In 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer first appeared on the national stage over her state’s anti-immigration law, which eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and a showdown with the Obama administration. As a result, her persona to those outside of Arizona was of a far-right conservative, looking to kick undocumented immigrants back over the border.
In many ways, that image has stuck. But after her veto Wednesday of the anti-gay bill passed by her state legislature, a new assessment might be in order: Jan Brewer, the Obamacare-loving gay rights warrior.
On two high-profile issues now, Brewer has bucked Arizona’s hard-line conservatives and made what most would consider the pragmatic decision. In 2013, she persuaded the legislature to adopt Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, going so far as to threaten to veto any other bill that reached her desk until it acquiesced. And this week, with the eyes of the nation on her, she struck down legislation that had spurred a national backlash and had once again, as in the period after she signed the immigration bill, conjured the conception of her state as one of the more intolerant and backward states in the Union.
“I sincerely believe that (the anti-gay bill) has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve. It could divide Arizona in ways that no one could imagine,” Brewer said in a veto announcement that was carried live on national television. “I call them like I see them, despite the cheers and the jeers from the crowd. Religious freedom is an American value, and so is non-discrimination.”
Brewer vetoes the anti-gay bill passed last week by the Arizona legislature.
So what explains that dramatic shift? Brewer seems to defy easy explanations. TPM consulted with three Arizona political observers — a Democratic strategist, a sympathetic political consultant who has written speeches for Brewer, and an academic — and they offered three distinct, almost irreconcilable, takes on the governor.
She’s either timidly beholden to big business, a politically shrewd pragmatist or an empty suit executing the wishes of the state Republican Party. It’s possible to see a little bit of each in her evolution over the last four years.
“Enigma is the best way to describe her,” Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University, told TPM. “If I were to write a biography about her, I think there are a lot of comparisons between her and George W. Bush. They have a very intimate circle, and once they have a relationship with a single person, and that person tells them to do something, they just do it. They don’t look back, they don’t reflect and they just move forward.”
But David Leibowitz, a political consultant who has written speeches for Brewer, thinks that sort of assessment shortchanges the governor. Her record shows an adept sense of what the right political move is, although most wouldn’t label her as a deep philosophical thinker, he told TPM.
“The Jan Brewer I know is very pragmatic,” Leibowitz said. “She is politically very shrewd. You don’t rise up through the ranks from a school board position of virtually pretty limited consequence to become governor of Arizona without being politically very smart.”
“Maybe you could do it without being terrifically book smart, but I think Gov. Brewer has a very good internal compass. I think she relies on that, and she’s got good people around her.”
The notorious confrontation between Brewer and Obama on the tarmac in Mesa, Jan. 25, 2012.
It’s easy to forget, given how consequential her administration has been for Arizona, that Brewer was never supposed to be governor. She was elected secretary of state in 2002. Arizona has no lieutenant governor. The secretary of state is first in the line of succession. When then-Gov. Janet Napolitano was appointed secretary of Homeland Security by President Barack Obama in 2009, Brewer rose to the top state office.
That earned her the title of “accidental governor” — along with a tough gubernatorial race in 2010 as she faced the voters for the first time since assuming the state’s highest office. In September 2009, a year before the election, Public Policy Polling found her trailing Democratic Attorney General Terry Goodard by 10 points.
But the anti-immigration law that first thrust Brewer into the national spotlight changed the race — and it’s possible to see the political shrewdness Leibowitz cited in her decision to sign it. Regardless of the national perception, the bill was extremely popular in Arizona: 64 percent supported it. The governor’s approval rating surged after she signed it. She trounced Goodard by nearly 12 percentage points in the general election.
Even Brewer’s opponents acknowledge that Brewer made the right tactical call, politically speaking, in signing the bill.
“She hadn’t used a lot of hardcore immigration rhetoric. People didn’t actually know what she was going to do with it,” Robbie Sherwood, a Democratic strategist, told TPM. “She didn’t sign it until she got the results of a poll and it showed that it would be an electoral winner for her.”
Brewer greets Obama on his arrival in Phoenix, Aug. 6, 2013
But since then, Brewer has been a liberal force, at least when it comes to the most contentious issues that have caught national attention.
She advocated for expanding Medicaid under Obamacare with no-holds-barred abandon, issuing the veto threat and persuading the Republican legislature to sign onto the hated health care reform law. She made the business argument in the debate, pointing out that Arizona would be sending tax dollars to other states that expanded the program and putting their hospitals at a financial disadvantage. The end result was 300,000 Arizonans becoming eligible for health coverage, a big win for the Obama administration.
That’s the Jan Brewer that her political opponents portray. Not the social conservative that many might have thought after the immigration controversy, but one of those Republicans closely aligned with corporate interests.
“At the end of the day, her constituency has always been more the business community than in the far right. Those are folks on big issues that she tends to listen to,” Sherwood said. “See what the broad business community wants done, and that’s where you’ll likely find Jan Brewer.”
Her Wednesday veto of the anti-gay discrimination bill could be interpreted through that prism. Big business overwhelmingly opposed the legislation, sending Brewer letters urging her to reject it. They worried about what it would do to their bottom line if, say, some tourists boycotting the state over the law. Her decision came, coincidentally perhaps, mere hours after it was reported that the National Football League was exploring whether it should move the 2015 Super Bowl from Phoenix if Brewer signed the bill into law.
Protesters in Phoenix after the Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s immigration law, June 25, 2012.
Or you could take the view of Espino, the ASU professor: Brewer rejected the legislation because the party establishment didn’t want it signed. Arizona is one of the states that Democrats see turning blue in the coming decades, and the race to replace Brewer this fall could be telling. Brewer is term-limited, though she has floated the idea of challenging the state’s constitution to seek a third term. Early general election polling shows a tight race between the likely candidates, and anything that might motivate liberal constituencies — like legitimizing discrimination against LGBT people — could be a burden for the Republican candidate.
“Her advisers are very keen to how the political winds are shifting. This is the end of her political career, but her advisers are going to be looking for other jobs in the Republican Party,” Espino said. “If I were advising a Republican candidate, I’d want to get social issues behind me as quickly as possible and talk about the economy.”
Which leads to Leibowitz’s description of a politically pragmatic Brewer. Maybe she didn’t need her political advisers to tell her to veto the bill: Public polling had showed that even Republican voters didn’t approve. That simple rationale might have been what led to Brewer making her second consecutive high-profile liberal decision in as many years.
Whatever it was, it’s hard to tell from Brewer’s own words what was motivating her. She seemed to walk every line — touting non-discrimination as an American value and expressing the potential negative impacts on the state economy, while still asserting her support for religious freedom.
That balancing act, perhaps more than anything, seems to define the Arizona governor.