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Desert of Fear

John Dougherty, a journalist who helped make John McCain one of the Keating Five, is running a long-shot campaign to replace McCain as U.S. senator. Along the way, both will have to deal with the immigration monster under every Arizona bed.

After driving through the slanting light and long vistas of the high Mojave Desert at sunrise, coming down into heat-blasted, midday Lake Havasu City, Ariz., is, literally and figuratively, a downer. I like the desert, but Havasu has a way of exuding tourist-trap despair, even when it's late June and 103 and climbing, and the snowbirds are all intelligently back in Canada and the upper Midwest. It didn't help my mood that I was trying to cover a political campaign event that did not want to be found.

Early in May, John Dougherty, an old friend who's the best investigative reporter I've ever known (quick disclosure: he's written for two publications I've edited), made the eyebrow-raising announcement that he would run for the U.S. Senate in Arizona. Because he has not been involved in politics or governance, except in terms of reporting on the political and governmental misdeeds of others, the announcement had quixotic undertones. That a political neophyte could think he stood any chance of knocking over that biggest of political windmills, John McCain, was absurd, vainglorious, unrealistic and ... and ...

Perfect, as a matter of poetic irony.

Back in 1989, you see, when Dougherty was reporting on the banking industry for the Dayton Daily News, he broke some of the first major stories on Charlie Keating Jr. and the five U.S. senators said to have twisted the arms of savings and loan regulators on his behalf, triggering hearings by the Senate Ethics Committee. Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan spiraled into insolvency, costing the federal government billions, and the senators became infamous as the Keating Five, one of whom was U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona. And it is McCain whom Dougherty would face in November if he wins the Democratic nomination in Arizona's ludicrously late primary on Aug. 24, and McCain holds off a challenger in the Republican primary.

Several news outlets have noted the irony of Dougherty's candidacy, but I knew it had to be something more than a stunt. He's a bit mercurial now and again, but John's a true idealist and a hell of a smart guy, too, the last person I'd expect to set off on a fool's errand. So I decided to see a bit of the campaign with my own eyes, renting a fire-engine red Chevy HHR, setting out across California for Arizona and winding up at Havasu's new Democratic campaign office, located in a sad cinder block strip mall with a lumpy gravel parking lot in front. There, in a spare room with three or four rows of folding chairs facing a wall with large U.S. and Arizona flags and a "Proud to Be a Democrat" clock on it, were 13 people, mostly senior citizens.

Dougherty was late, and a couple of the people waiting to hear him seemed antsy. But most were not. Not at all. They seemed to have nowhere else to be and nothing better to do. Someone mentioned that it was 108 degrees outside. I began to wonder whether I should just put this trip in the "mistake" column and head back to California.

In a few minutes, though, Dougherty arrived, chatted and shook hands to the front of the room and worked into his pitch, which was more coherent than I'd expected: First, he laid out the reasons he'd decided to run against McCain, which he said included the senator's ethical lapses and his history of failing to deal with major problems, from economics to immigration. Dougherty then went on to his major campaign issues, the centerpiece being a crash effort to make Arizona a national leader in solar energy. He also explained his hopes to bring Arizona-style campaign finance reform for the whole country (don't laugh; Arizona had it mostly right, until a recent Supreme Court decision threw its campaign laws into limbo) and advocated for comprehensive national immigration reform that would not include randomly asking Hispanics for their papers just because they're Hispanic.

It was a pretty nuanced, high-tone agenda, particularly for Arizona politics, but as he laid it out, John showed a knack for the vernacular. In the south they call it "talking Bubba," and as the event went on to a long question-and-answer period, it became clear that he can talk about serious issues in the kind of regular-guy language that connects with, well, regular guys of all genders. He was, in fact, better on his feet — more articulate and natural — than many people who've been in public life for decades. But the question here isn't really about presentation or thoughtfulness; the question is whether anyone can get anything approaching reasonable ideas on public policy heard in the public theater of fear and resentment that Arizona politics have become.

I lived in Arizona for several years in the mid-1990s, and since then, at least, the state's politics have been dominated by a form of political discourse — if you can call it discourse — that ranges far to the right of anything that most Americans might have called conservatism (at least until very recently). Some 14 years ago, I wrote a column that called the approach "barbarism as a public relations strategy." It is a manipulative, authoritarian, all but fact-independent form of politics-as-public-theater that uses simple, media-friendly publicity stunts and harsh rhetoric to prey on the fears of unsophisticated voters, making society's least powerful and most vulnerable into scapegoats and boogeymen who are unworthy of being treated as Americans or, even, human beings. When I first wrote about this kind of politics in the mid-1990s, it was being practiced by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who'd honed it in a series of PR initiatives relating to his notorious jail, where conditions were so inhumane as to draw the interest of Amnesty International and the U.S. Justice Department.

