07.19.10

The Governor Who Hates Her State

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer paints her state as one big drug den, littered with corpses and gun-toting illegals. Bryan Curtis on her curious sales job—and the backlash from Linda Ronstadt and other locals.

In her quest to show why Arizona needs a tough immigration law, Gov. Jan Brewer has pulled off an awesome rhetorical feat. She has rebranded the entire state. Arizona is no longer the sun-drenched home of the Grand Canyon, golf courses, and retirees exulting in 100-degree lethargy. Arizona, in Brewer’s telling, is a cross between a Cormac McCarthy novel and The Road Warrior.

“Has my ‘dry heat!’ desert finally seared one too many brain cells?” asks Rene Alegria. “Maybe so.”


The controversial Arizona immigration law has sparked mass protests.

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Taken together, Brewer’s speeches, campaign commercials, and Fox News appearances offer a stern rebuke to anyone who thinks Arizona is a tranquil place. Arizona, Brewer told Fox News, is a “battlefield.” It is the “drug corridor of the world,” she said later. Phoenix—home to four pro sports teams and a well-regarded Trolley Museum—is “our nation’s kidnapping capital,” according to a Brewer campaign ad.

Brewer has been a relentless chronicler of Arizona’s “ porous” border with Mexico, which she said allows a daily “ invasion” by undocumented immigrants. Who are the undocumented? The “ majority” are “drug mules,” she said, others are “human traffickers,” and still others may carry “big, strong, dangerous guns, AK-47s.”

What about the documented Arizonans—New West entrepreneurs, geezers, the Diamondbacks? “Beautiful people!” Brewer told Greta van Susteren. But also: “We have many, many people that feel they are not safe.” And: “We need help.” And: “We are just fed up.” If Arizona’s beautiful people sound slightly jittery, this may be because of what Brewer called the “terror which our citizens live in day in and day out along the border.” Native Arizonans contacted by The Daily Beast were surprised the governor wasn’t extolling tourist meccas like Tombstone Ranch and Sedona’s yuppie playground. No, Brewer prefers to tout Arizona’s “drop houses, kidnapping, auto accidents, extortion, drugs, the spillover with the drug cartels.” Want to hike among the Bighorn sheep in the Sonoran Desert? Careful, lil’ partner—Brewer has said  there are “bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded.”

In Brewer’s imagination, Arizona is no longer the Grand Canyon State. Arizona—in fact, the entire country—is a “house without walls.” Or a “ house [that] is burning down.” Or, to quote an ingenious Brewerism—one that combines the governor’s critical style with the grandiosity of Chamber of Commerce proclamation—Arizona, Brewer told Fox, is a “gateway for every illegal immigration and criminal element into the United States.”

“She’s either a liar or she’s hopelessly ignorant,” says Linda Ronstadt, the Tucson-born singer and lefty political activist. “Either of those scenarios.”

Ronstadt was one of several Arizonans who blanched at the gloomy face the governor had drawn on the state. “Arizona used to be that sunny, happy place where Americans knew they’d never have to shovel another inch of snow, and retirees went to die with a smile,” says Rene Alegria, an Arizona native who runs the New York media firm Boxing Badger. “Has my ‘dry heat!’ desert finally seared one too many brain cells? Maybe so.”

Jim Kolbe, a Republican who represented Arizona in the U.S. House from 1985 until 2007, said the state faced real problems with drug violence on the opposite side of the border. But he added, “I don’t think Arizona is a dangerous place to live.”

What’s amazing about Brewer’s rebranding is that it’s a reversal of Arizona’s traditional sales pitch. Since World War II, the state has broadcast a non-stop invitation for Americans to move there and enjoy the desert vistas and cheap housing, the hot weather and refrigerated air. “All these things combined to set off this incredible boom that really hasn’t let up for any length of time,” says Thomas E. Sheridan, author of Arizona: A History. Between 1940 and 1960—when there was little talk of decapitated bodies in the desert—the population of the state nearly tripled.

The archetypal Arizonan did not slag the state; he spoke in the language of a real-estate brochure. In his 1955 book Arizona: A Guide to Easier Living, writer Joseph Stocker admitted, “Yes, it gets pretty doggoned hot in the summer.” But there was a Mexican border sparkling with “good neighborliness,” a Grand Canyon “awful” in its immensity, Geronimo’s footprints in the desert—and you could enjoy all of Arizona in concert with “man’s perpetual longing for the sun.”

Developer Del Webb, who in 1960 opened his Sun City retirement community in the Phoenix suburbs, upped the rhetorical ante: He envisioned Arizona as a happy, final destination for the old. Time magazine later put Webb on its cover in front of a shuffleboard court. “An old fellow came up to me once with tears in his eyes and thanked me for building Sun City,” Webb once said. “He said he was planning to spend the happiest 40 years of his life there.”

The old man wasn’t alone. Arizona’s population grew from more than 1 million in 1960 to 3 million in 1985 to more than 6.5 million last year. In 2007, the Phoenix metropolitan area was growing at the rate of one acre per hour, said Janine Schipper, author of Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl. And though Phoenix’s rapid population growth has leveled off, though the state is mired in the recession thanks partly to the plunge in homebuilding, the favored approach of city planners is still to… attract lots more people to Arizona.

“We’re in this state of bust,” says Schipper, “and the answer is we need to boom.”

Politicians, perhaps wary of attracting more negative PR, have mostly ignored Brewer’s ritual denunciations. But Brewer’s rhetoric is important because it illustrates a hidden tension in Arizona politics. Senate Bill 1070 is often seen as an outgrowth of Mexican migration. But Arizona has a parallel migration narrative: one of Anglo migrants who came for the hot weather and golf courses, and, in many cases, brought along their conservative politics. Evan Mecham, the governor who canceled the state’s Martin Luther King holiday in 1987, was an arriviste from Utah. John McCain didn’t make it to Phoenix until he was in his 40s. Jan Brewer, a California native, relocated to the Phoenix suburbs with her husband, a chiropractor, in the 1970s.

So Brewer’s blasts are, in one sense, correct. Arizona has suffered an “invasion.” This has turned the state into a political “battlefield.” And the consequences for Arizona are likely to be too dire for any invocation of a desert vista to them wipe away.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis@thedailybeast.com.