Shooting is not a referendum on Arizona — or on conservatism

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When Jared Loughner opened fire on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, her staff, and bystanders Saturday, I was sitting in a crowded auditorium two hours north of the shooting in Arizona’s capital city, Phoenix, with over a thousand Republican precinct committeemen.

I was taking part in the Maricopa County Republican Organizational Meeting, where Senate President Russell Pearce, the now-famous sponsor of SB1070, County Sherriff Joe Arpaio, and other self-appointed icons of the Tea Party were squaring off against more moderate Republicans who are seen by the former as members of the McCain-Kyl political class. The grassroots vs. elites battle takes place here continually and will again next week when the new state party chairman is selected.

But at this moment, the people of Arizona, including all of those meeting attendees, are distracted. We’re reeling from Saturday’s tragedy, for Rep. Giffords and for the other victims of the shooting.

We’re also mourning for our state. Regardless of political affiliation, Arizonans are shocked and mortified that this has happened here. A Tea Party group in Tucson held vigil at the hospital where Giffords is being treated, and citizens from a range of political backgrounds gathered at the State Capitol Saturday night.

As bits and pieces of his background trickle in, it’s become clear that Jared Loughner was a deeply troubled young man who fell through the cracks and didn’t get the attention he needed, despite many obvious cries for help. But this aspect of the story hasn’t stopped Arizona’s biggest detractors from turning the tragic event into a referendum on Arizona and conservatism.

As Gabby Giffords was being wheeled into the operating room Saturday, many in the media and the left-wing ruling class had already seized upon the opportunity to paint the event as a manifestation of extreme right-wing politics in the state, channeling the Rahm Emanuel school of politicking (Never let a crisis go to waste). No matter that Jared Loughner was hardly political, let alone right-wing. A “news” article in the LA Times has described Arizona in the wake of the event as having an “us-versus-them brand of politics.”

Standing outside the hospital Saturday afternoon, Jeff Rogers, the chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, took the opportunity to link the shooting to a gun bill currently moving through the state legislature. “How crazy is that [bill]?” Rogers said.

Arizona is the place I live and work as a conservative political consultant. These are exciting times politically in Arizona—in the past year, the state has truly become a laboratory for conservative and Republican ideas.

In the most recent legislative session, Arizona lawmakers passed SB1070, relaxed concealed weapons laws, banned ethnic studies in schools, and passed a “birthers” law, requiring presidential candidates in Arizona to prove they were born in this country.

Arizona is the state where the Healthcare Freedom Act, an initiative aimed at curbing the power of the Obamacare mandate on the states, originated in 2008 before Barack Obama was even elected president. That initiative passed in November, along with an initiative banning affirmative action and an initiative aimed at fighting card check.

Many Arizonans are proud of these innovations in policymaking. But all of these political developments—some more right-wing than others—also make the state a perennial target for the liberal media, which is why, for them, Saturday’s incident was a faint silver lining in an otherwise tragic event.

Either those on the left are too oblivious to understand, or they simply don’t want to understand, that Arizonans have reasons to be anxious about the future. The state faces among the highest rates of unemployment and foreclosure in the country. Many here are rightly concerned about border security. Due in large part to illegal drug trafficking, Phoenix is now the kidnapping capital of the country (Mexico City is the only city in the world with more reported incidents). Last summer, five federal state parks were closed because of federal concern (note: federal concern, not local concern) over border security.

No doubt, there are steep divides within the Republican Party here. In that crowded auditorium Saturday, some moderates could be seen squirming as Pearce and others revved up the crowd with their promises of tighter immigration enforcement.

But none of the political differences among those on the right mount to the level of the vitriol left-wingers are now claiming our party foments. Arizona’s brand of conservatism is fundamentally borne of concern over being a border state facing grave economic challenges, and moreover, a core frontier belief in small government and personal responsibility.

Arizona’s brand of conservatism has no connection to the fiercely violent neo-Nazi feelings Jared Loughner seems to harbor. Loughner is a lunatic who would have committed this act regardless of his physical address.

The events of last weekend are a terrible blight on Arizona because any act of violence is a blight on the place where it occurred, not because the event is representative of a particular strain of local feeling. Arizonans are in shock and pain over what has happened, just like everyone else.

Lucy Morrow Caldwell is a political consultant in Phoenix, Arizona.