PHOENIX | Before there was Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Nathan Deal or Nikki Haley, there was Arizona’s Jan Brewer — the original Republican protest governor, going toe-to-toe with the Obama administration over immigration, fighting the White House in the courtroom and becoming an early symbol of states’ frustration with the White House.
Now five months into her first elected term, Arizona’s top politician is once again challenging President Obama. This time, she is asking him not only to keep the National Guard on the border past its scheduled departure in June, but to boost its numbers to provide more security.
“I think the National Guard should be there until everything is resolved and we have a secure border, which means probably having the National Guard down there, you know, and probably more than what he has put down there,” Mrs. Brewer told The Washington Times in a broad interview in her Phoenix office, just after the state’s legislative session ended late last month.
Overall, there is a renewed focus on states as key actors in the American system of government, as they confront budget crises and try to manage their parts of the social safety net, all while trying to live up to Justice Louis Brandeis’ vision of them as laboratories of democracy.
Fueled by tea party power, freshman governors also have clashed with the Obama administration over issues including collective-bargaining rights for public employees and mandates for health care.
In the abstract, the Obama administration should be open to states’ concerns, what with the Cabinet including several former governors — Arizona’s Janet A. Napolitano at Homeland Security, Kansas’ Kathleen Sebelius at HHS, Washington’s Gary F. Locke at Commerce and Iowa’s Thomas J. Vilsack at Agriculture.
But Mrs. Brewer, a chief proponent of what has been termed “New Federalism,” said it has turned out to be anything but.
“You feel like you’re being snubbed. You feel like they don’t want to be a partner,” she said, adding that when she took office, she hoped to make working with the federal government a legacy of her tenure. “I was rebuked. It was like a pushback, and it’s hard to deal with because what can you do? You write letters, you write letters, you write letters, and you get no answers, you get no answers.”
She said she even raised the governor-snubbing issue with Mr. Obama in their Oval Office meeting last year, amid the furor over the state’s tough immigration law, which Mrs. Brewer signed April 23, 2010. She said the president said he wasn’t aware of the issue.
“He apologized,” she said. “He said that would never happen again.”
Late last month, however, Mr. Obama called a high-powered immigration meeting at the White House, inviting former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others — but no Arizona officials.
“That in itself is bizarre,” Mrs. Brewer said. “An immigration summit and not asking someone at least from Arizona — I would have assumed it would be the governor.”
In Arizona, Mrs. Brewer’s push for state autonomy plays well, and state Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny said he doesn’t fault her for asserting state prerogatives, but rather for the way she has gone about it.
“I agree that a state like Arizona should be able to make many decisions for itself. The issue is not whether she picked a fight with the federal government for political benefit, but whether she produced any results for the people of Arizona,” Mr. Cherny said.
“These efforts wasted precious time creating media shows and never-ending lawsuits — time she could have devoted to confronting the jobs crisis in Arizona or working on real solutions to deal with illegal immigration,” he said.
Mrs. Brewer has been in Arizona politics for decades, having served in the state House and Senate and as a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. In 2002 she was elected secretary of state, and became governor in January 2009 when Ms. Napolitano, who was the state’s chief executive, became Mr. Obama’s Homeland Security secretary.
In a little more than two years in office, she has signed temporary tax increases to try to close a budget shortfall and has faced key tests on education and gun rights.
But there is little doubt that the immigration issue has dominated her time in office. A year ago, she became the face of anti-Washington sentiment when she signed the toughest state immigration-crackdown legislation in the country, and then went to court to defend it against the Obama administration.
At the time she signed the bill, she was running for re-election and trailed Terry Goddard, who was attorney general, through much of spring 2010. But almost immediately after she signed the bill, polling swung in her direction and she cruised to a 12-percentage-point victory over Mr. Goddard.
In legal challenges to the law, a federal district court and then an appeals court ruled in favor of the Obama administration and halted the key enforcement provisions. Mrs. Brewer is pondering whether to go straight to the Supreme Court or to ask the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case.
Almost exactly a year after she signed the immigration bill into law, Mrs. Brewer was in spotlight over another set of conservative measures that the state Legislature sent her.
This time, the governor disappointed her conservative backers and won grudging praise from Democrats after she vetoed three of the bills.
One would have allowed guns to be carried on public rights of way at state colleges, another would have required presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates to get on the state’s ballot and a third would have permitted the state to join an interstate compact designed to circumvent Mr. Obama’s health care law.
The bill regarding birth certificates garnered the most attention. Mrs. Brewer said she did not trust putting so much ballot-access control in the hands of one person, the secretary of state, and she doubted the measure would clear a Justice Department review under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., to whom Arizona is required to submit under the Voting Rights Act.
“I know how they work, and I know who’s in charge of the Department of Justice, and I cannot imagine Holder ever approving of that piece of legislation. So bottom line, it wouldn’t have went anywhere anyway,” she said.
Some Arizona pundits argue that Mrs. Brewer is testing her postelection freedom and returning to more moderate Republican roots, with which they say she is more comfortable. They say she is free to do so since she is term-limited and cannot run again in 2014.
But she dismissed talk of a leftward turn.
“Oh, absolutely not. I’ve been a conservative my whole life, but I always do, again, vote and take everything into consideration, and then I do what I believe is the right thing to do,” she said.
The vetoes drew an acknowledgment, but not much more, from Mr. Cherny.
“Anyone with a grain of common sense would have vetoed those bills,” the state Democratic chairman said. “As opposed to some in the Legislature, my issue with her is not that she’s on a fringe conspiracy theorist, but that she puts politics ahead of governing.”