Governor Jan Brewer (R - AZ) 2009-2015
Jan Brewer was dumbfounded as a parent, while attending her first school board meeting.
“Who are these people?” She wanted to know, “and how did they ever get elected to this office?”
So she made a proposition to her husband: If he would fund her campaign (she loathes fundraising) she would run for school board.
He countered: Run for the State Legislature. It would be her first of more than 20 successful campaigns for public office.
“It was really unexpected. I thought I’d serve in the House of Representatives one term, maybe two terms,” the Governor admitted, “and when I moved over to the Senate I thought, well, I’ll serve over there for a little bit. When I moved to the County it was the same, it was like every time a door would close another would open for me and I had to walk through it.”
She said she is aware of what she calls “a grand plan” that many politicians have, a roadmap in one’s head that takes them from their first election all the way to the White House.
“For me, there was nothing, I never sat down and said I would be governor,” she said.
For Brewer, becoming Governor wasn’t in the realm of possibilities. So when her political advisor, Chuck Coughlin, told her to prepare for the possibility, she registered surprise.
It was November 2008 and President-elect Barack Obama had nominated Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to his cabinet.
By then, Brewer was in the middle of her second term as Arizona’s Secretary of State and next in line for the Governor’s office. With a resume’ that included State Legislator, State Senator, and Maricopa County Supervisor, no one could argue her pedigree.
Yet they did.
“It got personal,” Coughlin recalled, “There was talk that she wasn’t smart enough - she only has a high school education, and it hurt her. Her son is in a mental hospital and that came up and that wounded her.”
Arizona’s Republican establishment began putting forth candidates to run against an incumbent Republican governor party who had never won the race for the state’s highest office because they believed she was incapable of governing and therefor unelectable.
But Coughlin had been with Brewer, advising her, almost from the start.
“The first memorable meeting was as Governor Symington’s Depty Chief and she was Majority Whip in the Senate and we were doing a vote count because the bill wasn’t getting put on a third-read calendar. So I went to her office and she said, ‘you don’t have the votes.’ I went through them and she was right. When she was done with the legislature she called me and said she wanted to run for County Supervisor. By then I knew she was savvy.”
She had spent three years in the Arizona House and 10 in the Senate when she decided to run for Supervisor in Arizona’s largest county.
Then in 2002, when Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless vacated her office, Brewer ran another successful race.
When Barack Obama was sworn-in as President, Governor Janet Napolitano joined his Cabinet and Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer was sworn-in as Governor of Arizona.
Because she was succeeding a Democrat, Governor Brewer didn’t expect a smooth transition but as she eyed the 2010 gubernatorial race, it was her own party that gave her the most trouble.
“The big thing was that nobody respected her,” Coughlin admitted, “institutionally, business-wise, everybody underestimated her. Her strength is her enormously keen political instinct - it is sharper than almost anybody I’ve ever met. She would read people and situations but people would underestimate her.”
The state of Arizona, Coughlin said, was in a state of economic calamity. Coughlin took on the task of surrounding his boss with competent staff to lead the transition from the Napolitano administration. Meanwhile, fellow Republicans began making plans to run against her.
“We had five opponents and at one point the RGA (Republican Governor’s Association) guys had written us off. We said, ‘we’re going to prove we can govern.’”
Difficult decisions needed to be made for both the state of Arizona and the Governor’s team. Her longtime Chief of Staff was replaced by someone Coughlin said, “wouldn’t make life easy for her.”
Meanwhile, the Governor began to address the economy.
The thought of raising taxes was animus to Governor Brewer but she came to a reckoning.
“The only way we were going to be able to turn our state around,” Governor Brewer recalled, “to pay our bills, is to have taxes. Well, I can’t do that, I’ve never voted for a tax in my life. I’m a conservative Republican, I can’t do that.”
“I’d go home at night. I’d go and sit on my patio in the cold of the night and look at the stars and think, ‘dear God, what am I going to do? I’m going to bankrupt the state for sure.’ Then I’d think about all the services that would be shut down - that’s not governing. And I decided, well, I’m going to do the right thing.”
Brewer decided to add a one cent sales tax which would raise a billion dollars for the state annually. The measure, put before the voters, passed in all but one county in May 2010.
“That was a referendum on her governance,” Coughlin acknowledged.
At that same time an Arizona legislator was working on an immigration bill which garnered national attention.
“Russell Pearce had this bill, 1070, floating around, which was a very volatile piece of legislation, arguably unconstitutional in its early draft,” Coughlin explained, “the executive staff, the kitchen cabinet, came up with a list of amendments to further vet it and we had a very vigorous debate, whether to sign or veto. My opinion was the bill had become toothless, nothing more than a political piece of propaganda.”
Brewer signed the bill and a modification to it that April and the issue would eventually make its way to the U. S. Supreme Court but it was overwhelmingly favored by the people of Arizona.
“A lot of people credit that with her victory, I don’t,” Coughlin said, “we had our tracking numbers. We could show, after we passed the budget her numbers started to climb and there were not further cuts to public education, higher ed, or public health.”
Her Republican opponents soon all dropped from the race.
“Once we got the budget done, once 1070 passed in May it was a launch pad. It was her narrative. Prop 100 wins with 58 percent of the vote,” Coughlin added.
The Governor went on to defeat Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard with 55 percent of the votes.
“He’s an intellect, not a street fighter, Jan is a street fighter, he didn’t offer any solutions, then he got caught in the maelstrom of the immigration issue, always going to be an uphill climb for him,” Coughlin explained.
The Governor looks back at the campaign, still registering her surprise.
“The enormity of it all was just unbelievable,” she said, “you could never have dreamt that it would have been that heated, the constant drumbeat. The people in my detail were going crazy. My house is under 24 hour surveilence. I was never afraid, just moving on doing my job. When it reality hit was when I was in the Supreme Court: The United States of America versus the State of Arizona and Janice K. Brewer. It was like, are you kidding me? My country has brought suit against me, personally.”
When citizens ask the Governor’s advice on running for office she offers them her advice:
“I tell them that it is not easy but it is admirable.
“I think public service is an honorable thing to do. It’s something that you get a lot of joy out of and you get a lot of headaches.
“You need to work hard, you need to be a truth-teller and you gotta listen. You gotta listen to people and obviously do the right thing.”
Governor Brewer harkened back to when she asked her husband to finance her first campaign for school board.
“When my husband said, ‘if you want to make a difference run for the legislature,’ all I wanted was to make a difference for my kids.”