TUCSON – Gazing up at the mosaic dome of the old Pima County Courthouse, Paul Eckerstrom sees a potential capitol building for a 51st state: Baja Arizona.
Pima County politicians have joked about the idea of political separation from more-conservative Maricopa County for decades. But the Legislature’s recent moves on topics including immigration caused Eckerstrom and others to stop laughing and form a political committee advocating that this county of more than 1 million people leave Arizona and create a new state.
“We want to make this a serious effort, at least to send a message up to Phoenix – a message to the country – that we want moderation in our state,” said Eckerstrom, former Democratic Party chairman for Pima County and co-chairman of a group calling itself Start Our State.
Controversial immigration bills, cuts to university funding and efforts to nullify federal laws also prompted the group to act, Eckerstrom said.
“People here are kind of at the breaking point,” he said. “The final straw was the nullification bills going through the Senate right now … that are frankly secession from our country, and we down here want to stay in the United States – we want to be American.”
David Euchner, the group’s treasurer and former chairman of the county’s Libertarian Party, said recent legislation on immigration and abortion pushed him over the edge.
“As much as I disagree with what Barack Obama has done or what our Democratic Congress did the last two years, I much more strongly disagree with what Russell Pearce and Jan Brewer have done to our state government,” he said.
Start Our State filed for official committee status last week, making it the first political committee to pursue creating a new state, Eckerstrom said.
The group wants to put a non-binding resolution addressing the issue before Pima County voters in 2012. If approved, the measure would come to a vote in either the Legislature or a statewide referendum.
If all of that were to pass, Congress and the president would have to approve the new state.
Euchner said the movement welcomes other counties, but each would need to conduct its own referendum.
Then there’s the proposed state’s name, which would also be up to voters. Eckerstrom said he has received several suggestions, including Baja Arizona, South Arizona and Gadsden, in reference to the 1854 Gadsden Purchase of southern Arizona from Mexico.
Democratic Sens. Paula Aboud and Linda Lopez, of Tucson, supported a tongue-in-cheek amendment last week to allow Pima County to secede in an attempt to dissuade passage of a bill establishing a committee to nullify federal laws, Lopez said. The Senate Committee of the Whole rejected the amendment.
“Unbeknownst to us, down here in Pima County they were talking seriously about becoming their own state,” Lopez said. “I support their right to want to do that, but I don’t know how it would work in actuality.”
Tucson mayoral candidate Ron Asta, a Republican, said he doubts voters would ever approve of a separation, particularly in the more conservative areas surrounding Tucson.
“I don’t think they’ll be in favor of it,” he said. “There’s a real strong conservative challenge.”
Jeff Rogers, chair of the Pima County Democratic Party, said he thinks voters might approve a separation, but he said political pressures in Congress make the measure’s final passage very unlikely.
“The logistics of it seem to fall apart,” he said.
While Eckerstrom and Euchner agree that their movement faces difficulties, they said support will only grow if the Legislature continues on its current course.
“If given the choice between seceding from the Union to stay with Arizona and seceding from Arizona to stay part of the Union, I choose the latter hands down,” Euchner said.