Why prohibition didn’t work in Pima County

By Tom Prezelski

Pima County residents often take pride in being just a little politically out of step with the rest of Arizona. When our friends in other parts of the country point at one headline or another and laugh or gasp in astonishment, we can just shrug and say, “Don’t look at me, I’m from Pima County.”

Some would trace this distinguishing mark of our local character back to the earliest days of the Territory, when officials, seeing the Old Pueblo as dominated by Mexicans and Democratic partisans, rejected Tucson as the capital. Regardless of its origins, this contrary streak was certainly well-established by the time of statehood, when, as Arizona embraced the “noble experiment” of early 20th century social reformers, Pima County voters rejected Prohibition.

Many of the leaders in the Prohibition movement were the same as those advocating women’s suffrage. Locally, the most prominent of these was Josephine Brawley Hughes. She came to the Territory in 1872 to join her husband, Louis, and served as business manager for his Arizona Daily Star, which became an organ for progressive reform. Though her name was not on the masthead, she shared editorial duties, and used the paper as a platform for her organizing efforts on behalf of women’s suffrage and prohibition. Thanks in large part to her energy, these movements were active in Arizona by the 1880s.

Beyond the personalities involved, many progressive reformers found common cause between the two issues because of notions about the “civilizing influence” of women. Given that Arizona’s Anglo-American population was over 80 percent male and that its politics were famously rowdy and more than a little petty, it is easy to see where advocates were coming from.

Prohibition was similarly integral to their efforts to elevate society. In addition to the crime and idleness associated with drunkenness, reformers lamented the central role liquor played in civic life in Arizona. Saloons were always among the first businesses to be established in a frontier town, and were often where things got done in any given community. All this gave saloon-keepers an outsized influence in territorial politics, and reformers very much wanted to break their power.

Reformers pursued Prohibition throughout the Territorial Period, and the movement gained currency in more-established communities like Phoenix and Tucson, as well as some of the larger mining camps like Tombstone, reflecting their aspirations to stability. But the progressive coalition, which was loose and unruly at best, was divided on the issue. Organized labor, for example, was ambivalent, lamenting on the one hand the ills that liquor brought to the working man, but concerned on the other that Prohibition was an attack on liberty. Even prominent progressive Democrats were often reluctant to take a stand on the issue.

In 1901, the Territorial Legislature passed what came to be called “local option,” which allowed individual communities to ban liquor by popular vote. These local votes were largely unsuccessful, so Prohibitionists attempted to institute a ban statewide. After statehood, proponents were able to use the initiative process to force the issue on the ballot in 1914.

Despite the issue’s strength statewide, and the efforts of local activists like Josephine Hughes, Prohibition proved unpopular in Pima County. Mexican-Americans, whose support was critical, were generally turned off by the nativist rhetoric of social reformers, so, despite the fact that many in the community were open to parts of the progressive agenda, they remained leery. (In those days, Spanish-speaking people were not considered “native,” regardless of how long their families had been in the area.)

Additionally, Father Thomas Connolly of All Saints Parish in Tucson called out the initiative for language that specifically targeted the use of wine in Mass, correctly identifying an anti-Catholic animus. This opposition was doubtless a large part of the reason why the proposition failed in Pima with 43 percent of the vote, the worst performance of any county save Yavapai, the home of the notorious “Whiskey Row.”

The initiative passed statewide largely because of its strength in conservative Maricopa County and the Mormon strongholds of Apache and Navajo counties. One historian credits the narrow victory to the state’s then-small African American population, who were less than receptive to the opposition rhetoric from the owners of saloons where they were not welcome. Whatever the reason, Arizona was now “dry” in more ways than one.

In Pima County, the new law was, to put it charitably, selectively enforced. Local police, like the legendary Jesús Camacho, famously looked the other way if it meant maintaining the public peace. As the “noble experiment” of Prohibition failed nationwide, it may have seemed like another case of “I told you so” among the notoriously cranky voters of Pima County.


Tom Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.



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