By Valeria Fernandez
New America Media
MESA, AZ -- Her "Si se puede" signs are all over the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. She's a Mexican immigrant, a Republican Mormon and she's entered the historic race on Nov. 8 to recall State Senator Russell Pearce the architect of SB 1070, one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the nation.
But whether Olivia Cortes is in it to win or to help Pearce stay in power by splitting his opponents' votes is another question -- one of the many she won't answer. Were opponents to prove this intention, though, she could be forced off the ballot.
Strangely, for a political candidate, Cortes has no website and has granted no interviews to media in the two months since she emerged, including multiple requests from New America Media.
Cortes is getting advice not to talk to the media from Greg Western, president of the East Valley Tea Party, which sympathizes with Pearce's political stance. Cortes did, however, send an e-mail to Arizona weekly New Times to refute claims she is a planted candidate to help Pearce.
Whether she solicited it or not -- another question she won't answer -- Cortes also received help and signatures from Pearce supporters to be on the ballot.
Cortes' 1,200 Tea Party Signatures
"This is my friend that is running and I'm helping her," said Western who personally submitted close to 1,200 signatures to get Cortes on the ballot last week. He denied the Tea Party is endorsing her.
Cortes' intention to run became public almost two months ago, after Republican Jerry Lewis, a former Mormon bishop and school superintendent, entered the race. At the time there was an informal consensus among Pearce opponents that the best candidate to defeat the senator would be a Mormon and a Republican given that demographics of District 18.
Responding to an e-mailed question, Lewis said, "One reason I am in this race is to pursue a climate of civility and respect in Mesa's politics. This political stunt designed to deceive voters is a symptom of our caustic political climate."
When Lewis announced he was running, Democrats, such as Andrew Sherwood, who ran against Pearce in 2010, decided to stay out.
"This is highly unethical. This is Pearce supporters intent to defraud the voters," said Sherwood. "It's a disservice to the Mesa voters."
On Sept. 9, the deadline for Cortes to file her petitions to get on the ballot, a controversial recording surfaced in which a petition gatherer solicited signatures outside the Mesa Public Library.
In the recording, provided by Sherwood, a woman tells a Pearce supporter, "The whole point of [Cortes'] running is to split the vote so he does stay in office."
Reporters from New Times and the Arizona Republic reported hearing or being told similar statements from petition gatherers. "We have no control of what they say when they're collecting signatures," said Western in response to the media reports. "People volunteer to get them for whatever their motives are, I have no idea."
Tea Party Denies Ploy
Western who calls himself an advisor to Cortes said he doesn't know who paid for a firm to circulate the petitions.
But among the petition circulators for Cortes were Pearce supporters, such as Franklin Bruce Ross--a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the validity of the recall effort that was tossed out by the Arizona Supreme Court this week. Ross could not be reached for comment.
New America Media spoke with Western--who didn't returned earlier phone calls--outside a weekly gathering of the East Valley Tea Patriots in Mesa. He declined to confirm or deny that Cortes is in the race to split the anti-Pearce vote. Instead denied Pearce engineered the Cortes candidacy, stating, "Russell Pearce is not behind this, nobody come from Russell Pearce."
Not everyone believes that version of the story.
"This is so blatant, that if you don't cry, it's almost humorous," said Randy Parraz, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona, which led the recall effort.
"I take it as a compliment that Pearce and his underlings had to put a fake candidate with Latino last name on the ballot," Parraz said. "It shows the extent to which Pearce will use Latinos to serve his purpose." He questioned whether Cortes understood the national attention this race would get and the extent she would have to go to deceive voters.
Pearce did not return calls to address these allegations.
Matt Tolman, who chairs Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall, said his group is focused only on Pearce and know nothing of who prompted the Cortes candidacy. "I think people are trying to make a bigger story of something than it actually is," he said.
Cortes Refused Help from Tequila Party
Deedee Blase, founder of the Tequila Party, a national group supporting immigration reform, is planning to file a legal challenge to the validity of the signatures.
Blase said she was suspicious the minute she approached Cortes to learn more about her candidacy and to offer help. "Which candidate turns down volunteers," Blase asked? "She was secretive."
A former registered Republican and founder of Somos Republicans, a Latino group, claims this is in line with a national GOP strategy to attract Latinos to the party but having anti-immigrant hardliners that are Hispanics.
"They're trying to trick Latinos into voting for Cortes because of the Hispanic surname," she asserted.
If evidence surfaces that Cortes is running to dilute the vote from another candidate, she could face a lawsuit to throw her off the ballot.
"You have to show that she knew what she was doing and intended to deceive the people with her candidacy," said Rhonda Barnes, an election's attorney.
None of the Pearce opponents interviewed for this story said they planned to file such a lawsuit. If they did, there is a high burden to proof to show Cortes intended to cheat the voters, said Barnes.
Whether or not Cortes planned to help Pearce, her effect on the ballot could divert votes from Latinos. Some Latinos interviewed for this article were eager to sign the petitions to get her in the race when they heard her surname.
"Es un Fraude"
Marisela Flores, 44 was thrilled to hear there was a Latina running against Pearce when a petition gatherer came knocking on the door.
"I should have thought about it more. You hear this name Olivia, and you say: Yes, yes, yes. This is what we want, a Latino to make things right, " she said. "Unfortunately, sometimes you don't ask more questions."
Flores said she requested more information, but the man told her she was against Pearce and they were in a rush to collect signatures.
"When I saw the news, they were explaining what her goal was, to take the votes, I was angry," she said. "Es un fraude [It's a fraud]. She is trying to pretend that she is something that's she's not."
Meanwhile, groups that were behind the recall are now going door to door to focus on getting Latino voters on board with supporting Lewis. "We have to inform people that's a sham," said Parraz of Citizens for a Better Arizona.
Sometimes they pass by one of the few Cortes' "Si se puede" signs dotting Mesa. The signs fail to indicate which political campaign is paying for them, in violation of election laws.
This was printed in the September 25, 2011 - October 8, 2011 Edition.