Gov. Jan Brewer's Sanity Attack in Arizona

The Republican governor's startling vetoes of "birther" and gun bills backed by the Tea Party have not upset her conservative base, and Democrats say it's all part of a plan to appease extremist voters. Terry Greene Sterling reports.

04.20.11 2:34 AM ET

A year ago, incumbent Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was trailing her Democratic rival Terry Goddard in the Arizona gubernatorial race. Then Brewer signed SB 1070, the state’s notorious immigration law, and further pandered to her Republican Tea Party base by touting her proud membership in the NRA, labeling unauthorized migrants drug mules, and scaring the daylights out of Arizonans with false tales of “beheadings” in the desert. Despite an agonizingly embarrassing senior moment in televised pre-election debates, Brewer rode a wave of conservative sentiment into the governor’s office, and achieved iconic status among her supporters.

A year later, incredibly, that iconic status hasn’t diminished, even though Brewer, 66, appears to be changing her political stripes. She reversed a cold-hearted decision to deprive poor people of state-funded transplants in Arizona (after three patients on the transplant list died) and stunned Arizonans on Monday when she vetoed two Tea Party pet measures that had sailed through the state house. Her apparent tick toward the right-of-center comes on the heels of a highly successful Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry campaign to kill five proposed state immigration laws that Brewer likely would have supported a year ago.

In her sudden about-face, Brewer axed a “birther” bill that required federal and state candidates to submit to the Arizona secretary of state a “circumcision certificate” or a “baptismal” certificate absent a “long form” birth certificate. In a letter to House Speaker Kirk Adams, Brewer implied that the circumcision language was tacky and claimed the bill went “too far” while doing nothing “constructive” for the state. And she told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News that the bill was a “distraction.”

She also vetoed a measure that would allow guns on vaguely defined “public pathways” close to state schools. In a letter to her political ally, Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce, Brewer huffed that the gun measure was “poorly written” and could be construed to mean that people could pack guns on “public pathways” meandering through grammar schools and kindergartens.

While Brewer’s flip-flops have rankled national Tea Partiers they don’t seem to upset her conservative base in Arizona. For instance, the Arizona-based group, Ban Amnesty Now, which has strong ties to Russell Pearce, a self-proclaimed “Tea Party Senator” who supported the two vetoed measures, did not speak out against the Brewer vetoes.

“The bottom line is, I have to call them as I see them.”

Conservatives still have “incredible respect and love” for Brewer, says Sean McAffrey, of Ban Amnesty Now, because she signed and defended SB 1070. (The law, which has been partially stayed by federal courts, makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot in Arizona.) Brewer’s recent vetoes, says McAffrey, will not “diminish the respect” conservatives hold for the governor.

And the Arizona Republican Party, which has been taken over by conservatives with Tea Party sympathies, hasn’t blasted Brewer for the vetoes, either. “We take no position on the bills,” says Thayer Verschoor, a former state senator who is now the spokesman for the group. He would not comment further.

So what gives? Why aren’t Tea Party Republicans furious at Brewer for vetoing beloved birther and gun measures?

It’s all part of a plan, insists State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat. Republican lawmakers who don’t support the bills vote for them anyway. They do this to appease extremist voters who will shape future primary elections, she says. Brewer, who is not facing re-election due to term limits, then vetoes the bills.

“The legislators knew she would veto the birther bill, and that’s why they passed it,” says Sinema. “Same with the gun bill. I actually had a Republican legislator give me a high-five when Brewer vetoed the birther bill.”

“I don’t think one should give Jan Brewer credit for stepping away from extremism,” adds Andrei Cherny, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party.

Brewer’s already done considerable damage, Cherny and other Democrats say. Brewer signed the embarrassing, costly, and ineffective SB 1070. She signed a law that allowed Arizonans to pack concealed guns without permits. She approved draconian cuts to state education and health care. She signed a measure that would give priority in adoptions to heterosexual married parents over gay or single parents.

As the stormy Arizona legislative session draws to a close, Brewer still has to decide whether to veto a measure, opposed by business groups, that would permit gun-carrying in public buildings, such as libraries. It was an insensitive law passed in the wake of the Tucson shootings in January that killed six people and gravely injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Since the powerful Arizona Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure, Brewer likely will veto it.

There’s a slim possibility that the Arizona Legislature, where the Republicans enjoy super-majorities in both the House and Senate, might override the vetoes.

Brewer, in the meantime, is signaling she hasn’t entirely forgotten the conservative base that elected her.

On her Facebook page, she noted that she’d just signed a law prohibiting unauthorized migrants from collecting punitive damages in civil lawsuits. And she recently signed a law forcing homeowners’ associations to allow members to fly Don’t Tread On Me banners on their property. As the unpredictable governor chirped to Fox News on Monday, “The bottom line is, I have to call them as I see them.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.