Reporting from Phoenix — She's held the governorship little more than a year—a surprise promotion when her predecessor joined the Obama Cabinet—and already Jan Brewer finds herself confronting Arizona's two most contentious issues, taxes and illegal immigration.
Brewer's office has received thousands of calls each day--pro and con--about a law that would make illegal immigration a state crime and order police to check the status of people they believe are in the country illegally. Wherever she goes, reporters ask Brewer about her intentions, to be met with a tight-lipped reply that she needs to study the matter.
Most observers expect Brewer, 65, to sign the bill because of another issue she prefers to talk about--her support for a $1-billion sales tax on the ballot to close the state's deficit.
Brewer's advocacy for the tax has upended state politics. "She's where nobody has ever been in my 20-plus years in political life in Arizona," said lobbyist Stan Barnes. "A Republican leading the charge for a tax."
This helps explain why she has 19 challengers in the August GOP primary.
Brewer's situation mirrors struggles of Republicans in other states who face challenges from a resurgent right wing of the party. Analysts say she has little room to displease that base further with a veto of what would be the toughest state law against illegal immigration in the country.
"She's already taking hits for it -- not being a strong fiscal conservative," said Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University. "Because of that, she couldn't stick her neck out and not sign this bill."
Brewer has until Saturday to veto the bill or sign it, otherwise it will become law within 90 days of the end of the legislative session.
Immigrant rights groups are pessimistic about a veto, but try to focus on Brewer's willingness to buck conventional conservative positions in her brief gubernatorial career. "Because she does have that background on those other issues, you have to hold onto a sliver of hope," said Joe Rubio of the Valley Interfaith Project.
Brewer grew up in Southern California and moved to Phoenix with her husband, John, in 1970. Inspired by Ronald Reagan, she became active in school board politics, then rose to the state Legislature, where she served 13 years. After six years as a county commissioner, Brewer became secretary of state, a fairly obscure position. She rose automatically to the governorship in early 2009, when President Obama picked then- Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security.
Republicans lawmakers, who had clashed with Napolitano for years, were ecstatic--briefly.
"For six years they'd been doing battle. Then finally they get one of their own in there," said Tom Patterson, who served in the Senate with Brewer in the 1990s and is now head of the Goldwater Institute, a political think tank. "And the first thing she says is, ‘Oh, we should raise taxes.' "
Brewer contended that the state, reeling from a plummeting housing market, couldn't afford to simply cut its way out of the crisis. She and the Legislature still trimmed the state budget from $10 billion to $8 billion. But it took five separate special sessions--and a briefly lived lawsuit on procedural grounds--before Brewer could persuade her former colleagues to put a penny sales tax increase on the May 18 ballot.
"She had to put her political interests aside and put the importance of the state first," Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said. "Given the data and the facts, it's the only prudent thing to do."
Her staff has noted that Brewer has taken tough stances on illegal immigration in the past, but will not indicate her plans for the new bill, which landed on her desk Monday.
That day, Brewer commemorated National Crime Victims' Rights Week with a tour of a minimum-security prison west of Phoenix. She used it as an opportunity to urge a "yes" vote on Proposition 100, the 1% sales tax hike.
"There are only so many areas we can cut into and cut another $1 billion," Brewer told reporters. "It could very possibly result in putting felons on the street."
Her GOP opponents aren't mollified. "Moving to the center in a Republican primary, when you look at the mood of the country, let alone Arizona, seems curious," said Camilla Strongin, campaign manager for businessman Owen "Buz" Mills, one of several challengers attacking Brewer from the right.
Another challenger, state Treasurer Dean Martin, said that failing to sign the illegal immigration bill would only compound Brewer's woes.
"Unlike in other states, where the economy is the No. 1 issue, in Arizona the border is as important," Martin said. And, he added, "in a Republican primary, there are very few people who are for open borders."