Monday, February 26, 2007

It's The Extremists Who Are Extremely Worked Up

That was my proposed headline, but the editor went wordier, but I don't know if it was to better effect. And what's really weird is that the newspaper version only ran a picture of one of the legislators, and it was Konopnicki, not Sinema, which isn't what anyone really interested in boosting circulation would have done.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 25, 2007

State Reps. Bill Konopnicki (R-Safford) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) don’t have much in common. Konopnicki is a married, rural, Mormon Republican who owns several restaurants and other businesses, and who favors conservative suits and ties. Sinema is single, a former Nader-for-President campaign staffer turned Democrat who is a former Mormon, who did relief work in Africa, and is a lawyer wearing "distinctive glasses, eye-catching clothes and [four-inch] heels" (the other newspaper’s code for "She’s a babe").

Mostly, what Konopnicki and Sinema share is receiving highly personal, offensive, and anonymous threats. For her part, Sinema sponsored a bill that would have classified border vigilantes as domestic terrorists. She then received numerous threatening emails and web postings, some with charming references to rape, kidnapping, and killing in response to a bill she’d introduced in past sessions and which went nowhere, and which will go nowhere this session as well. That’s what happens to 99 percent of the bills sponsored by Democrats in the Republican-controlled House anyway, and HB 2286 would be no exception -- even if the GOP leadership didn’t call a special four-hour committee hearing just to kill it extra-dead.

For his part, Konopnicki opposed in committee a bill that would have imposed sanctions on employers caught hiring illegal aliens. This position shouldn’t be unusual for a GOP legislator; they usually hyperventilate at the merest thought of a potential burden that somehow might fall someday on business. But Konopnicki forgot that with illegal immigration, the usual rules don’t apply.

Konopnicki spoke on the House floor (h/t: Ted Prezelski) last week about how after his vote -- which he described as an "honest difference of opinion" over the bill's potential unintended consequences -- emails began circulating that he had voted against tougher employer sanctions for bad reasons. Maybe people assumed that as the owner of restaurants, he had a personal interest in the issue; maybe somebody just made up something entirely false. But those emails slamming his vote quickly led to threats, by both email and letter, against him and his family.

It’s one thing for bad behavior in central Phoenix; urbanites are used to a certain level of hostility and bad driving, and it takes something over the edge, like the gruesome threats against Kyrsten Sinema, to draw attention. But Safford is a stable small town where everybody knows everybody else -- and where the people used to making and receiving violent threats are in the local federal prison and not eligible to vote anyway.

Konopnicki had to pause several times to maintain his composure during his speech. He probably never thought that as a low-paid legislator, doing public service would make him fear for his and his family’s safety. (He reported the threats to the Department of Public Safety, the security for the Legislature, which told him that "you have to treat all of these things seriously.") But Konopnicki didn’t count on the vehemence of those styling themselves as activists fighting illegal immigration.

Konopnicki noted that the willingness to assume the worst -- and to threaten to act upon it -- is greatest in the illegal immigration debate. (He may not have done it in the most effective way, however; in addition to using the famous Joseph Welch quote from the Army-McCarthy hearings, Konopnicki quoted, as a paragon of moderation and decency, Richard Nixon. But in Safford, maybe Nixon counts as a moderate.) But nobody has contradicted Konopnicki on this point; there’s no other issue that brings out the crazies and the threats like illegal immigration.

Here in Arizona, we have numerous tax cheats, and polluters, and military deserters in our midst. All of these individuals have broken the law -- laws, in most cases, with far more serious penalties than illegal immigration. But none of the people so worked up over illegal immigration see those scofflaws as threatening our way of life. It’s another data point, as if we needed more, that it’s not just about wages or breaking the law; the talk about doing "whatever it takes" to stop illegal immigration is cultural. If only they didn’t speak Spanish, then maybe we could all get along.

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