When Paula Aboud stood up on the floor of the Arizona Senate to propose her own amendment to SB 1433 — the controversial “nullification bill” that would essentially grant a 12-member state committee, chaired by Senate President Russell Pearce, the power to override federal laws and executive orders — the longtime Democratic state senator from Tucson’s District 28 was initially going for SNL-style parody.

“Today, I am offering an amendment to SB 1433 to propose that Pima County secede from the rest of the state,” she said, aiming to draw a parallel to the central tenet of the Republican-sponsored bill, which critics have called secessionist. “We do not advocate their brand on our state, and we don’t support their harmful legislation that continues to tarnish Arizona’s reputation.”

Aboud got chuckles, but little serious consideration. Her amendment was quickly shot down, while the bill itself, twice defeated, continues to be pushed by supporters.

“For me, it was a tongue-in-cheek example to show these legislators that the thing they’re trying to do to the federal government is the very same thing my amendment was putting forward,” she says. “They were extremely amused by it. But I’m not entirely sure they understood the parallel.”

Aboud was pleasantly amused herself — and more than a little heartened — when she returned to her office later that same day to catch a headline in the Arizona Republic about Start Our State, an initiative drive started by former Pima County Democratic Chair, Paul Eckerstrom, to create a 51st state south of the Gila River, in a region that’s long felt a disconnect from the culture and politics of Maricopa County.

“It turned out Paul Eckerstrom had read that same nullification bill two weeks before,” Aboud says. “And that was also his motivation: to show something to these fringe legislators who are trying to secede from the federal government on laws they don’t like.”

While Aboud’s amendment proposal drew little more than cackles from the Republican-dominated Arizona Senate, Eckerstrom’s grassroots movement — begun, in line with the times, with a Facebook page — may actually have some legs. Born out of an online exchange between Eckerstrom and a Facebook friend, fellow Tucson lawyer Peter Hormel, Start Our State has been gathering support from progressive Democrats and even some moderate Republicans in Pima and Santa Cruz counties. In an online poll conducted by the Arizona Daily Star, 58 percent of the responders indicated they would vote in favor of a spin-off state. Eckerstrom and Hormel hope to accumulate the estimated 30,000 signatures necessary to put the resolution on the November 2012 ballot, and, if it receives enough voter support, the measure would require approval from the legislature, the drafting of a new state constitution and finally the approval of the U.S. Congress and President Obama.

Hormel admits the creation of a 51st state is a long shot, but believes the drive is at least sending a message to the rest of the nation that not everybody in the state agrees with the spate of extremist legislation that has made Arizona the butt of late-night talk show hosts’ jokes.

“We don’t want to secede from the United States,” he stresses. “We don’t want to nullify federal laws. We don’t need a state gun!”

Eckerstrom, who two years ago won the post as Arizona Democratic Party Chair only to resign shortly after, says SB 1433 was the last straw for him.

“I’m a student of history, and those are the kinds of things that South Carolina and other southern states were passing leading into the Civil War,” he says. “I went on my Facebook page and said maybe it’s time we secede from Arizona, stay in the country and become our own state. It’s happened twice in our history: West Virginia from Virginia during the Civil War and Maine from Massachusetts in 1820.” Eckerstrom’s status update on Facebook for February 5 read, “I know of one constitutional provision I want to follow and that is the one that allows a region, South AZ, to secede from the state and become its own state.”

Peter Hormel was the friend who convinced him they’d have to try it for real.

“At some point, you just have to throw up your hands,” Hormel explains. “We’ve done all we can to send legislators up there with our mandate, but they’re no match against Pearce and his group.

“We no longer wish to be associated with what we view as some truly shameful and racist legislation going on up in Phoenix,” Hormel declares. “And we’re making a statement to the rest of the country that we really are different down here. And if need be, we’ll make our own state to prove it.”

Born on the Baja

From his front yard in tiny Tubac, Hugh Holub can see the former office of Charles Debrille Poston, renowned as the “Father of Arizona” for persuading Abraham Lincoln to create a separate, slavery-free Arizona Territory out of a division of the New Mexico Territory, where Native Americans and Mexicans were coerced into slave labor. Legend has it Poston sealed the deal by presenting Lincoln with a lavish inkwell made from Arizona-mined silver.

Turn 180 degrees south, Holub says, and you’re looking at the spot where the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza began his trail to connect northern Mexico to a safe harbor for Spanish ships in the area that would become the Presidio of San Francisco. It’s also the same plaza where the papers were signed founding Tucson, first as a Mexican city, until the Gadsden Purchase annexed the lower half of what is now Arizona in 1853 — coincidently, the same territory, running from the Gila River down to the strip of land connecting mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula, that the Start Our State people would now like to get back.

