Why Arizona’s Governor Is The Most Interesting Politician In The Country

jan brewer and obama

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has called her a “lousy governor” who pushed anti-immigrant policies to “get people to focus on something other than her billion-dollar tax increase.”Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) has called her an “extremist” and attacked Mitt Romney for even accepting her endorsement.

Yet Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) keeps getting her major initiatives enacted, often over the acrimonious opposition of opponents to her left and right. 

This week’s Medicaid expansion vote is only her latest win.

Brewer was elected Secretary of State in 2002 and ascended to the governor’s office in January 2009 when Janet Napolitano (D) resigned to become Secretary of Homeland Security. By March, she was pushing for a one-point sales tax increase to address the state’s massive budget gap.

That proposal violated her pledge never to vote for a tax increase, and it drew strong opposition from legislature. In June 2009, House Speaker Kirk Adams (R) told the Arizona Republic it was a bad idea that wouldn’t pass: “The support from the membership is not there. There is bipartisan opposition to her plan.”

A few vetoes later, Brewer got her way. In February 2010, a majority of Republicans in the state House of Representatives voted to put her tax increase on the ballot. Adams was one of them. Voters then approved it with 65% of the vote.

Still, conservatives felt betrayed. Norquist warned of electoral consequences for Brewer and the state legislators who worked with her to raise taxes. Brewer drew several primary challengers and, during the depths of the tax fight, she trailed them in the polls.

But then came Senate Bill 1070.

That’s Arizona’s controversial law that requires non-citizens to carry valid identification documents at all times and requires state law enforcement officers to attempt to determine the immigration status of people they come into contact with if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they might be in the country illegally.

This law drew vociferous opposition and was partially struck down by the Supreme Court. But Brewer’s strong support for it, and her fights with the law’s opponents on the left, caused her popularity with conservatives to soar.

By June 2010, Brewer was leading Republican primary polls by more than 40 points and her major opponent, the state Treasurer, dropped out of the race. She won the primary and general elections easily.

In her second term, Brewer has tangled with conservatives again. When the state legislature passed a so-called “Birther Bill” that would require presidential candidates to submit long-form birth certificates or other proof of citizenship—a hobbyhorse of some conservatives who believe President Obama was born abroad—Brewer vetoed it.

Brewer did not try to let the conspiracists down easy. Her veto message said the bill, which had passed with unanimous Republican support in the legislature, “fail[s] to do anything constructive for Arizona” and remarked:

I never imagined being presented with a bill that could require candidates for president of the greatest and most powerful nation on Earth to submit their ‘early baptismal or circumcision certificates,’ among other records, to the Arizona Secretary of State. This is a bridge too far.

Then she was one of the first Republican governors to announce, in January 2013, that she intended to participate in the Medicaid expansion. This drew strong Republican opposition in the legislature, as it has in most states.

Brewer launched a scorched-earth campaign to expand Medicaid, declaring that she would veto any budget that did not expand it, and then that she would veto all bills coming out of the legislature until they sent her a Medicaid expansion.

She made good on that threat, vetoing five unrelated bills in May. Her veto messages demanded that lawmakers pass a plan to “maintain coverage for those in need, honour the will of Arizonans who have twice voted to expand Medicaid, save our General Fund, keep Arizona tax dollars in Arizona and protect rural and safety-net hospitals.”

Again, Brewer got her way. Yesterday, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats passed her Medicaid expansion plan. One Republican state representative said on the House floor “I feel like I’ve been betrayed.” Another called Brewer’s actions “unconscionable.”

Politico quotes Frank Antenori, a former state lawmaker, declaring that that any Republican who worked with Brewer on Medicaid is going to be defeated in a primary. “She’s probably cost at least a half a dozen, maybe more senators and representatives their political futures to get this done.”

Maybe. But there were no apparent consequences for the Republicans who worked with Brewer to raise the sales tax in 2010.

Brewer herself may not be done, either—she’s currently fighting with Arizona’s Secretary of State about whether the state’s term limit rules allow her to seek another term in 2014. She may have one more chance to demonstrate that she can poke conservatives in the eye and win renomination anyway.