Four years ago, it was illegal immigration. Today, it’s gay rights.
She has surprised us before, but Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is likely going to veto the state’s controversial bill that would let businesses refuse service to gay and lesbian customers on religious grounds, a move that again shows how much national politics have moved on social issues.
The determination, first reported Tuesday by NBC News, will bolster the unconventional governor’s image as a politician escaping neat, partisan definitions. But it also reaffirms her status as a stateswoman keenly aware of the politics of the moment, both in her state and around the country.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but Arizona, under Brewer’s stewardship, became the poster child for the “self-deportation” movement in 2010, when the Republican governor chose to sign a measure that made it a state crime to be in the state illegally. The move cast Arizona as a crucible of hate in the eyes of many and cost its state economy an estimated $140 million dollars in lost revenue.
But the decision unquestionably helped win reelection for Brewer, who had been installed as governor just 15 months earlier after Janet Napolitano resigned to head the Homeland Security Department. And despite a crescendo of protests across the country, other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah, passed similar laws in the following year. (The Supreme Court struck down key sections of Arizona’s law in 2012.)
Now, Brewer is again poised to capitalize on the political zeitgeist of the country. In beating down a bill blasted by even many fellow Republicans as discriminatory, Brewer’s decision follows a string of court decisions, legislative efforts, and executive actions that have widened the rights of same-sex couples, who now qualify for full marriage rights in 17 states as well as in the eyes of the federal government.
Beyond the political calculations, Brewer, who has until Saturday to make a decision on the bill, has also proved she is not nearly as conservative as her state Legislature, or her common caricatures, would lead us to believe. She has frequently confounded her own party by standing as a bulwark against her Republican state House’s agenda, including its opposition to Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which she embraced, or a push to allow guns on college campuses.
As protests continue to mount in Arizona against the religious-freedom legislation, three Republican state senators who voted for it flipped their positions on Monday and said they now believe the measure is ill-conceived. Several members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, including Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, have also come out in opposition to the legislation.
“I just [last night] encouraged her again to veto it,” Flake told National Journal on Tuesday. “But I’m not going to speak for her.”
Flake doesn’t have to. As an accidental Republican governor who became the face of a charged movement against illegal immigration in 2010, as a fierce, finger-wagging enemy to the feds, and as an unlikely champion of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, Brewer has always spoken for herself. Especially when the cameras are watching.
And she just might challenge the state constitution and run for another term.