PHOENIX — Not long ago, when the tea party was in full boil, Jan Brewer became a heroine to conservatives across the country with her finger-jabbing defiance of President Obama and the signing of Arizona’s tough, show-me-your-papers immigration law.
But lately the state’s Republican governor has confounded many and angered others by moving decidedly leftward, proposing a Medicaid expansion under Obama’s healthcare overhaul — financed by a new tax — and tempering her tone as Washington debates the combustible issue of immigration reform.
For longtime observers, it is a fitting close to a lengthy political career that has defied easy pigeonholing — if, in fact, the end is near. Contrary to the overwhelming weight of legal opinion and even the counsel of some of her own advisors, Brewer has refused to publicly rule out a run for reelection in 2014, despite Arizona’s voter-passed term-limits law.
(As the next in line, then-Secretary of State Brewer became governor when Democrat Janet Napolitano left office in January 2009 to join Obama’s Cabinet. Brewer won reelection in 2010 and suggests she might be eligible to run again because her first term was less than four years.)
Brewer may be recalibrating as the tea party’s influence wanes and Latinos gain political strength. Or she could have an eye on her legacy as she quietly prepares to leave public life after more than 30 years in office. Either way, her moves have proved Brewer to be a far less predictable politician than the caricature — accidental governor, ditzy ideologue — would have it.
“Where people were kind of chuckling and mumbling about her first year, she walks into a room now and there is genuine regard and applause,” said Jason Rose, a Republican strategist who has never been a part of Brewer’s circle. “That says a lot about her resilience.”
Others are less kind. The conservative world has rung with denunciations since Brewer announced her support for expanding Medicaid, the federal-state healthcare program for the poor and a frequent target of Republicans. A “spectacular flip-flop,” sniped the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “Opportunistic,” tutted National Review.
Brewer declined to be interviewed. But the governor has repeatedly said her decision, dropped as a bombshell in last month’s State of the State address, was grounded in sound fiscal policy.
“I’ve never been a supporter of the Affordable Care Act,” Brewer said at a Yuma press conference, part of a statewide tour to sell her Medicaid plan to a hostile GOP-run Legislature. In fact, Arizona was one of the states that sued to overturn Obama’s healthcare law. Having lost in the Supreme Court, she suggested, it was time to move on.
“Our decision is about whether we will take the action that most benefits Arizona families and businesses,” Brewer said. With $1.6 billion in federal funding, the state could provide health insurance for an additional 240,000 residents and continue insuring 50,000 childless adults, according to the governor’s office. Arizona would pay for its share through new fees on hospitals, which stand to gain from the increased number of insured patients.
Healthcare for the poor, and especially for the mentally ill, has been a career-long interest of Brewer, who has an adult son hospitalized due to mental illness. A Medicare expansion would restore some of the cuts she made — painfully and regretfully, Brewer said — to balance the state budget during the Great Recession.
“I don’t think she’s as far right as people have painted her,” said Earl de Berg, whose Rocky Mountain Poll has surveyed Arizona opinion for more than 40 years. “I think this demonstrates her more moderate conservatism.”
Brewer’s latest move is not the first time she has broken with party orthodoxy or angered keepers of the conservative flame. In 2010, she championed a temporary penny sales-tax increase to avoid sharp cuts in education and other services. Voters approved the measure, but last year rejected an attempt to make the tax hike permanent. (Brewer opposed the extension.)
Many believe a desire to appease conservatives led Brewer to sign Senate Bill 1070, the controversial crackdown on illegal immigration that raised fears of racial profiling and led to another Supreme Court case. Advisors deny that and insist she would have won reelection even if she hadn’t signed the immigration bill, most of which was blocked by the justices.
Regardless, there is no doubt she benefited from her decision, which turned Brewer overnight into a political celebrity and national tea party favorite. She solidified her folk status by wagging a finger at the president during a heated Arizona tarmac exchange, after he challenged her published account of an earlier meeting on immigration.
Those same moves made Brewer a scourge in the Latino community and a favorite target of liberals, who mocked her malapropisms, a disastrous 2010 debate performance — which included a 10-second brain freeze — and some of Brewer’s more alarmist rhetoric, including an assertion, later recanted, that headless border-crime victims were turning up in the Arizona desert.
Since then Brewer’s rhetoric has grown more measured, as passions surrounding illegal immigration have cooled somewhat. The border is more secure. The state economy has picked up. The champion of SB 1070, former state Senate President Russell Pearce, was recalled in November 2011 and lost badly when he tried to regain his seat last year.
“Even the wacko wing of the party is a little sensitive about fighting battles that’ll put the Democrats back in power in 10 years,” said Mike Hellon, a former state GOP chairman.
Last week, Brewer took a helicopter tour of the border and renewed her call for “more boots on the ground.” She has done nothing, however, to undermine a bipartisan effort, including Arizona’s two Republican senators, to negotiate an immigration overhaul more lenient than her enforcement-only approach.
While other Republicans are proceeding with plans to run for governor in 2014, the incumbent is keeping quiet about her intentions and any political motivations. It is not the first time Brewer has kept Arizonans guessing, and probably won’t be the last.