Gov. Jan Brewer used her first State of the State speech to flash her conservative credentials and head off political opponents who have attempted to outflank her from the right.
Although Brewer’s most blatant criticisms were directed at Attorney General Terry Goddard, who is expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor, her speech on Jan. 11 was a broad-based shot at Republicans who are expected to challenge her in the upcoming primary election.
There were few direct insults – one at Goddard and another at former Gov. Janet Napolitano. But the subtext of her speech was intended to reposition her as a forceful leader who has more political experience and a clearer understanding of the state’s fiscal problems than her Republican opponents.
At several points during the 36-minute speech, Brewer brought up issues close to the hearts of conservatives. She lambasted the federal government, took a strong stand against illegal immigration and decried the years of spending increases that preceded her tenure as governor. She also touted school choice, the privatization of government services and the fact she has overseen more spending reductions than any other Arizona governor.
“Not surprisingly, Governor Brewer’s State of the State speech was the launch of her Republican primary campaign,” said lobbyist Chris Herstam, a former Republican lawmaker and one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Fife Symington. “She appealed to right-wing voters that will dominate the GOP primary turnout by attacking Washington, D.C., mentioning the Goldwater Institute and (Sen.) Russell Pearce, taking credit for massive cuts in state government, and linking herself to the illegal immigration issue.”
Just as notable as the issues Brewer talked about were the issues she avoided referencing directly – mainly, taxes.
Brewer’s first six months in office were spent stumping for a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase. She brought it up in speech after speech, almost routinely. But she avoided altogether the word “taxes” in her State of the State.
“She downplayed the tax increase proposal and just referenced that we need new revenues, and then highlighted some of the other points of her five-point plan that still remain that I think a lot of conservatives like,” said Steve Voeller, president of the conservative Free Enterprise Club.
To the host of Republican challengers vying for her job, the speech was a message to stop attacking her with rhetoric and start coming up with real solutions to the state’s budget shortfall.
Brewer’s message extended beyond the campaign trail as well, as the governor challenged lawmakers to make the sacrifices that are needed, even if they are politically unpopular.
In urging the Legislature to adopt the budget plan she has spent the past 10 months pushing, Brewer’s message to lawmakers was similar to the one she sent to the handful of would-be governors contending for the GOP nomination: If you have a better plan, then produce it. “And soon,” she said.
“Spare us the profiles in courage. It’s time for a little less profile and a little more courage,” Brewer said.
Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said he thought Brewer’s message was aimed largely at voters, and the points she made about the lack of alternatives to her budget plan will resonate.
“You’re not going to be able to get away with an entire campaign of just saying, ‘Gee, I wouldn’t do it that way,’” Querard said. “(Brewer’s opponents) want to feed off the dissatisfaction without giving people a reason to be dissatisfied with them. But that really can’t go on forever.”
Opponents have criticized Brewer as a weak leader, and the 10 months she spent trying to get her budget passed have done little to shake that perception. But she continues to stand by her agenda, despite some unpopular elements.
“She’s trying to be forceful. She’s trying to be authoritative. And all that is going to help her, both in the legislative session, as well as the upcoming election,” said Fred Solop, director of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Political Science.
While much of Brewer’s speech was aimed at setting her apart from her Republican challengers, she saved her most overt criticism for Democrats.
Perhaps the strongest statement during her speech was a reference to what’s wrong with Arizona: excessive government spending. She blamed Napolitano, although she avoided a direct reference.
“Wrong is the five high-rolling years before I took office when the system was designed and operated to grow government as large as possible,” she said. “Wrong is a state budget deficit of $5 billion across two fiscal years.”
She also said it is wrong to argue that “the system worked,” despite evidence to the contrary – a clear shot at Napolitano, who has been pilloried in the past several weeks for making a similar comment after a terrorist nearly blew up an airliner approaching Detroit.
A few minutes later, Brewer swiped at Goddard over his refusal to join a lawsuit by 14 state attorneys general over the health care bill passed by the U.S. Senate.
She also criticized Goddard over a long-running federal court case that requires Arizona to provide adequate bilingual education. Brewer said she, the Legislature and state schools Superintendant Tom Horne have represented the state against the Attorney General’s Office in the case, though it was filed before Goddard was elected attorney general.
“Today, if our attorney general will not join this effort to defend the state of Arizona against this infringement on states’ rights, I will,” Brewer said.
Goddard, who sat in front of the governor with the other statewide elected officials during the speech, smiled slightly as Brewer spoke about him.
By aiming at Goddard, Brewer sent signals that she is confident about winning the GOP primary and is ready for a showdown in the general election.
“That works well for her because we’re going to want to pick a candidate who is willing to run against Goddard. Goddard will certainly be running against us,” Querard said. “I hope she does it more.”