Steller’s Friday Notebook: Time for a moratorium on politicians visiting the border

Years ago, a congressional delegation to the Arizona-Mexico border was an unusual thing.

In June 1999, I was staying in Douglas for months, carrying out a long-term project there, when powerful U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, visited. His plane landed at the Bisbee-Douglas airport, but, due to a mix-up, I was the only person there to greet him when he arrived. Stevens was so surprisingly small, and seemed so surprised to be alone, that I instinctively put my arm around him and squeezed after we shook hands.

As the trip unfolded, though, he was treated like the powerful man he was, and he emerged convinced he could sell border-security spending in Congress.

“The problem is money,” said Stevens, who died in 2010. “It’s a matter of priorities, and trips like this help us go back and convince people this is a high priority.”

In August 2002, I followed Rep. Tom Tancredo, a hardline Colorado Republican, as he hop-scotched the Tohono O’odham Nation on a border tour, welcomed by a spread of red chile and tortillas at every stop. Tribal members he met said they couldn’t remember a visit from any congressman, let alone someone from out of state.

Boy has that changed.

These days along the Arizona-Mexico line, visits from powerful D.C. elected officials have become so common that the delegations practically trip over each other. Vice President Mike Pence was at Nogales last week; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, visited the Nogales area Tuesday, and on Tuesday and Wednesday a curious sort-of border tour took a delegation of Arizona and out-of-state members of Congress to a border-wall proving ground in Coolidge, then to Yuma.

In that trip, some of the out-of-state congressmen actually said they were at the border when they were in Coolidge.

Typically, each of these visits follows a pattern. They get a tour along the fence with Border Patrol agents, they return to the station and meet with dignitaries, and maybe they have a “roundtable discussion” with local “stakeholders,” which usually means the same handful of ranchers.

Maybe once upon a time this had value. Elected officials might really have had open minds and encountered unexpected information that led them to new understanding or conclusions.

If so, that’s not what happens anymore. The trips’ true purpose these days is the B-roll video and the photos of the politicians walking along the wall, listening to a green-uniformed agent describing the area’s problems, or sitting on a panel with border officials and sheriffs with handlebar mustaches. That, now, is the point.

When Pence came to Nogales, his team invited the sheriff of Cochise County, a Republican known for his hard-line views on the border, but ignored the sheriff of the county he was in, Santa Cruz County, a Democratic sheriff known for dispelling border alarmism.

When Sinema came, she gathered people involved in the produce trade and learned about the damage that moving port inspectors away from Nogales is having. It was the other side of the coin, politically, from what Republicans wanted to talk about.

The out-of-state representatives who arrived in Arizona Tuesday made weirder choices. They traveled to Coolidge, where an Arizona company that had just lost a border-fence contract showed how they proposed to build more fence fast. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, actually pretended he was at the border while looking at the Fisher Industries prototypes.

Gaetz posted a video made in Coolidge and said on Twitter: “I’m on the southern border of the United States in Arizona looking at the construction and infrastructure technology that allows workers to secure our border.” He posted another tweet in which he showed pictures of the Coolidge prototypes and said “The Wall is being built.” Again, these were prototypes going up 100 miles from the border in a demonstration for the news media and Congress, a demonstration that seemed aimed at winning the company a contract.

Gaetz actually did a border tour in the Yuma area on Wednesday, and, unsurprisingly, came to the conclusion that more border fencing is needed. Some of the places he flew over appeared to be the same places I visited in 2017 and wrote about as examples of wasteful border fences — built to prevent cars from crossing where the mountains prevent vehicles from getting to the border anyway.

When members of Congress, or even the White House, go to the border, we all know what everyone is going to say in advance. It would save everybody time and money if someone would just produce photoshopped images and faked videos of the politicians by the fence and with border agents.

Then we can all act as if they were really there and put their preconceived conclusions where they belong.

AZ GOP under Ward

The new chair of the Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward, shared a stage this week with one of the most notorious characters on the Internet, Laura Loomer.

Loomer, it turns out, is a Tucson native, but that’s not what makes her notable. She’s been banned from Twitter, Uber, Lyft and other online sites because of her anti-Muslim actions. She also protested her ban from Twitter by handcuffing herself to the company’s door. The company responded by saying she could stay there as long as she wanted.

Anyway, Loomer was one of several invited speakers at an event that also featured Ward, who already has a reputation for indulging the kind of conspiracism Loomer spread and pedaled at the “Patriotism Over Socialism” event in Gilbert. The nickname given Ward by opponents, Chemtrail Kelli, came from the time she held a hearing with state environmental officials in part to address constituents’ concerns about so-called “chemtrails.” People of this mindset often point to the contrails of planes as evidence of “geo-engineering” by the government.

More mainstream Republicans feared the party would veer this direction when Ward won. They may be withholding their contributions as a result.

In the first quarter of the year, the AZ GOP reported raising $89,000. During the same quarter of 2017 (the last year before a general election), the party brought in $347,000. The Arizona Republic reported that going back to 2003, the party’s average haul in the first quarter of a year before election year was $273,000. 

Party spokesman Zachery Henry did not dispute those numbers but pointed out that there were about six weeks of dead time in fundraising, during the transition to Ward’s leadership. He also said the party has been spending more frugally since she took over, and predicted the second quarter would look much better, because a fundraising event that normally takes place during the first quarter in March is taking place in April this year.

Maybe, but that depends, I suspect, on some traditional big donors coming back to the party. And I’m not sure it will happen if it’s a Kelli Ward-Laura Loomer party.

Arivaca in the news

The little, unincorporated village of Arivaca has probably had more news coverage per capita in recent weeks than any other place in Arizona. Lately, it has been the subject of several stories by national outlets about the conflict in the town over the citizen militia groups who have shown up there to do border-watch activities.

Some area residents have tried to tell those involved they are not welcome. The memory still resonates of the 2009 double-murder of a local man and his daughter by a trio of people trying to steal money for their militia.

If you ask me, all the attention is not the healthiest thing for the settlement of approximately 700 residents. Signs are already appearing of hardened positions and a deepening divide that makes life harder in a town that tiny. 

Subscribe for just 99¢ per week
  • Support quality journalism
  • Get unlimited access to and apps
  • No more surveys blocking articles

More video from this section

%d bloggers like this: