After assuming Arizona’s governorship in January 2009, Jan Brewer came to a conclusion most Republicans don’t want to reach: There was no way to fill a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes.
“I spent many a night sitting on my patio at 2 o’clock in the morning praying,” Brewer, 66, said in an interview this month in her office on the top floor of the Executive Tower in Phoenix. “It was a decision I deliberated on for a long time.”
That decision almost cost Brewer her job. Even though the 1-cent sales tax increase was approved by 64 percent of Arizonans in a May 2010 special election, Republican challengers attacked her on the issue in a primary race, which she eventually won three months later.
Outside Arizona, Brewer is known mainly for sparking a national outcry after she signed legislation requiring police officers to check the immigration status of suspects, a move that led to boycotts and a court challenge by the Obama administration. She also slashed Medicaid funding for organ transplants and signed legislation allowing any citizen over 21 to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
“I think that there’s a liberal element out there that finds me not acceptable,” she said. “They don’t like my stance on a lot of issues because I am conservative.”
A closer look shows Brewer, a former state senator, isn’t as conservative as her reputation suggests, said Frederic Solop, chairman of the department of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In addition to the tax increase, her vetoes of bills that would have allowed guns on college campuses and required candidates to prove they are U.S. citizens also reveal a pragmatic side, he said.
“Her political thinking changed from being in the Legislature and focusing on her base to thinking about the state as a whole,” Solop said in a telephone interview. “It seems as if she has moderated.”
It’s not the hot-button politics that Brewer said she wants to be remembered for. It’s the decisions she made that kept Arizona solvent during the 18-month recession that began in December 2007, the worst since the 1930s.
To do that, she slashed the state’s general-fund spending on personnel by 19 percent and universities by 30 percent, according to her budget director, John Arnold. She also borrowed $2.1 billion, in part through the sale and leaseback of state buildings, including the offices of the Supreme Court and the Legislature.
Her economic plan, passed by the Legislature in February, includes income- and property-tax cuts for businesses and the creation of the joint public-private Arizona Commerce Authority, which is charged with boosting employment though tax and other incentives.
“We will be successful in getting the economy turned around,” she said in the interview. “I hope at the end of four years that will be my legacy. I took the reins at a difficult time, the biggest crisis since the Depression, and we made tough decisions.”
Brewer said her beliefs in limited government and self-reliance were shaped by the death of her father from lung disease when she was 11. Her mother, Edna Drinkwine, opened a dress shop in suburban Los Angeles to support Brewer and her older brother, Paul. The future governor worked in the shop after school and on weekends, ironing clothes, waiting on customers, washing windows and balancing the books.
“It was a lot of hard, long work,” Brewer said. “If there was money left over, then you got paid, if there wasn’t, you didn’t, as simple as that.”
Next in Line
She married Arizona native John Brewer, a chiropractor, and moved to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, where she served as a state legislator and county supervisor before being elected secretary of state in 2002. She was next in line for the top spot when Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, accepted President Barack Obama’s offer to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security two years ago.
Brewer got an immediate bump in public approval after criticizing Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul and signing the immigration legislation in April of last year, according to Rasmussen Research.
Civil rights groups organized a boycott of Arizona businesses, saying the law would lead to racial profiling. The Los Angeles City Council and others banned trade with the state, and the U.S. Justice Department sued Brewer to block the measure on the grounds that immigration is under federal jurisdiction. On May 9 Brewer petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to lift a lower-court ruling blocking parts of the law.
Brewer said she knew the immigration would be controversial, though “never did I believe it was going to be as large as it is today. It became bigger than life.”
She said people not on the border with Mexico don’t understand the costs that illegal immigration imposes on the state, in terms of education, health care and public safety.
“We all know that police officers and law enforcement can ask people for their identification,” Brewer said. “The federal government doesn’t want to do the job, so we put it in state law.”
Brewer garnered national attention again last year when she cut some forms of organ transplants from coverage under Medicaid, the joint federal-state program for low-income patients. Arizona’s Medicaid spending rose 65 percent to $2.7 billion over the past four years, according to a presentation by the governor.
Transplants that were cut were those least likely to work, Brewer said in the interview. After what she called a “human outcry,” she reinstated the funding this year.
The governor has vetoed 29 bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature this year, including ones that would have limited spending to population growth plus the rate of inflation and increased tuition tax credits for parents sending their kids to private schools, according to her spokesman, Matthew Benson.
Brewer said she looked at the merits of each bill and vetoed ones that were too expensive or difficult to enforce, such as the so-called birther bill, which would have required candidates to prove they were born in the U.S. before they could get on Arizona’s ballot. Supporters of similar legislation around the country question whether Obama was born in the U.S., even though a Hawaii birth certificate proves he was.
“It was a huge distraction,” she said.
The governor is writing a book called “Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure America’s Borders,” which is due to be released in November by HarperCollins Publishers. She acknowledges that it won’t please everyone.
Her policies have managed to win over some Arizona Democrats and independents, including Gregory Melikian, 86, the owner of the Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix.
“I like her more and more, because she’s making better decisions,” he said. “She’s on the right track.”
Jan Brewer at a glance:
Born: Sept. 26, 1944, Los Angeles (Age 66)
Children: Three sons, one of whom died of cancer in 2007.
Education: Radiologic technologist certification, Glendale Community College, Glendale, Arizona.
Career: Arizona House of Representatives (1983 to 1987), Senate (1987 to 1997), Maricopa County Board of Supervisors (1997 to 2003) and Secretary of State (2003 to 2009).
Favorite Music Group: ABBA