From merely mistreating prisoners in ways that appear to violate international human rights agreements — including the use of stun guns on the testicles of restrained inmates, the punching and kicking of handcuffed prisoners, and the potentially fatal hog-tying of incarcerees — Arpaio and his department have expanded the scope of their thuggish behavior, which has been egregious enough to have the normally staid New York Times label the sheriff "a genuine public menace." Just as no one needed to worry over the "criminals" in his "tent city" jail in the desert — who were, in Sheriff Joe's eyes, getting the harsh treatment they deserved, even if it sometimes sickened or killed them — no one needed to concern himself as Arpaio's deputies swept Hispanic neighborhoods of Phoenix, looking for illegals to arrest and send off for deportation.

The success of Arpaio's demonization of the powerless — he is pretty regularly cited as the most popular politician in Arizona — has encouraged other Republican officeholders to follow suit, and they have dreamed up a series of what might be considered publicity stunts, if they weren't acts of state. The Legislature passed, and Gov. Jan Brewer signed, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, usually known simply as Senate Bill 1070, which requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop who they believe might be an illegal alien. You'd have to have been in a sensory deprivation tank for these last many months not to know about the furor surrounding Arizona's "papers, please" law, which has the simplicity, hard edge and implicit racism of any good far-right wedge issue: They're here illegally; why not just deport them all?

Since passage, the law has been embellished by appropriately harsh rhetoric, such as Brewer's non-factual assertion during a campaign debate that most illegal immigrants come across the border to smuggle drugs. And then there was her contention in a Fox News interview in June that "[w]e cannot afford all this illegal immigration and everything that comes with it, everything from the crime and to the drugs and the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings and the fact that people can't feel safe in their community. It's wrong! It's wrong!"

Actually, it appears, what's wrong is Brewer's claim that there has been a rash of beheadings in Arizona, several media outlets and medical examiners in the state's border counties being unable to find a single case of the alleged decapitation.

As with Arpaio's long-running campaign to be known as "America's toughest sheriff," SB 1070 seems aimed more at achieving buzz than anything like policy success. And buzz there has been, as several states moved toward their own versions of SB 1070 and the federal government sued the state over the law, claiming it infringes on the federal government's authority to regulate immigration. As I write this column, the federal lawsuit is pending, but whether it wins an injunction to keep SB 1070 from going into effect late in July or not is irrelevant, politically speaking. Immigration will continue to dominate the state's political landscape, because blaming Hispanic immigrants and the federal government for the state's problems has proven a winning strategy for Brewer and other Republicans, and blame is easier to explain on TV than any reasoned plan for diversifying Arizona's depressed tourism- and development-based economy, reconfiguring its hopelessly inadequate tax structure or bringing its substandard schools into the 20th century (if not the 21st).

If this blaming of a specific ethnicity or group for society's ills as a way of gaining political power seems familiar, that's because it is. Of course, what's occurring now in Arizona is not precisely the same as the totalitarian fascism that seized control of Germany and Italy and started World War II. It is, however, similar; it grasps after authoritarian control, hoping to create the electoral conditions in which intolerance and know-nothingness become synonymous with right-thinking and patriotism, so those who disagree can be marginalized or, if they become irritating, demonized. It attempts to make reasoned discussion — the sort of civil discourse that should, in theory, be the basis on which politics is conducted — seem weak and timid at best, and subversive or un-American at worst. It is at least aspiring to become something very like fascism, and so it is worth watching, in case aspirations expand.

As I watched Dougherty's appearance in Lake Havasu City (in the Republican stronghold of Mohave County, which went for McCain 2-to-1 in the 2008 presidential race), the subject of illegal immigration of course came up. And even in the band of committed Democrats who braved the heat to hear him speak, there were unmistakable expressions of — let's call it — intolerant thought. Finally, one man with a vaguely European accent asked outright, "So shouldn't they just leave the country?"

Dougherty explained that many of the Mexicans in Arizona had been encouraged to come by large farming and construction businesses that literally sent recruiters across the border to let potential migrants know where they could go in the U.S. to be picked up and taken straight to the farm or the subdivision where they'd be put to work. Rather than mass deportations, he advocated strict enforcement of sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers, along with a system that gave temporary visas to people who'd been in the country illegally for long periods of time, so they could be identified and taxed. He noted that Mexico is a major trading partner. "I don't think we should be treating them like we're at war," Dougherty said.

It was a nuanced exposition of a set of positions he had obviously thought a lot about, and they were presented in the plain Arizonan of regular folks. But the guy with the accent would just not let it alone. In Europe, they just deported the illegals; he didn't know why we couldn't do it here. Finally, Dougherty mentioned that the guy had an accent and asked him where he was from. He said he was of Danish origin. With a quick flash of grin, Dougherty asked, "So, can I see your papers?"

The moment of humor chased the immigration monster out of sight, and the questions turned to Israel and Gaza. But the monster hadn't gone far; he was waiting under a bed somewhere, until it got dark again, and people were scared of beheadings and kidnappings and extortion and other bad acts they were very, very unlikely to experience.

