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Brewer, Pearce poised for power struggle as session nears

In his 10 years at the Capitol, Sen. Russell Pearce has been as subtle as a bulldozer.

His style is brash, confrontational and occassionally intimidating, as any Republican colleague who has opposed his agenda can attest. Pearce has dominated Arizona’s political discourse for years, and now that he has been elected Senate president, he may be able to impose his will in unprecedented ways.

Gov. Jan Brewer, on the other hand, doesn’t budge easily after she’s made up her mind, even when negotiating with members of her own party. She opened her tenure as governor by going to war with legislative Republicans over taxes, a conflict that she won after more than a year. And with the election now behind her, Brewer can push her own agenda with political impunity.

Two incongruent personalities. Two divergent political agendas. The stage is set for a showdown, and if that happens, Capitol insiders expect the 2011 legislative session to be an epic power struggle.

“I believe President-elect Russell Pearce will be the most dominating and controlling legislator that we have seen in the past 25 years,” said lobbyist Chris Herstam. “He is a true believer. His philosophy has always driven his actions at the Legislature. And he is now in a very powerful position to move his agenda.”

Already, there are signs that the once-symbiotic relationship between the governor and Arizona’s foremost immigration hawk has started to fracture.

The day after the election, Pearce said on television that Brewer owes her election to him because she went from underdog to frontrunner after signing his immigration bill, SB1070.

Brewer adviser Chuck Coughlin shot back, telling local media that the governor has a history of doing the right thing and Pearce doesn’t, and that’s why she’s governor and he never will be.

How Brewer and Pearce get along from this point forward and whether they can end the 2011 session without a serious feud will hinge largely on whether Pearce will tone down the aggressive, bullying behavior that has become his trademark.

“I think he’s stretching his wings and seeing how far he can go,” said outgoing Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Safford Republican who has been a frequent critic of Pearce. “But I think if he takes the approach that now that I’m president I can ram this down people’s throats — pick a number, 30 days, 60 days — there’s going to be a major blow-up.”

After reviewing Pearce’s legislative wish-list, it appears he is already shaking his fist at the governor.

The Senate president-elect has declared plans to orchestrate a massive power grab that would give the Legislature control of billions of dollars that historically have been distributed by the Governor’s Office.

He is calling for the massive spending cuts to public schools and state universities, despite Brewer’s past insistence on minimizing reductions to education.

And it’s not clear whether Brewer will have the stomach to stand in the way of Pearce’s proposal to deny citizenship to children who are born on U.S. soil to parents who are illegal immigrants.

As soon as he was elected Senate president, Pearce issued a statement referring to himself as the “tea party Senate president-elect,” and said the “tea party Senate” will help take back America, one state at a time.

With the state facing a $1.4 billion deficit next year, Pearce is expected to take a slash-and-burn approach to the budget, and has even suggested the state ignore a federal mandate on health care spending, which would jeopardize $7 billion in Medicaid funding the state receives each year.

“He doesn’t know where the middle is,” said Democratic Sen.-elect Steve Gallardo, who clashed frequently with Pearce when they served together in the House.

Brewer, meanwhile, took a moderate approach to the budget. She fought for a tax hike and vowed to defend funding for education and social services. And she was heavily backed during the campaign by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with others in the business community, who strongly oppose Pearce’s proposed birthright-citizenship bill.

The ideological schism showed itself in the Republican primary. Tea party conservatives backed by Pearce squared off against more moderate candidates endorsed by Brewer in some of the state’s most hotly contested legislative races.

Several pro-Pearce candidates prevailed such as Sen.-elect Lori Klein, though Brewer-backed candidates such as Sen.-elect Adam Driggs won other races as Republicans won 40 House seats and 21 Senate seats for supermajority control of both chambers.

Even though Pearce will have enough Republicans around him in the Legislature to theoretically override any veto by the governor, Brewer still holds an advantage. The Senate GOP caucus is already starting to split into conservative and moderate factions, and the governor may use those rifts to co-opt lawmakers who will be more sympathetic to her than Pearce.

“Since you don’t have those majorities walking in lockstep, that does make it easier for the governor and the governor’s folks to take advantage of that fracture,” said Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican from Lake Havasu City. “You’ve got members that are more hung up on passing their bills than angering the governor.”

Brewer also has Coughlin, a lobbyist, campaign chief and top adviser whose style is almost as brazen as Pearce’s. Coughlin wields the power of the Governor’s Office like a master, and he can twist arms as well as Pearce can. When Brewer faced stiff opposition to her sales tax plan, Coughlin organized a group to retaliate against recalcitrant lawmakers.

Coughlin has run Pearce’s legislative campaigns in the past, but is loyal to Brewer and has tremendous influence on the Ninth Floor. Gould said lawmakers were intimidated by Coughlin even before Brewer became governor.

