For a moment this week, Jan Brewer sounded more like a baseball umpire than Arizona’s Republican governor.
“I call them like I see them, despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd,” she said Wednesday night as she announced her veto of a bill that would have enabled businesses to refuse service to gay men and lesbians on religious grounds.
If there’s a governor who knows a thing or two about cheers and boos, it’s Brewer. For the second time in four years, she was at the center of an impassioned standoff over a thorny social issue that captured the country’s attention and divided her state. Once again, she made a decision preordained to create some unhappiness. Once again, her choice appeared keyed to her future.
Since succeeding Janet Napolitano (D) in early 2009, Brewer has been a lightning rod for praise and criticism in and outside Arizona. She signed into law a highly restrictive immigration measure in 2010, making her an instant hit on the political right and a villain on the left. She has publicly clashed with President Obama. And critics have lambasted comments she has made about her father’s death and headless bodies.
But throughout her tenure, Brewer and her team have appeared keenly aware of the political ramifications of her biggest legislative decisions. Now, as she begins what many observers believe will be her final months in office, Brewer has signaled that she wants to cement a legacy as a Republican who was dedicated to jobs and the economy, not a far-right ideological warrior.
“She has a reputation as a rock-ribbed conservative throughout three decades of elected office,” said Chris DeRose, an Arizona-based lawyer and GOP strategist. “But I think there is a pragmatism that comes into play when you become governor, especially a governor in your last term.”
Brewers’s advisers say that intense pressure from the business community this week went a long way toward clinching her decision to veto the legislation, which was pushed by Republicans who said they wanted to protect religious liberty. Companies such as Apple and American Airlines spoke out against the bill. Arizona’s hosting of next year’s Super Bowl also was put in jeopardy.
“I haven’t seen them move that quickly in a very long time,” Doug Cole, a longtime Brewer adviser, said of the business world.
The governor’s Lutheran faith prompted her to scrutinize the measure, given the religious implications it carried. “As she’s walking into her church, she didn’t want people looking at her sideways,” said Chuck Coughlin, another longtime Brewer adviser.
But Brewer said she ultimately decided that nobody’s religious liberty had been violated and the bill was too broad.
Brewer is term-limited, but has left open the option of challenging state law and pursuing another term, because she served less than half of the last term of Napolitano, who left office to become homeland security secretary. Brewer, whose aides have been tight-lipped about her plans, is expected to announce her decision soon. A full slate of Republicans already has lined up to run.
Brewer’s advisers say her political future was not a factor in her veto Wednesday. But the action was considered further evidence that she is thinking more about her legacy than firing up the base for the next campaign.
“This is probably it for her,” DeRose said.
When Brewer decided to run for a full term in 2010, polls showed she faced a tough fight. But the turning point came in April of that year when she signed into law SB 1070, a controversial and restrictive immigration measure. The law required legal immigrants to carry paperwork with them and compelled police to question anyone they suspected of being undocumented.
Pro-immigration activists and Democrats nationwide panned Brewer’s action. In conservative Arizona, however, it made her a rock star overnight. She quickly cleared the Republican field and easily defeated her Democratic opponent in the general election.
But Brewer’s campaign was not error-free. During a fall television debate, she suffered a misstep that went viral online. She froze up and appeared to lose her train of thought for an uncomfortable half a minute that seemed even longer.
Brewer also drew criticism that year for a claim she later retracted about headless bodies being found in the desert as a result of violence near the border.
Brewer spent the first decade of her life in Hawthorne, Nev., where her father worked at a Navy munitions depot as a civilian supervisor. He died of lung disease when she was just 11, and the exact circumstances of his death would become the focus of national scrutiny decades later when Brewer was running for governor.
Brewer said in 2010 that her father “died fighting the Nazi regime in Germany.” The remark prompted criticism from Democrats and brought her scrutiny from the national news media. Brewer’s spokesman later responded that she meant he died from inhaling toxic fumes at the military factory where he worked.
Brewer, who studied to be a radiology technician, made her first foray into politics in the early 1980s when she was elected to the state House. She later joined the state Senate and worked her way up the ladder to a leadership position, then served on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Brewer ran for Arizona secretary of state in 2002 and won before becoming governor in 2009. Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor, so the secretary of state is next in line for the top job.
Perhaps the most famous picture of Brewer is one of her and Obama on a Phoenix tarmac in 2012. In the photo, Brewer has her forefinger pointed up at Obama in a confrontational manner after a disagreement over a passage in her just-released book about a meeting she had had with the president.
But this week, the White House, which had said the bill Brewer vetoed “sounded like a pretty intolerant proposed law,” and the Republican governor of Arizona were on the same page.