Aa I drove south on Highway 95 toward Yuma and Dougherty's next stop, a political breakfast in the tiny town of Ajo, the contradictions of Arizona politics seemed illustrated in the fractured glory of its landscape. Driving through saguaro-studded, mountain-rimmed, heart-stopping desert beauty, I had a moment of mild cognitive dissonance: I was inside the Yuma Proving Ground, where the country's tanks, artillery and other military implements are tested. Above the postcard-worthy landscape floated a little white speck; after 20 minutes of driving, the speck turned into an aerostat, tethered and looking down for drug-smuggling planes flying in from Mexico. While driving through the massive, green, irrigated farms along Interstate 8 east of Yuma, I was stopped at Border Patrol checkpoint and asked whether I were a U.S. citizen, and I said I sure was; at another checkpoint, on Arizona 85 somewhere south of Gila Bend, I rolled right through without being stopped as five Border Patrol officers played with the German shepherd that was, I suppose, a drug-sniffing dog.

Ajo is one of those isolated Arizona settlements that are both charming and godforsaken at the same time. A former copper-mining town — the mine closed in the mid-1980s — Ajo has a pleasant Spanish Colonial Revival central plaza, and now the town is populated largely by retirees, artists and, of course, people who work for or with the Border Patrol. It's located about 40 miles north of the border with nothing but the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Goldwater bombing range around it. It's therefore more or less at the center of the battle against illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the Arizona border.

In the back room of a deli on the town plaza, 20 of Ajo's approximately 4,000 residents gathered on a Tuesday morning to drink coffee and listen to John Dougherty speak. After they went around the table introducing themselves, Dougherty launched into a confident, optimistic discussion of his positions, insisting that Democrats had no reason to be fearful in the November election and that the Internet "changes the whole playing field of democracy." He explained, again, his plans to make Arizona a world leader in solar energy, along the way retelling a folksy story about a World War II veteran who'd built a solar car 30 years ago and was still driving it today. He again ran through his program for comprehensive immigration reform — improved border control, increased sanctions on businesses employing undocumented workers, visas for those who've been here for years. "We have to control the border, but need to be sensible in how we treat the people who are here," Dougherty said.

Still, Ajo is too close to the border to speak long about illegal immigration as an abstraction. Dougherty took questions: A guy in a white cap said the problem is everywhere; when he visited New York, everybody working at a McDonald's he went to spoke nothing but Spanish. A middle-aged woman said she's been asking why there are so many Border Patrol agents in Ajo, rather than being stationed directly on the border, and she can't get an answer as to why, with 400 agents in the Ajo sector now, versus seven just a few years ago, illegal immigration hasn't been slowed. A guy who owns one of the local motels insisted that the situation has improved, that he hasn't seen an illegal in or around his place the last three years. No one seemed happy about anything to do with immigration.

In this time of economic disarray, tea parties and anti-government fervor, the political circus is drawing more than its usual share of clowns. But disaffection with Washington is not a phenomenon attached to one ideology or party, and neither is the change in political organizing and financing wrought by the rise of the Internet. In 2010, not every insurgent is a clown, and not all long shots will fall in history's dustbin. I find many of their ideas retrograde and disturbing, but I suspect America will be hearing the names Rand Paul and Marco Rubio for years to come, and not that long ago, they were all but political nobodies.

Though I consider him a friend and admire him greatly, I am less certain about the prospects of John Dougherty and other idealists who are trying to talk policy options into the face of fear stoked for years by Arizona's experts in political theater. In his case, part of my uncertainty is based on practical considerations: One of the three Democrats he's running against — former Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman — will have far more money than he does, and even if Dougherty wins the Democratic primary, he'll likely run against a famous, extremely well-financed Republican, in an election year that is widely expected to be better for the GOP than for Democrats.

Of course, there's that other factor working against desert Democrats this year: the immigration monster growling under the bed. Polls show a majority of the Arizona electorate supporting SB 1070. Though McCain was, once upon a time, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, he faces a challenge from the right in the primary and has moved far in that direction to support the new immigration law. And lest you think phony beheadings can't work in the realm of public relations barbarism, a Rasmussen Poll of likely voters released late in June had Brewer, the likely Republican nominee, leading Democrat Terry Goddard by 18 percentage points in the race for governor. A few months earlier, before SB 1070 was signed into law, Goddard had a substantial lead.

Still, the people who run for public office are different from you and me. They're the ultimate entrepreneurs, willing to risk not just political and financial ruin, but outright public humiliation for the merest chance of someday holding office. And in the run-up to Election Day, even the least likely of these candidates lives in a time and space of suspended, hopeful possibility, believing that events may transpire in just the right way for them to live what had been nothing but a dream.

For a time, this column will inhabit that same time and space, going off to the printer a month before the Aug. 24 Arizona primaries. As I write this, the most recent poll shows Dougherty in a statistical tie with the other three Democrat senatorial candidates. If he shows well in a scheduled Democratic debate and runs a wily Internet campaign that raises money and spreads the viral word, John Dougherty might win the Democratic nomination. He might then go on to run a Web-savvy, David vs. Goliath campaign against John McCain. Illegal immigration might be discussed as a long-standing national problem to be solved, rather than a terrorizing political hobbyhorse to be ridden. In this state of suspended possibility and hope, who knows? There might even be a McCain-Dougherty debate during which no one gets beheaded.

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