TUCSON — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced Wednesday she would not seek a third term, forgoing a campaign that would have required her to challenge the state’s term limits measure.
The Republican had left open the option of running this year, despite the overwhelming weight of legal opinion against it. She became governor in 2009 when Democrat Janet Napolitano left office to join President Obama’s Cabinet, and Brewer won reelection the following year. The state limits governors to two terms, and most legal experts said her first partial term counted toward the limit.
Brewer’s announcement came during an appearance at Park Meadows Elementary School in Glendale, Ariz.; it served as a bit of political symmetry, because her involvement in the school’s PTA propelled her elective career.
“Our work continues and our comeback story is still being written. I look forward to seeing that story continue to unfold for years to come,” she said. “However, there does come a time to pass the torch of leadership. So, after completing this term in office, I will be doing just that.”
Brewer’s words glided over the difficult path she faced had she decided to run. The state’s term limits measure specifically describes “any part of a term served” as counting as a full term. That left Brewer, 69, with the tortuous legal argument that the measure did not mean what it clearly stated — and it would have left Republicans fighting a court battle while trying to fend of Democratic candidates.
By any measure, Brewer’s tenure as governor was tumultuous, as she presided over a state controlled by conservative lawmakers at a time when its population, like that of other Western states, grew more diverse and centrist.
She signed into law some of the nation’s most restrictive immigration laws, including one that allowed police to check the legal papers of anyone stopped for any reason, and she later engaged in a finger-wagging airport tarmac dispute with President Obama that drew national attention.
But Brewer was never a knee-jerk conservative. She angered many in her party by proposing an expansion of Medicare under the president’s healthcare program — a move made by few Republican governors but driven, in Brewer’s case, by a desire to restore cuts to medical and mental health programs in the state.
In late February, in a decision hailed by gay rights activists, Brewer vetoed a controversial measure that would have bolstered a business owner’s right to refuse service to gays and others.
She said in a brief veto announcement that she worried the bill had “the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve.”
Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and emeritus political science professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, said Brewer left a mixed record.
“She has demonstrated that she has the ability to stand up and do the things she thinks are the right things to do for the state. At other times, she’s talking about buried heads in the desert” — referring to her discredited claim that people had been beheaded near the border — “and other stuff that you shake your head over.”
Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general and former co-chairman of Brewer’s election campaign, said Brewer’s decision not to fight the term limits measure was wise.
“The bottom line is it didn’t make sense given her situation to challenge the constitution on whether she could run again. It’s pretty clear she can’t,” he said.
“There are not a lot of fans of hers at the far left or far right, but she’s very popular with the people in the middle,” he added. “That’s a pretty good way to leave.”
Earl de Berge, director of the Rocky Mountain Poll, has been surveying Arizona public opinion for nearly 50 years and said Brewer’s departure was no surprise. But he said that doing so right after her veto of the anti-gay-rights measure means she “can close the door on her political career on a high point.”
De Berge said that “a lot of people look at the state as some kind of racist backwater,” but that Brewer’s veto demonstrated “a less extreme conservatism, which is what Arizonans have long said they want.”
While Brewer’s national reputation rested on high-profile issues like the anti-illegal-immigration SB 1070 or the recent anti-gay-rights bill, he said, there was more to her career than that.
“She’s worked hard on other issues, particularly public education and children’s education,” he said. “Those things are going to stand up well for her.”
At the school where her political career began, Brewer on Wednesday announced her decision amid several hundred supporters, schoolchildren and former staff members.
Matthew Benson, a former spokesman and advisor to Brewer who was among those attending, said the announcement did not come as a surprise.
“She’s been weighing this decision for a number of months, but I think she feels confident that the state is on the right path,” he said. “And that’s why she is comfortable stepping away.”
Decker reported from Los Angeles and Carcamo from Tucson. Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.