Arizona's Accidental Governor: The Reinvention of Jan Brewer

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer speaks to reporters after a court hearing on the state's immigration law in Phoenix on July 22, 2010

People in Arizona remember a different Jan Brewer from the tough-talking Republican governor at the center of the bitter immigration debate swirling out of her state. If politicians have multiple lives, her previous ones showed a much more personable presence — one pundit called her "delightful." Not eloquent but engaging, not book-smart but pragmatic, Brewer would often crack jokes in boring committee meetings when she was a state legislator, trading punch lines with another lawmaker who acted as the comedic foil. The exchanges reminded some of scenes with Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy more than legislative debate.

"That's the Jan Brewer I had experienced that I think is more at her core," says Bob Grossfeld, of Tempe, Ariz., a longtime Democratic strategist who is now the publisher of, which covers the state capitol. "What we're seeing now is a highly manicured and choreographed Jan Brewer — probably not unlike a Sarah Palin, who was thrust into the national spotlight and had never been there before." Grossfeld is referring to what local political wonks are calling Brewer 2.0. Once more a fiscal conservative than a social one, she has decoded Arizona's political landscape and is riding the immigration issue, even though it came to her almost by accident. Now, "the potential for her to make a long-term impact on Arizona is unprecedented," says Phoenix-based GOP strategist Kevin DeMenna, who worked with Brewer at the state senate.

It is an astonishing transformation for a woman who holds the office of governor by virtue of succession, not election, and is virtually assured of winning the Republican nomination once again in Tuesday's gubernatorial primary. In early 2009, Brewer was secretary of state and her job was largely administrative ("Did you fill out your voter registration?" "Have you filed your lobbyist-registration paperwork lately?"). But she found herself entering the governor's office in place of Democrat Janet Napolitano, who left Arizona to become President Barack Obama's Homeland Security chief. It was the fifth time in Arizona's history that such a constitutional succession had taken place. It was also an ironic outcome given Brewer's previous legislative attempts to create a lieutenant-governor position because she did not feel that being secretary of state qualified someone to be governor.

If Brewer's rise sounds like the ultimate door prize in Arizona politics, think again: she inherited a largely uncooperative state legislature and a $3 billion deficit. Arizona was second to California in terms of having the largest debt obligation among the 50 U.S. states, and the Republican-controlled capitol had its own plans for fiscal reform. Then came Senate Bill 1070, the anti-illegal-immigration law that came in for immense national scrutiny and complaint because of stipulations that critics said would lead to racial profiling and discrimination.

On July 28, a few hours after a federal judge temporarily blocked the most controversial parts of SB 1070 from taking effect the following day, Brewer told local media the decision was just a "little bump in the road." She looked right into a television camera and, without breaking stride, demanded that the federal government do its job managing immigration. The ruling, which at first blush looked like a major setback for the governor, turned into a major political windfall for Brewer, political observers say. And now the one-liners have given way to a hard-line approach.

Brewer, 65, grew up in Hollywood and moved to Arizona in 1970. She helped put her husband John through college to become a chiropractor; at the same time, she became a churchgoing Lutheran mother of three sons (one died of cancer in 2007). She attended dental school at a local community college, but before she could pursue her dream of being a nurse, politics intervened.

Unhappy about the way her children's school was run, she decided to run for a seat in the local school board. But then a seat in her local legislative district opened up, and Brewer opted for the state capitol instead to influence education policy. She became a member of both houses of the Arizona legislature, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors (which governs unincorporated parts of the Phoenix metro area) and, finally, won election as Arizona secretary of state and her succession to the governor's office.

Then, while Brewer was busy championing a one-cent sales-tax increase (abhorred by most of her fellow Republicans) to keep Arizona from going bankrupt, several versions of an immigration bill floated around the legislature under the watchful eye of state senator Russell Pearce, a suburban Republican, former sheriff's deputy and hard-liner on illegal immigration. Those versions would coalesce into the tidal wave called SB 1070. Worried about the fate of the sales tax and Arizona's budget, political observers say, Brewer had no choice but to attach herself to SB 1070 to avoid turning off Republican voters.

And so, with the stroke of a pen on April 23, she signed SB 1070 into law and sailed into history. It has paid a huge dividend for her since then. A majority of voters broke with their GOP elected leaders — who had largely decried the proposed sales-tax increase — and passed the Brewer-backed proposal with a 3-to-2 margin in a special election in May. But even as she surged in popularity, she was swept forward by a much larger controversy. The immigration issue has pushed the fast-forward button on the once congenial conservative, forcing her to evolve more quickly than any high-profile politician in recent memory. "I think the recent incarnation is the governor being focused in a way she hasn't been focused before," says Grossfeld, who described his relationship with Brewer as civil during the time he worked for the legislature's Democratic majority in the early 1990s.

Brewer is reaping the benefits of governing a transient state where long-term planning and analytical thought rarely last longer than a legislative session, says GOP strategist DeMenna. In fact, a regular legislative session lasts for just four months. The population seems transient too: 1 in 5 Arizonans has come from some other state. DeMenna, who has more than 30 years of experience in Arizona politics, says that it is the kind of environment that makes it easy to become the person of the moment — because the electorate is always only momentarily interested.

But Brewer has surrounded herself with people who are helping her make her moment last, such as lobbyist and longtime state policy adviser Eileen Klein, and Brewer's longtime campaign consultants, Chuck Coughlin and Doug Cole. It seemed improbable at first. Much of the country and liberal media turned against her after she signed the bill into law. And when U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton temporarily blocked key portions of SB 1070, some people in Arizona said it spelled certain doom for Brewer's hopes for election in November. But the decision also gave her a huge shot at success. The case may take years to course through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. This gives Brewer longer playing time on a hot-button issue that has the numbers on her side — for now.

Polls in Arizona continue to validate her stance on illegal immigration. A recent poll by WestGroup Research for the Arizona Republic found that support for SB 1070 was strongest among more affluent households, whites, Republicans and older Arizonans; and statewide support for the legislation was 55%. Now, conservative talk shows hail Brewer as a hero. And, according to Democratic analyst Grossfeld, the rallying cry "You're either for or against SB 1070" is quickly being translated into "You're either for or against Jan Brewer." Meanwhile, her competitors in the Aug. 24 Republican primary have been dropping out of the race.

Her campaign is now focused on her presumptive Democratic opponent in November, Terry Goddard. But the issue is shifting too. It's now jobs, and so Brewer's ads have her talking jobs and show images of Brewer's face on World War II's "Rosie the Riveter." Goddard wants to face her in a series of debates — not her strongest forum. But it isn't smart to underestimate someone who's been so lucky. Especially a politician like Brewer who's good at one-liners. "Good things continue to happen to Jan Brewer's political career," DeMenna says. "The question that remains for her staff is how to keep the government functioning."