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Gov. Jan Brewer’s Relentless Move to the Political Center

Eric Pianin

It wasn’t that long ago that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was wagging her finger in President Obama’s face on an airport tarmac as they feuded over immigration policy.  The ill will was punctuated after an earlier unpleasant meeting the two had in the Oval Office, and because of some nasty things Brewer said about the president in her new book, Scorpions for Breakfast.

Brewer, a Republican, had succeeded Democrat Janet Napolitano as governor in early 2009 after Napolitano was tapped by Obama to head the Department of Homeland Security. The following year, Brewer became a darling of the right after she signed into law one of the most restrictive immigration laws in the country.

Related: 21 Surprising Facts About Illegal Immigration

Brewer gradually inched her way from a role as right-wing champion to a more mainstream, business oriented Republican. Her political calculations, especially on sensitive social issues, invariably have been controversial and sometimes surprising.

The turning point came when she agreed to go along with expanded Medicaid under the Obamacare – breaking ranks with many of her fellow Republican governors who have rejected the additional coverage for the poor in their states. Then last Wednesday she vetoed legislation providing a wide variety of religious exemptions to businesses, after major business groups, prominent Republicans and gay rights advocates argued that the law was discriminatory.

Brewer is term limited and has just ten more months remaining in her term. But she has left open the possibility of challenging state law and seeking another term because she served less than half of the last term of Napolitano.  Some experts see her moderating move towards the center as an important element of that electoral strategy.

 “When she became governor upon Napolitano’s resignation, I think it’s fair to say she wasn’t ready—unpolished, unaccustomed to taking charge in the ways a chief executive must, and too tied to one faction – the  anti-immigration activists,” said University of Virginia political  professor Larry J. Sabato. “Like many do, Brewer has grown into the job.”

“They are all conscious of history and how they’ll be judged,” Sabato added. “Brewer has improved her image substantially. . . She will need the support of business to win another term if she has the opportunity. Regardless, she’ll finish this term looking a lot better than she started it.”

Related: Police begin enforcing controversial Arizona immigration measure

As she begins what could be the final months of her governorship, “Brewer has signaled that she wants to cement a legacy as a Republican who was dedicated to jobs and the economy, not far right ideological warfare,” according to The Washington Post.

“She has a reputation as a rock-ribbed conservative throughout three decades of elected office,” Chris DeRose, an Arizona-based lawyer and Republican strategist, told The Post. “But I think there is a pragmatism that comes into play when you become governor, especially a governor in your last term.”

Brewer, 69, a former state lawmaker and secretary of state, commanded the national spotlight in April 2010 when she signed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbors Act, which makes it a misdemeanor for an immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents and authorizes state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws. The law also cracks down on those who shelter, hire or transport illegal immigrants – a measure that some say subjects illegal immigrants to a virtual police state.

A subsequent bill she signed dealing with racial profiling provoked massive demonstrations in Arizona, Washington, D.C., and many other cities across the country, involving groups both for and against the law. Practically overnight, she became the toast of her party’s conservative right wing and the archenemy of the Hispanic community and their liberal allies.

The turning point in her transformation came in June 2013, when she signed legislation expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act following her victory over conservatives in her own party who opposed embracing a key part of Obama’s health care law.

Related: States of Health--Winners & Losers in Medicaid

Brewer had joined with other Republican governors and national figures in fighting Obamacare, but agreed to add more than 300,000 poor Arizonans to the program after the Supreme Court found it was constitutional and Obama was re-elected. Then last Wednesday, she vetoed a highly controversial bill with a provision that would have given business owners a legal defense for refusing service to customers on religious grounds.

The federal government and 18 states including Arizona have so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that provide the courts with uniform standards to apply to individual cases. In part, they require the government to show a compelling justification for interfering in an individual’s or businesses exercise of religious beliefs.

The bill that Brewer vetoed addressed two ambiguities that have been the subject of litigation, according to a bipartisan group of law professors who argued that the bill had been “egregiously misrepresented by its critics” as a move to allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The lawyers wrote that the bill “would provide that people are covered by the [religious freedom] law when state or local government requires them to violate their religion in the conduct of their business, and it would provide that people are covered when sued by a private citizen invoking state or local law to demand that they violate their religion.”

Related: Obamacare Creates a Two-Tiered Medicaid System

Brewer said on Wednesday that the bill “does not address a specific or present concern related to a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona, adding that she hadn’t heard a single example of an Arizona business owner whose “religious liberty has been violated.”

Brewer criticized the bill as being too “broadly worded” and said it had “the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve.

The governor’s veto was praised by civil-rights groups, and hundreds of demonstrators who gathered outside the state capitol cheered, hugged and waved flags as they heard about the veto, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Meanwhile, conservative activists said they would continue to press for additional legal protections for private businesses that deny service to gay men and lesbians.

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