A reform-minded and competent administrator. Unflinchingly partisan and occasionally controversial.
Jan Brewer has been labeled all of the above during the past six years heading the state’s second-highest elected office: secretary of state.
Now, the 64-year-old former legislator and Maricopa County supervisor is preparing to take the state’s helm as governor, succeeding Gov. Janet Napolitano who awaits her confirmation as secretary of Homeland Security under Barack Obama. The transition could come as early as late January.
In the meantime, Capitol watchers say Brewer’s record suggests a cautious and capable leader not unaccustomed to big challenges. Perhaps none has been bigger than her oversight of state elections, for which most observers have given her good marks.
“All things considered, we’ve had some pretty smooth elections lately,” said Betsey Bayless, whom Brewer succeeded as secretary of state in 2003. Both women are Republicans.
Brewer sat down with The Arizona Republic last week to talk about her accomplishments as secretary of state, the tests she has met and the criticism she still faces.
Brewer ran for secretary of state in 2002 when feelings were still raw from the disputed 2000 presidential election. The recounts. Hanging-ballot chads. Florida.
She pledged to make optical-scan ballots available statewide, replacing traditional punch ballots – and their assorted problems – that were still in use in nine rural Arizona counties.
By January 2004, the new machines were in place – thanks in large measure to a multibillion-dollar modernization effort for elections nationwide under the federal Help America Vote Act. Brewer was responsible for the HAVA implementation in Arizona. Bayless, now the chief executive of the Maricopa Integrated Health System, lauded the transition as “fairly seamless.”
But it wasn’t without controversy. Brewer’s purchase of machines produced by Diebold Elections Systems drew criticism from those who say the equipment is vulnerable to hacking and election fraud, and protesters nearly shouted her down at a 2006 news conference at which she announced her re-election bid.
At the time, Brewer dismissed the protesters as “anarchists” and “conspiracy theorists.”
She remains convinced of the integrity of Arizona elections and boasts of the state’s avoidance of touch-screen voting machines as indicative of her “sound, good judgment.” Indeed, states such as California and Florida have decided to junk their touch-screen devices, which have been derided as susceptible to fraud, riddled with bugs and just plain unpredictable. Colorado has decertified roughly half its batch.
Arizona’s optical-scan machines produce a paper trail, Brewer said, allowing elections officials to re-create the vote in case of a computer meltdown. Perhaps the best measure of success: Arizona has avoided major Election Day hiccups experienced in other states.
“I can look anybody in the face and say we have the best elections system anywhere in the country,” Brewer said.
But there are some who question whether Brewer has done everything she could to ensure Arizonans who are eligible to vote actually get to cast a ballot.
Prop. 200 fight
Perhaps the biggest controversy involving Brewer has been her ardent defense of a state law – Proposition 200, which was approved by Arizona voters in 2004 – that requires individuals to show identification at the polls and proof of citizenship when they register to vote. Opponents of the measure have said it suppresses the vote, especially among minorities, and amounts to a poll tax for Arizonans who lack the required ID.
“It’s absolutely, I think, the obligation of the secretary of state to be a champion of voters. And that’s not something she’s been,” said Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network. The group is among those that have challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 200.
Brewer noted that she remained neutral on the initiative until it was approved by voters. Once that occurred, she said, it became “my job to implement what the people wanted.”
Secretary of state is a partisan office in Arizona. Regardless, Brewer’s cheerleading for prominent Republicans – most notably as co-chairwoman for President Bush’s re-election effort in Arizona in 2004 and Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid this year – has raised eyebrows at times.
Brown said, “It doesn’t inspire trust when your top elected official is also chairing a major partisan political campaign.”
In 2004, then-Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson called on Brewer to step down from either her campaign role with Bush or her elected office. Brewer did neither and appeared to up the ante the same day, when she strode to the microphone at the Republican National Convention and declared that she was “pleased and proud to let everyone know that Arizona is Bush country.”
Asked about the criticism last week, Brewer discounted it as “political rhetoric.” She noted that her office doesn’t actually count the ballots – that’s left to the counties – and likened her political campaigning to that done by Napolitano and other elected officials.
“I did not give up my First Amendment rights when I was elected,” Brewer said.
Life as governor
The next chapter in Brewer’s political career will be her biggest challenge yet. If she becomes governor, Brewer faces the prospect of a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall this year and next, as well as a flagging economy and a housing market in freefall.
On a personal level, she acknowledged it also will be a significant adjustment for her, since she is social and chatty. Being governor doesn’t lend itself to having a listed phone number, as Brewer does. A security detail takes some getting used to.
“I think the accessibility has served not only (constituents) well, but me,” she said. “I’m going to miss that part, I think. In fact, I know I’m going to miss that part.”
Duties of the Arizona secretary of state
The Department of State is responsible for recordings and filings under the Uniform Commercial Code; coordinating statewide elections; receiving required filings from legislators, state officials, judges, candidates for office, campaign committees and lobbyists; training county elections officials; receiving filings of administrative rules, intergovernmental agency agreements and official executive orders/proclamations; registering trade names, trademarks and limited partnerships; appointing notaries public and certifying certain telemarketing and charitable solicitation organizations.
Jan Brewer: Then and now
• “I think that I’ve got the background, I’ve got the knowledge and I’ve got the temperament to be governor of Arizona.” – Brewer discussing her readiness last week to assume the governorship from Janet Napolitano.
• “I have never wanted to be governor nor have any aspirations to hold that position. However, God forbid that something did happen to the governor, I’m most qualified to do so.” – Answering the same question, a hypothetical at the time, when running for secretary of state in 2002.
• “My instructions were: No stress. Do not get angry.” – Doctor’s orders after Brewer suffered a near-fatal heart attack in October 1994.
• “Try to count to 10 every time I get stressed.” – Brewer, last week, discussing her healthy-heart regimen, which includes diet and exercise.
• “Secretary of state has been a wonderful position. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I would have been pleased as punch to serve here another two years.” – Brewer in comments last week.