“It seems to me you have some lawmakers who are afraid of the guy,” Gould said.

Many Republicans said they expect a cordial relationship between Brewer and Pearce, but those prognostications always come with a caveat that things will go smoothly as long as Pearce tones down his behavior.

Lobbyist Jay Heiler, a close ally of the governor, said Pearce must avoid the trap that former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others have fallen into — trying to exercise executive authority from a legislative position.

“If Russell Pearce brings forth the better angels of his nature, he will be a successful and effective Senate president.” Heiler said.

Pearce’s better angels sometimes get usurped by his tendency to lash out at those who disagree with him.

For example, a few years ago, Pearce called U.S. Sen. John McCain “a traitor” for sponsoring a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were already living in the U.S.

Later, when a handful of Republican lawmakers defeated an illegal immigration bill he ran in 2009, Pearce turned his inflammatory rhetoric and thousands of grassroots supporters against them heading into this year’s primary election. Some of those Pearce targeted lost, others won anyway.

Pearce’s hot-button issue has always been immigration, and until now he and Brewer have reaped political rewards by standing together on the national stage against illegal immigration.

Brewer and Pearce have been indelibly linked since the governor signed SB1070 in April. The popular bill vaulted Brewer from vulnerable incumbent to unchallenged frontrunner in the Republican primary. They shared the national spotlight for months after Brewer signed the bill in April, but the governor and her staff vehemently disagree with the notion that SB1070 got Brewer elected.

“Was it the beginning of her political recovery? Absolutely not. The polling numbers show otherwise,” said Brewer advisor Doug Cole, one of the top officials on her campaign.

Pearce’s next crusade against illegal immigration may not go as smoothly. So far, Brewer has avoided taking a position on birthright-citizenship legislation, saying that she still needs to examine the issue, which has been fiercely debated during the past six months.

Brewer became the national face of SB1070, but some believe birthright citizenship would be a step too far for the governor. If the bill lands on her desk, she will be under tremendous pressure to veto it. Business groups that strongly backed her candidacy and her sales tax initiative have said the measure would tarnish Arizona’s reputation, discourage tourism and frighten investors.

Former Attorney General Grant Woods, a rare Republican critic of SB1070 and a co-chair of Brewer’s campaign, said he expects the governor to stand firmly against it.

“I will expect the governor to step up on that issue. When the appropriate time is to do that, she will know,” he said. “Again, I have high hopes that she will see that as divisive and not a priority for the state at this time.”

Brewer’s position on Pearce’s proposed bill on federal dollars is far easier to guess. Numerous past governors have vetoed a similar bill — including former Gov. Jane Hull, who voted for it as a legislator — and Brewer is expected to follow suit and preserve executive authority over the money.

Pearce was unavailable for an interview, but he left several messages with the Arizona Capitol Times saying he will not be a “yes-man for the House or the governor.” Pearce also said he will “play well” with the governor and House leadership, adding that he hopes Brewer and the House will go as far as the Senate will in “righting the ship.”

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said he didn’t know if Pearce would advance the bill on federal money, and wouldn’t say whether Brewer would sign or veto it. But despite Pearce’s insistence that the bill was a priority — and Senseman’s insistence that the issue is “overdramatized” — Senseman said he didn’t think Brewer would ever see it on her desk, perhaps indicating that the governor would try to stop it in the Legislature.

“Honestly, I don’t think she’ll ever have an opportunity to see it,” Senseman said of the bill. “We won’t see that bill up here. You know why? It really doesn’t have any impact on the budget.”

Konopnicki said such a bill would be a prime opportunity for Pearce to exert his newfound authority.

“I think at some point he’s going to show people who is really in charge,” Konopnicki said.

Other lawmakers said Brewer will have to take drastic steps to limit Pearce’s influence if she wants to maintain control of the state’s political agenda.

“I would hope that the governor puts Senator Pearce in check at day one,” said Sen. Rebecca Rios, an Apache Junction Democrat. “I think it’s very important that he recognizes he’s the president of the Senate and she’s the governor, and I think it’s important for her to make that known.

“Otherwise, there’s going to be the potential for the chaos and the fighting between the two branches, and we don’t need that in Arizona.”

Sen. Linda Gray, a Brewer ally, said the governor may be hesitant to cut K-12 education deeply enough to satisfy Pearce, a budget hawk who has chaired the House and Senate Appropriations committees. Others speculated that Pearce may clash with her over deep cuts to the university system, which was partially protected for the past two years by federal guidelines that will expire in 2011.

Sen.-elect David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat, said Brewer has a history of vetoing a “Russell Pearce-style budget.”

“It would be interesting to see if there’s a repeat of that this year,” he said.

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