TUCSON, Ariz. — Forget calls for unity and common ground.
The former Democratic Party chairman for Pima County is so fed up with Arizona's conservative politics that he wants the county to secede and form a 51st state in southern Arizona.
Paul Eckerstrom says he wants to restore the region's credibility as a place that is welcoming to others. He and fellow Tucson attorney Peter Hormel have formed a political committee called Start Our State to explore process of making Pima County a separate state.
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The mood of frustration has been "been building for the last couple of years," Eckerstrom said in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC's Tamron Hall. "A lot of folks down here have been very, very frustrated with the extremist policies coming out of our state Legislature.”
Anti-immigration bills, education cuts and attempts by conservative lawmakers to "nullify" federal laws prompted the secessionist movement.
Start Our State lists its mission as: "To establish a new state in Southern Arizona free of the un-American, unconstitutional machinations of the Arizona legislature and to restore our region’s credibility as a place welcoming to others, open to commerce, and friendly to its neighbors."
Eckerstrom said Start Our State, which had more than 2,350 "likes" on its Facebook page as of Tuesday night, wants to put a non-binding resolution for secession before Pima County voters next year. If approved, the measure would need the OK of either the state Legislature or a statewide referendum. Congress and the president would also have to approve the new state.
"It has been so darn frustrating watching fringe legislators trying to dismantle our state and to tarnish our state’s reputation,” said state Senate Minority Whip Paula Aboud, a Tucson Democrat, who recently offered a secessionist amendment to a Republican-backed bill that would create a legislative committee to decide which federal laws to nullify. (The amendment was defeated.)
Eckerstrom said he has received several suggestions for a name for a new state, including Baja Arizona, South Arizona and Gadsden. The latter is a reference to the 1854 Gadsden Purchase of southern Arizona from Mexico.
Pima County, with a population of about 1 million, is in the south-central region of Arizona, which became the 48th U.S. state in 1912. The county seat is Tucson, where a gunman killed six people and wounded 12 others, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a meeting of Giffords constituents in January.
According to voter registration records, 35.8 percent of Arizona voters are Republicans, 31.7 percent independents, and 31.6 percent Democrats, according to The Daily Courier. In Pima County, about 38 percent of voters are Democrats vs. 31 percent Republicans. Pima, whose more-conservative neighbor is Maricopa County, is by far Arizona's most populous state.
The prospects for creation of a new secession state are dim at best.
Since the formation of the U.S. Constitution, only two states have been created from parts of an existing state: Maine, which seceded from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia, which split from Virginia during the Civil War.
Eckerstrom acknowledges the secessionist movement faces significant hurdles, but he said he hopes the publicity will at least send a wake-up call to others.
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“We would like to at least send a message to the state Legislature and Arizona’s voters (that) hey, we need more moderation in our policies and at the same time tell the rest of the country that we’re rational, moderate people in Pima County. Don’t boycott us. Come here and bring your business here," he told MSNBC.
At least one critic openly scoffed at the secessionist notion.
Blunt-talking Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” —called the idea “stupid."
"If you don't like the elected officials, just get rid of them and put somebody in there where you like their philosophy and agendas. You don't just form a new state!" Arpaio recently told KGUN9-TV. "What's the next step? Include Mexico? Is that what they want? I guess Mexico can take over Baja Arizona as time goes on. "
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