty much win office. I mean, I think there are sixty house districts, and only three of them are competitive between Republicans and Democrats because of the way that the districts have been drawn. And so, in the primaries, the further to the extreme you go, the more likely you are to win the primary. And once you’re through the primary, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfectly sane, lucid opponent from the other party; the way the districts are drawn, you’re in. And so, this situation, it encourages candidates to move further and further and further to the extreme, and not only encourages the candidates, but it encourages a type of person, a type of candidate, who is at the extreme. And so, you know, you have — I’m sure there are, you know, another dozen or two dozen Pamela Gormans seeking offices in Arizona this year, because the way that the districts are drawn encourages exactly that sort of candidate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ken, also, the legislature is a part-time legislature. They only make about $24,000 a year. So they’re doing all of this in their spare time, in essence, as they run other businesses or have other occupations. One of the things that struck me was that you said that they sold the capitol building in Arizona and are leasing it back from the person they sold it to?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, they’ve taken all of these desperate steps, because the state, as I mentioned, is completely bankrupt. They have this enormous budget deficit that they have to cover up, and so they’ve taken all sorts of steps to just generate money and throw it into the budget hole and say, “OK, we’ve balanced the budget.” So, yeah, they sold off the capitol building, and now they’re leasing it back, which, of course, over the long run is going to cost the state far more than simply maintaining the property. And they’ve sold off dozens of state buildings. They’ve talked about — I don’t think they’ve actually sold off any prisons, but they were talking about privatizing the state prison system, including at one point there was talk of, you know, maximum-security prisons, and even the prisons that hold death row prisoners, they were going to privatize those.

You know, anything that can raise money to paper over the deficit, they’ve done. They also took the state lottery revenues, and they took twenty years’ worth of lottery revenues and securitized it, so they — you know, they raised money by selling bonds, using twenty years’ future state lottery revenues. All sorts of budgetary gimmicks. They’ve raided all sorts of funds that are meant to do —- you know, that the state voters have put aside for specific measures. You know, there was a tobacco tax, and this was supposed to go for education, and the state lawmakers have tried to raid that fund and use it to cover up the deficit that they’ve created simply by cutting taxes all these years.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course there’s the -—

KEN SILVERSTEIN: And so, you’ve got all sorts of wild schemes.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s the Republican primary August 24th: J.D. Hayworth versus John McCain. I want to turn to the radio talk show host, Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, in the Republican primary. In this clip from earlier this year, Hayworth is asked about his ties to the birthers by MSNBC host Chris Matthews on Hardball.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Are you as far right as the birthers? Are you one of those who believes that the President should have to prove that he’s a citizen of the United States and not an illegal immigrant? Are you that far right?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: Well, gosh, we all had to bring our birth certificates to show we were who we said we were and we were the age we said we were to play football in youth sports. Shouldn’t we know exactly that anyone who wants to run for public office is a natural-born citizen of the United States and is who they say they are? But let me pause and make another point —-

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Do you think there’s a question out there -—

    J.D. HAYWORTH: — Chris, because I’ve read so many hysteric —-

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: No, I’m reading your letter that says the President should go back and get his birth certificate from the Governor of Hawaii. You dated this November 6, 2008. I’m just asking, do you stand by this letter?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: Yeah, no, I -— sure.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Should the Governor of Hawaii produce evidence that the President is one of us, an American? Do you think that’s a worthy pastime for the Governor of Hawaii right now?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: No, no. Look, I think it’s important —-

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Should she do it?

    J.D. HAYWORTH: —- for all of us to be — well, I’m just saying the President should come forward with the information. That’s all. Why must we depend on the Governor of Hawaii?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there you have it. J.D. Hayworth, he’s up against John McCain for the Republican senatorial nomination. Ken Silverstein, final comment about Arizona?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, yeah, Hayworth is sort of, you know, classic Arizona. The guy is a complete knucklehead. He was a member of Congress. He was elected in '94, you know, had very close ties to Jack Abramoff, became known for absolutely nothing other than embarrassing the state and making idiotic comments. And now he's mounting what appears to be a credible challenge to McCain. McCain, of course, you know, in order to fend off his challenge, has not done anything principled like actually stand up and say, you know, “My opponent is undignified,” but has simply moved right to try to, you know, appear to be more conservative or equally conservative to Hayworth. So that’s, you know, a classic example of the sort of politician the state of Arizona is producing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, his latest piece, “Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

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