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One of the leaders of the movement to turn Pima County into the country's 51st state will be speaking and taking questions at the Monday, April 25, Saguaro Eastside Democrats meeting.

Former Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Eckerstrom is the co-chair of Start Our State, a movement to separate Pima County from the rest of Arizona.

Eckerstrom said he is part of a growing bipartisan contingent fed up with the partisan, extreme politics of the state Legislature. The ideological and political differences between the Legislature and Southern Arizona residents are so vast that it is best to cut ties, he said.

Start Our State advocates are fed up with "racist immigration policies," a lack of school funding and "tax cut after tax cut after tax cut," Eckerstrom said. "Education is everything in my book. My kids go to these schools."

Separating from Arizona is the best solution for Pima County, he said, because trying to vote in new legislators won't work, since only five of Arizona's 30 legislative districts are considered competitive.

Eckerstrom credits the rise in independent voters with the creation of a highly partisan Legislature. Independents—who are often moderate—don't vote in party primaries. Instead, voters with the most extreme views tend to vote in primaries, and therefore, moderate candidates get defeated.

The reputation of Arizona around the nation has taken a dive, said Eckerstrom, and he does not want the rest of the country to lump Southern Arizona in with the Phoenix area.

Eckerstrom said he is often asked: How would Southern Arizona sustain itself financially with Phoenix out of the picture?

His answer: Just fine. With a larger population than six other states and a larger land area than another six states, Pima County would not starve for funding, Eckerstrom said.

He said Arizona tax formulas currently favor Maricopa County, and that a new Baja Arizona could "build a new tax code from the ground up." Pima County residents could adequately fund Baja Arizona schools and finally utilize solar power, he said.

Start Our State has gained incredible support, said Eckerstrom, who believes that close to 60 percent of Southern Arizonans agree with the movement, based on local media polls.

But not everyone is so excited about the prospect of a 51st state. Saguaro Eastside Democrats Chair Sharon McCormick said that although the organization is hosting Eckerstrom, she personally does not believe seceding from Arizona is the right move for Pima County.

"The (SED) board is intrigued by it," she said. "But we've got so many problems we're dealing with."

McCormick said Pima County residents should work toward addressing school and funding issues before tackling an objective as big as becoming the 51st state.

And what a big objective it is. For Baja Arizona to progress from suggestion to reality, the plan would have to jump through hoops that go all the way to the top of the United States government.

The motion would first have to be approved by Pima County voters as a referendum on the 2012 ballot; that would allow a petition to be filed with the Arizona Legislature on behalf of Pima County residents. The state Legislature would then have to approve Pima County's petition.

While Eckerstrom admitted he does not like the petition's chances with the state Legislature, he said state leaders could theoretically approve the measure as a ploy to ensure that Arizona stays firmly Republican.

"They may be crazy enough to let us go, just for the politics," Eckerstrom said.

If the Arizona Legislature were to approve Pima County's secession from the rest of Arizona, then the measure would go to the U.S. Congress.

Although it would take a long, drawn-out process, Eckerstrom insists that the creation of Baja Arizona is still a distinct possibility.

"It is doable," he said. "It's not pie-in-the-sky."

Besides, he said, it has happened before. Maine seceded from Massachusetts in 1820, as part of the Missouri Compromise, and West Virginia separated from Virginia during the Civil War.

Even if Start Our State does not, in the end, result in Baja Arizona, Eckerstrom said the movement should be thought of as a success anyway.

"At the very least, it's given us a platform," he said. "It's struck a nerve. It's allowed people to listen to the possibility of what this could mean."

More by Shain Bergan

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