Tough immigration law boosts Arizona governor’s political fortunes

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PHOENIX — In a year that sees incumbents across the country dropping like flies, an unlikely one is in a very comfortable position: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

Only six months ago, Brewer presided over a state
with a dire budget deficit. She had two dozen challengers in the
Republican primary and her approval rating was well below the safe zone
of 50 percent. Then a tough new immigration law landed on her desk.
Brewer signed SB 1070 and became the biggest defender of Arizona’s get-tough stance on illegal immigration.

Now she leads her opponent in November, Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard,
by a 3-2 margin in polls. Even after a painful debate performance — it
featured a 16-second pause when Brewer forgot her opening statement —
her numbers improved.

“She came back from the dead because the Legislature handed her 1070 to sign,” said Jim Haynes, president of the Behavior Research Center, which regularly polls in Arizona on political issues. Immigration, he said, has become “one of those issues that comes along and steamrolls everything else.”

Analysts have warned that the Arizona Republican
Party, which has embraced a widespread crackdown on illegal immigrants,
risks alienating Latino voters and suffering the fate of the GOP in California, which became marginalized after the passage of the hard-line immigration initiative Proposition 187 in 1994.

But any significant growth in Latino votes is far
off. For now, SB 1070, coupled with a national mood that favors
Republicans, has put the party in a strong position in Arizona, veteran observers say.

“SB 1070 created an environment that gave all of the Republican statewide candidates this year a 10-15 percent uptick,” said Bruce Merrill, a pollster and emeritus professor at Arizona State University.

The wide-ranging law requires police to determine
the immigration status of people they stop and also think are in the
country illegally.

Advocates argued that the law was needed to protect the state, the favorite point of entry for illegal crossings from Mexico,
from violence seeping across the border. Critics noted that crime is
down significantly on the border and statewide and argued that the law
would lead to racial profiling.

In an interview, Brewer said signing the bill was
the right thing to do. But she said that other steps she has taken have
won her Arizonans’ affections as well — namely advocating a temporary 1
percent sales tax hike to stave off the collapse of state government,
even against the wishes of most of her party.

“I still believe the people of Arizona
are concerned about jobs and the economy, and getting our budget under
control — and then illegal immigration,” Brewer said. “I have (taken)
stands that I thought were right.”

Before this year, Brewer was not known for her stance on illegal immigration. A longtime legislator and Maricopa County supervisor, Brewer was known as a fiscal conservative and 28-year veteran politician. In January 2009, she was Arizona’s secretary of state, managing 38 employees. When Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned to become the federal secretary of homeland security, Brewer automatically became governor.

Even though she has become a staple on national news shows — local reporters complained that she speaks to Fox News more than Arizona journalists — Brewer still lives in the house in suburban Glendale where she raised her children, and she has been spotted at Walmart and Ross Dress for Less.

She speaks with the sometimes oddball diction of
someone who has spent her adult life in the bureaucratic world of state
politics. At a news conference this month to warn people about devices
that steal credit card numbers at gas pumps, Brewer said: “It is most
important that people remain vigilant. … They do not want to be the
recipient of being victimized.”

When she became governor, Brewer walked into a
budget deficit that was nearly one-third the size of the state’s
general fund — on a per-capita basis, one that rivaled California’s
as the biggest in the nation. She slashed spending, sold the capitol
building that houses her office and made the state the first to
withdraw from a federal program to provide health care to children just
above the poverty line.

But she still struggled to balance the budget. In a
tax-averse state, she decided she needed to ask voters to approve the
three-year, 1 percent sales tax hike. Her Republican colleagues in the
statehouse were aghast. At one point in the acrimonious budget process,
Brewer sued them.

Then, on April 23, she signed SB 1070 — and her poll numbers skyrocketed.

At the time, Brewer had been even with several
challengers in the GOP primary who were angered by her proposed tax
hike. But in May the tax passed easily with 65 percent of the vote.

Republicans steadily began dropping out of the primary. One, a wealthy businessman named Buz Mills who spent $3 million
on the race, said he couldn’t match the free publicity that SB 1070
gave Brewer. The governor easily won the August primary, even after a
federal judge ruled that much of the law is unconstitutional and put it
on hold.

Merrill said that Brewer’s embrace of the law has
positioned her as a champion for her state. As such, he said, she has
garnered sympathy from people who see her 16-second “brain freeze,” as
she called her silence in the debate, as only human.

Goddard, Brewer’s opponent, opposed 1070 and said in
an interview that Brewer has benefited from simple demagoguery. During
the debate, Goddard pushed the governor to renounce her false claim
that immigration violence had become so bad that headless bodies were
being uncovered in the desert. She eventually did — but only after
fleeing a post-debate news conference with reporters shouting questions
at her. On Friday, Goddard released ads hammering at the issue.

“I still can’t imagine the sort of sinister
calculation that would lead someone, as chief executive of her state,
to do something with malice aforethought that would do so much damage
to her state,” Goddard said. “I’ve done more on border security than Jan Brewer’s ever thought about.”

Brewer said she’s surprised at the attention she has
received since signing the immigration law, but says her fans
appreciate her because she is true to herself.

“I have been in public service for 28 years,” she said. “People know Jan Brewer and they support her, and I would like to believe that they love her.”

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(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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