“This particular part of Arizona has a long history of people looking out for their identities,” says Holub, who first coined the term “Baja, Arizona” in 1965 as publisher of an underground newspaper distributed around the University of Arizona. In his satirical rag, The Frumious Bandersnatch, Holub suggested the Gadsden Purchase was a mistake, and that the people living south of the Gila never quite blended in with the big city folk north of it.

“Baja, Arizona just became a geographic identity that distinguished this part of the state from the rest of it,” says Holub, who now directs the Center for Sustainable Development in Tubac. Over the years, the name has stuck: Holub says there are now softball leagues and organizations around southern Arizona that use the Baja name. In the late ‘80s, Holub and some friends even printed up bumper stickers proclaiming “Free Baja, AZ.”

“It’s become sort of a way of saying, ‘We’re different,’” Holub says.

Lately, that’s also become the message that area businesses want to send. In mid March, a group of Arizona business leaders, including Holub, visited the Arizona Senate to voice their protest over five new anti-immigration bills, which they believed would lead to even more business boycotts than those that followed SB 1070. In a surprising victory for the opposition, the Senate voted down all five measures, prompting a headline in the New York Times declaring, “Arizona, Bowing to Business, Softens Stand on Immigration.”

“We’ve been getting hammered financially down here because of all the controversy up there,” Holub says. “Everybody has had serious declines in their tourist business and business from Mexico because of all this, so we’re just trying to send a message out to the rest of the world that, ‘Okay, we’re cool!’”

Holub says southern Arizona’s relative coolness toward the immigration issue comes from living closer to the border — and the people. Tucson’s first high society members, including its first post-Gadsden mayor, Estevan Ochoa, were wealthy Mexicans, and Holub notes that Hispanics continue to transcend all classes in southern Arizona, “from bankers and doctors down to regular working folks.” If anyone can spot an illegal, Holub says, they can — and will, if given the opportunity. “The Hispanics who’ve worked hard to get their papers and play by the rules don’t think much of those jumping the fence. Ideologically, they’re a lot like Republicans.”

But southern Arizonans — including its Anglos, more bilingual than their northern counterparts — can also better identify immigrants just striving for the American dream, he adds, and will offer a helping hand more readily than Phoenicians.

“What’s really made our country great is this constant infusion of energy from people who really believe in our dream and are willing to work for it,” Holub says. “And I think the folks down here really cherish that, and we don’t like being lumped together with a bunch of people that really want to demonize a large group of people who are our neighbors and friends.”

The Donut State

Dividing Arizona would in itself be an extreme measure, and would surely provide more fodder for the comedians. Maps would need to be redrawn, our underfunded schools would have to break apart their Arizona puzzle pieces, and that Animaniacs song would need to be rewritten.

Truthfully, say the Start Our State co-founders, they’d be happier if the whole movement simply proved unnecessary.

“We just want moderation in our politics,” says Eckerstrom. “And if we can at least send a message to Arizona voters to please look at who you’re voting for in the legislature, maybe we can get some more moderate people in there.”

Sen. Aboud agrees that getting some competitive districts going around the state might restore enough balance in the legislature to quash such radical notions, which she feels have been born out of frustration.

“If the redistricting commission creates competitive districts, and Democrats regain a little bit of a foothold in the state or we get a few more moderate people winning elections, then I think the Baja, Arizona idea will die out,” she predicts. “If we don’t, and if we can’t find a way to take back some aspect of this state and some control of this legislature, I think this movement could gain tremendous support.”

Already the idea has caught on in counties outside of Pima. “Santa Cruz County appears to be along for the ride, and we’ve gotten a lot of support from people in Cochise County,” says Hormel. “But we’ve gotten responses from just about everywhere. We’ve even heard from people in Phoenix who say, ‘That’s really great what you’re doing. When you pull it off, can you annex my house?’ People in Flagstaff and Coconino County have been contacting us, too. I’m not sure if Coconino would end up contiguous with the new state or would be a separate piece, which would look kind of awkward. But at least then we’d get the Grand Canyon!” he adds with a laugh.

Indeed, there are enough more liberal pockets around the state — Aboud suggests Tempe and Sedona would have to be included as islands — that the proposed spin-off territory could end up as the country’s first donut-shaped state, with Maricopa occupying the hole.

The movement faces a number of hurdles, the first being obtaining those 30,000 signatures on the resolution to include it on the 2012 ballot. But Eckerstrom thinks that if they can get past that first goal, the next step of getting the state legislature to approve the motion might be a breeze.

“Let me tell you, it can happen,” he says. “It’s happened twice in our history. And this legislature is just crazy enough to vote to let Pima County go!”