PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer fought President Barack Obama on immigration and border security for most of her tenure, earning national prominence by enacting tough laws that were mainly struck down by the courts and famously wagging her finger in the president's face during a meeting on an airport tarmac.
But the Republican governor leaves a more nuanced legacy after nearly six years in office, one that saw her inherit a massive deficit at the height of the Great Recession, patch it up and push for economic recovery only to see Arizona sink back into a deficit as she prepares to step down Jan. 5.
Brewer bucked her party's right wing by pushing for a temporary sales-tax increase to shore up the state's finances and embracing a key part of Obama's health care overhaul law, Medicaid expansion. Both angered conservatives.
Still the 70-year-old governor is unapologetic, saying she's immensely proud of her accomplishments, even if Arizona's fiscal ship isn't still righted. Coming into office in 2009 when Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration, Brewer faced a $3 billion revenue deficit on about $9 billion in spending. She cut $1 billion in spending, borrowed $1 billion and successfully asked voters to pass the $1 billion a year sales-tax hike.
That and federal stimulus money got Arizona through the recession, and she used the extra cash to cut corporate taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars, hoping to spur economic development. But the rebound she calls the "Arizona comeback" has stalled, and she's leaving incoming Republican Gov. Doug Ducey with a projected $1.5 billion gap in the next 18 months, although she says those numbers are inflated.
"Today I can say that we're in the midst of the Arizona comeback and I'm proud of that, along with all the other things we were able to implement during the worst times in our history," Brewer said in an interview with The Associated Press. "You can have a comeback, it's just a little slower that what you had hoped and what you had projected. But it's going in the right direction."
She leaves office after more than 30 years of public service. Brewer became active in politics after attending a school board meeting and being urged by her husband to run for the state Legislature if she wanted to make real changes. She was elected to the state House of Representatives, the Maricopa Board of Supervisors and secretary of state before becoming governor.
Brewer pushed back against suggestions that some of her policy decisions — especially the 2010 immigration crackdown bill known as SB1070 — have hurt Arizona's national reputation and kept businesses from moving here. She also said this year's veto of a religious rights bill denounced by gay rights supporters was the right decision.
Some economists have pointed to the two bills as reasons for the lag in Arizona's rebound.
"I will categorically argue with them on that. I believe that I had a plan, I delivered on every project, every policy issue that I fought for. And it was for the state of Arizona, because I love it and we got the job done. And I'm proud of that, and I don't feel as though I've got to defend myself to anybody in regards to that," she said. "And by the way 1070, nationally, polled really, really, really high, and so did (the veto of) Senate Bill 1062, very, very high. So the public is behind me."
The budget deficit that Ducey will inherit is a bone of contention for Democrats, who argue Brewer set the stage for the situation with corporate giveaways at the expense of schools and public safety.
"She's leaving the state in the exact same shape she took it over, so her whole rhetoric about the great Arizona comeback ... is that much rhetoric," said Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat. "There are multiple indicators that show that Arizona is in a very, very bad position and it's only probably going to get worse in the next couple of years, and it's all because of Jan Brewer's policies."
Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, praised Brewer for her fiscal leadership, while chafing at strong-arm tactics she sometimes used to get her way with the Legislature's conservatives.
"I think she stepped into a really challenging situation, and I think in many instances she was unafraid to make very difficult decisions," Biggs said. "I may not have always agreed, but I understood she was trying to do what she believed was in the best interest of the state."
During the 2013 battle over Medicaid expansion, Biggs was nearly overthrown by a coalition of Democrats and a handful of Republican Brewer supporters. That still upsets him.
"She had the votes, I knew she had the votes and she knew she had the votes, and you know the idea that she would come in and try to mess with the leadership of the legislative bodies was the part that was fundamentally in my opinion, that was simply wrong to do," Biggs said.
Brewer said she'll consider serving on national boards, and has been asked to write a book to follow up her 2011 effort, "Scorpions for Breakfast."
"I'm not going to sit idly by," Brewer said. "I'll work in my garden, I'll be paying attention, and I'll be participating certainly in Arizona as a voter and a citizen."
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