The Woman Immigrants Fear

Jan Brewer, fresh off an immigration summit with Obama, is seen as Arizona’s “accidental governor.” Terry Greene Sterling on her master plan, why she signed the bill, and her new Palin updo.

06.04.10 12:54 AM ET

On Thursday, Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office to discuss her perception of the Grand Canyon State’s drastic immigration woes. The meeting came as the Obama administration considers mounting a legal challenge to SB 1070, the controversial immigration law that Brewer signed in April and Obama has called “misguided.”

Brewer, a Republican, emerged from the private meeting smiling but signaling her skepticism. She maintained she at least had assurances that Obama’s staffers would meet with her staffers in two weeks over border security. Obama has pledged $500 million and 1,200 National Guard troops to “secure the border,” but it’s unclear what will be allocated to Arizona. Brewer said she was “not successful” in getting a commitment from the White House to fire up more border wall construction--neglecting to add that the Obama administration has done more to enforce the border than other administrations.

Brewer has a shrewd strategic mind masked by the chipper persona of a Barbie Doll emeritus who has yet to master the king’s English.

Her meeting with the president capped a meteoric rise for a woman often portrayed as the “accidental governor.” But in this, as in many things, Brewer is underestimated, and misunderstood.

At 65, Brewer has held an elected office (state representative, state senator, and secretary of state) for 27 years and has never lost an election. She’s painted in the national press as having taken over the statehouse reluctantly but good-naturedly when Janet Napolitano left Phoenix to assume the reins of the Department of Homeland Security.

In Phoenix, though, she’s viewed as an ambitious, seasoned politico, who, along with her advisers and party leaders, knew that every 10 years or so, an Arizona secretary of state takes over the governor’s office.

Her political success is tied to years of party loyalty, good timing (a committed conservative, she got her start in politics in the 1980s just as moderates lost hold of the Republican Party in Arizona) and a shrewd strategic mind masked by the chipper persona of a Barbie Doll emeritus who has yet to master the king’s English.

Now, with her signature on SB 1070, Brewer is being groomed as a national icon a la Sarah Palin. (Brewer is even starting to sweep up her hair into an updo, just like Palin, who came to Phoenix recently to help Brewer launch a campaign-funded “Secure the Borders” website.) Conservative websites sell posters and buttons of Brewer as Rosie the Riveter, flexing her muscles near the words: Arizona: Doing the Job the Feds Won’t Do. And Brewer is a budding star on Fox News, where interviewers like Greta Van Susteren are bemused by her plucky willingness to take on Washington.

On the flip side, opponents of SB 1070 call her a “La Brew-ja” (bruja means witch in Spanish) and make sneering Jan Brewer masks and piñatas.

The governor’s signing of SB 1070 was calculated, her critics say, to raise her stock with right-wing voters. She needed a bump, the argument goes, because conservatives had been alienated by her support of a temporary sales tax to offset state budget woes brought on by a recessionary decrease in tax revenue. The immigration bill wasn’t the only move she made that would cheer conservatives: She also signed a law, beloved by the powerful NRA, permitting Arizonans to pack concealed guns without permits. And she signed measures banning ethnic studies in public schools and nixing photo radar.

“It was masterful and cynical,” Michael Lacey, the executive editor of Village Voice Media and a longtime observer of Phoenix politics, says of the well-timed signing of SB 1070.

“No, no, no,” counters Brewer’s campaign spokesman and adviser Doug Cole, of the lobbying group High Ground. SB 1070, says Cole, was a move made necessary by the failure of the “federal government to address border security and illegal immigration.”

Not a word of 1070 addresses border security, but Cole says the very fact that illegal immigration is now a state crime as well as a federal crime will help secure the borders.

Brewer was first elected to the Arizona House in 1982 by conservative voters in Glendale, then a gritty working-class West Phoenix suburb where she and her chiropractor husband and three sons lived. She’s had more than her share of personal tragedy; one son died and a close family member was in the mental-health system in Arizona, Cole says. Before she became the face of immigration reform, her signature issue was mental health.

