A top Senate Republican staffer says Gov. Jan Brewer broke a commitment that she would call lawmakers back to the Capitol for another special session so they could ask voters to end the Independent Redistricting Commission and put redistricting back in the hands of the Legislature.
Senate Majority Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo said Brewer made the commitment on Oct. 31, the day before the governor called a special session to remove Colleen Mathis as chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in order to secure the 20 Senate votes needed for her removal.
Now, Baldo said, the governor’s aides are telling legislative leaders that Brewer wants to see the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion on its reinstatement of Mathis before moving forward with another special session.
Several Republican senators backed Baldo’s version, but the Governor’s Office and the top House Republican say that’s not what happened.
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson “flatly” denied the accusation.
“The governor pledged to keep an open mind about the potential of a special session on Proposition 106 (the ballot measure that created the IRC), but at no time did she commit to carrying out a repeal,” Benson said.
And House Speaker Andy Tobin, one of the meeting’s participants, said the governor said she would consider asking lawmakers to call a special election for a repeal, but never pledged she would do so in exchange for the Senate supporting her removal of Mathis.
“The governor did not commit to a (ballot measure). She was open to it, but she did not commit,” Tobin said.
Baldo told Arizona Capitol Times Brewer made the commitment during a conference call with GOP legislative leaders and their aides. She said then-Senate President Russell Pearce told Brewer – who was in New York promoting her book at the time – that he had 18 votes in the Senate to call a special election to repeal Prop. 106, the 2000 ballot referral that created the IRC.
Pearce reportedly told the governor that some Republican senators didn’t want to remove Mathis – Brewer needed 20 of 21 Republican votes for a removal – without also putting Prop. 106 back to the ballot. He then said he needed Brewer’s word that she would call them back into special session for the referral either the week of Thanksgiving or the week after, Baldo said.
“She said, ‘I’d be inclined to do that, even if you don’t have the votes,’” she said. “He said, ‘Good, governor, that will help.’”
The pledge was less than ironclad, but Baldo said everyone in the room, including herself, interpreted it as a commitment. Pearce conveyed that pledge to his members, she said, who voted unanimously the next day to remove Mathis.
“We took it as her word,” Baldo said.
However, Tobin disagreed and said he never took Brewer’s statement as a promise that she would call another special session.
“She was keeping the doors open, as are we,” he said.
Brewer’s chief of staff, Eileen Klein, and the governor’s general counsel, Joe Sciarrotta, were in the room, as were Baldo and Senate majority counsel Greg Jernigan, Baldo said.
Klein and Pearce did not return messages seeking comment.
Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said he wouldn’t have voted for Mathis’ removal without a commitment from Brewer to reconvene the Legislature to put Prop. 106 back on the ballot, and added that he believes one or two other senators might have withheld their support as well. During the lead-up to the Nov. 1 special session that resulted in Mathis’ ouster, Antenori was agitating for a ballot referral, saying it was too late to remove Mathis.
“I was promised by leadership at the time and several other folks that were in the room when the governor made the commitment that she was going to do it,” Antenori said. “The way it was construed to me by Russell was that he told her he doesn’t have the votes unless she does the special session.”
Sen. Michele Reagan said Pearce told the caucus that Brewer had made a commitment on a special session for the Prop. 106 repeal, and that she believes that was the deciding factor in convincing a couple of senators to remove the chairwoman.
“There were a couple folks (for whom) that (pledge) was part of what they needed to see happen before they could commit,” said Reagan, R-Scottsdale. “It was common knowledge that that was the deal that was made.”
Sen. Sylvia Allen said Pearce told her that Brewer had pledged to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol for the repeal, and she was upset that the governor did not appear to be following through on it. “That’s what we were told, that she had made that commitment,” said Allen, R-Snowflake.
Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, also said Pearce told her that he had a commitment from the governor, though she said she understood why Brewer hadn’t yet called a special session. “Nobody wants to pull the trigger until we know what we’re doing and what we can do to remedy this problem,” Klein said.
Others, however, said they hadn’t heard anything about a commitment from Brewer. Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said she doesn’t recall Pearce saying anything about it.
Incoming Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, also said he couldn’t “verify or deny” whether Pearce had told him or other members of the caucus about a pledge from the governor.
“It seems like it, but I don’t remember. Russell had met with them and had been talking with them and I wasn’t privy to any of that,” said Pierce, who was elected Senate president the following week after Pearce lost his Nov. 8 recall election.
There are still 18 votes in the Senate to set a special election on Prop. 106 for Feb. 28, the day of Arizona’s presidential preference election, Antenori said, and he believes there are at least 31 votes in the House. The measure would only need a simple majority.
The timing of the special election would ensure that far more Republicans go to the polls than Democrats – President Obama is not facing a Democratic challenger – which would likely boost the prospects of a ballot referral that even many Republicans believe voters would be hostile to.
Antenori said the governor now appears to be intentionally stalling so the Legislature will miss the Nov. 30 deadline it must meet to hold a special election on Feb. 28. Antenori said there is an “inherent desire” by Brewer to not refer Prop. 106 to the ballot.
“I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but it seems like now there’s an attempt to wiggle out of that,” he said. “I’m still holding out hope that she’ll fulfill the commitment and have (a special session) maybe next week. There’s still plenty of time to do it. We could come in on Monday and get it out of there by the end of the day on Nov. 30.”
Benson said the lawmakers who are complaining about Brewer not yet calling them back to the Capitol for a Prop. 106 referral are unprepared for a special session. He compared it to some GOP legislators’ criticism of Brewer for allegedly not doing her “due diligence” before calling them into a special session in June to extend unemployment benefits.
“Where’s their language? Do they have a resolution? They’ve been all over the board in terms of whether they want to pursue a repeal or reforms. Do they have the votes? Talk about ready, fire, aim. I don’t see how they have all their ducks in a row if they want the governor to call them into special session,” he said.
If Brewer is hesitating on referring Prop. 106 to the ballot, recent polling could indicate why. Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based firm with Democratic ties, released poll results on Nov. 22 showing that only 31 percent of respondents approved of her removal of Mathis, while 43 percent opposed it.
And a poll commissioned by GOP legislative leaders last week showed just 36 percent of respondents supported overturning Prop. 106, according to a source familiar with the poll who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
While repealing the Independent Redistricting Commission wasn’t popular among voters, Tobin said the poll he and other Republican leaders commissioned showed there is an appetite for making significant reforms to the system, including increasing the number of independents on the panel and bolstering rural representation.
“There are many of us who believe that repeal may be a high hurdle, but the opportunity for reform actually polled well,” he said.
Baldo said Klein told Pierce and House and Senate GOP staff this week that the governor wants to wait to call a special session to once again remove Mathis – and to set a special election – until she finds out why the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the chairwoman’s Nov. 1 ouster. Brewer and the Senate filed motions with the court on Nov. 21 asking the court for details on the ruling. If that request is denied, the court is not expected to issue its full opinion for six to eight weeks.
“I think they’re all very disappointed,” Baldo said of Senate Republicans.
Benson would not say definitively whether Brewer would wait for guidance from the court before calling a special session or attempting to remove Mathis again, but said getting that explanation was her “first priority.”
“Once we receive that guidance, then the governor can make an informed decision about what path to pursue,” he said.
Jim Small contributed to this story.