In 1988, a beloved Glendale local, Gov. Evan Mecham, was impeached for secretly lending campaign funds to his Pontiac dealership. Brewer was one of only four senators who voted against impeachment.

During his short stint as governor, Mecham had spoken out against gays and had banned a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, which had resulted in protest marches and boycotts; civil-rights advocates labeled Arizona a racist state.

Twenty-two years later, Brewer’s signature of SB 1070 launched a similar onslaught of boycotts and protest marches, and more labeling of Arizona as racist. “She will be remembered as we remember Evan Mecham,” says Dede Blase, the founder of Somos Republicans, a 3,000-member Latino Republican group that hopes Brewer is defeated in the next election. Brewer in May gave $250,000 in taxpayer funds to the Arizona Office of Tourism to “rebrand” the state. She has said the savings to Arizona when the “illegals” leave will offset any losses caused by boycotts, which now total about $90 million in lost revenue.

She emerged unscathed from the “Azscam” controversy of 1991, when several of her colleagues in Arizona House and Senate were caught taking bribes from an undercover agent posing as a high flyer who wanted to bring legalized gambling to Arizona. In What’s in It for Me, a 1992 book about the scandal, a lobbyist for bail bondsmen boasted that Brewer had flirted with him.

There’s little that seems “accidental” about the moves she’s made since taking office. Brewer’s tactics not only seem purposeful; they appear to be working.

She’s seen her approval ratings rise since signing the immigration bill—boosting her chances of winning the GOP primary and heading into battle this fall against Democrat Terry Goddard, Arizona’s attorney general. A May 21 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of “likely voters” in Arizona has Brewer leading with 52 percent of the vote over Goddard’s 39 percent.

That campaign has already unofficially started—the two are trading barbs over who should defend Arizona in cases challenging SB 1070. Goddard opposed the bill, but now that it is law, he says, his office must defend it. Brewer says the law itself allows her to choose a different lawyer.

Political insiders say that if a Cochise County borderlands rancher had not been killed, it is likely moderate Republicans would not have signed on to the law. But hysteria over the unsolved murder of Robert Krentz, which many blamed on an unauthorized immigrant who hightailed it back to Mexico, made the passage of the law unstoppable.

Before signing SB 1070, Brewer visited Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, confirms Dever’s spokeswoman Carol Capas. Brewer frequently cites the plight of Cochise County ranchers when she chides the federal government to “do its job” and secure the borders to keep Arizonans safe from illegal-immigration related crime.

But her view of borderlands crime is not borne out by government statistics; according to most figures, crime is flat or down in border towns. Capas says burglaries are up in the little town of Portal; the burglars are thought to be “illegal aliens” because food and water were stolen.

And while long-suffering borderlands ranchers still experience cut fences and littering from illegal immigrants, and drugs continue to be trafficked through their lands, only two murders occurred in Cochise County this year that are tied to illegal immigration. In both cases, the victims, not the killers, were unauthorized immigrants. The Krentz murder, says Capas, cannot be linked to illegal immigration.

As Brewer heads home from Washington, she faces another controversy: Allegations that she “embellished” a story about her father who “died fighting the Nazi regime in Germany” during a recent interview with The Arizona Republic.

In fact, her father did not die at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. He was “fighting a war by making bombs” at a munitions factory in Nevada, Brewer explained to Van Susteren on Thursday night. In a Facebook post about the embellishment accusations, Brewer said her father died after a “long and painful battle with lung disease” when she was 11. (In a campaign video, Brewer says her father died when she was about 9.)

Brewer told Van Susteren that anyone who accused her of embellishing the story about her dad was “pathetically trying” to twist her words into “something ugly.” Given the political climate now boiling under Arizona’s summer sun, it won’t be the last time she feels that way.

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, will be published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.