Was Jan Brewer a good governor for Arizona? A bad governor? A fair-to-middling governor, maybe in the league of Ernest “Stumpy” McFarland? Meaningful questions to ask as she winds down her historic two-term governorship.
One thing is certain: She leaves no small footprint. Since assuming office in the wake of Janet Napolitano’s departure for greener federal pastures in early 2009, Brewer has effected one of the most dynamic governorships in the nation. She rode SB1070 to reelection, wagged her finger in the presidential maw and batted down Arizona’s incipient anti-gay bill. It was an action-packed six years by any gubernatorial standard.
Hers is also a more nuanced, balanced governorship than many pundits initially foresaw. Having endured substantial criticism during her terms, she will leave to her successor an Arizona with a somewhat healed – if not exactly rehabilitated – profile and spirit.
So how does Brewer’s legacy compare to those of the 21 Arizona governors who preceded her? PHOENIX magazine recruited two of Arizona’s most respected historians – Dr. Jack August, a decorated legal scholar and author of numerous political biographies; and Marshall Trimble, Official Arizona State Historian – to help us put the outgoing guv in her place, so to speak.
22 governors, spanning 102 years. We rank them here, from worst to first, based on political skill, economic results, longevity and context. Who’s No. 1? Read on
22. Evan Mecham (Republican)
Years served: 1987-1988
Pros: Managed not to insult the Pope. Oh, wait... he did do that.
Cons: Became the first U.S. governor to simultaneously face an impeachment vote, a recall election and a felony indictment.
Taking advantage of a split Democratic ticket, the Mesa car dealer won election in 1986 and swiftly moved to marginalize Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Arizona; later, the John Birch conservative defended the use of the word “pickaninny” to describe black children, and remarked that a Japanese delegate’s “eyes went round” upon learning of Arizona’s many golf courses. “Through his words and actions, it was widely perceived that he was insensitive to minorities,” Trimble deadpans. August is more blunt: “He was out of his league.” All tolled: Our worst governor.
21. Rawghlie Stanford (Democrat)
Years in office: 1937-1939
Pros: Killer name.
Cons: Hated the job.
Our fifth governor was a fire-and-brimstone Spanish War veteran and lawyer who proved more capable as a gavel-swinging judge than a politician. “He wasn’t a great compromise guy,” August says of the old-school states-rights Democrat. “And he grew frustrated with the limits of the office.” Stanford served a single, two-year term during the Great Recession – decades before the Arizona legislature expanded gubernatorial terms to four years, and during an era when the Arizona governorship was “largely ceremonial,” according to Trimble. Like governors before and after him, Stanford struggled with water politics – specifically, Arizona’s participation in the Colorado River Compact, which wasn’t ratified until 1944. After leaving office, he went on to become chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
20. Dan E. Garvey (Democrat)
Years in office: 1948-1951
Pros: Signed law giving Native Americans the right to vote in Arizona.
Cons: Milquetoast one-termer.
Like Brewer, Garvey was a sitting secretary of state who moved into the top job following the early departure of his predecessor – Sidney P. Osborn, the legendary wartime governor who ratified the Colorado River Compact, which gave Arizona its rightful share of Southwestern water resources. Unfortunately, Osborn was a tough act to follow, and Garvey is remembered as one of Arizona’s least remarkable governors, despite presiding over a booming post-war economy. “He had little taste for the rough-and-tumble politics,” Trimble says
19. John C. Phillips (Republican)
Years in office: 1929-1931
Pros: Self-effacing sense of humor; helped create Arizona’s free library system.
Cons: Bad luck to govern during the Depression.
Despite a 2-to-1 Democratic edge in registered voters – people forget, Arizona was Democrat-dominated in those days – the Republican lawyer and one-time probate judge managed to eke out an Election Day victory against on-again, off-again Arizona governor George W.P. Hunt in 1928. Unfortunately, the Great Depression wasn’t far behind, and since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, blame for America’s economic ills largely fell on the Republican party. Hunt ousted Phillips in a 1930 rematch, ending the largely uneventful reign of a good-natured functionary who jokingly described himself as “the ugliest man in Arizona.”
18. Robert T. Jones (Democrat)
Years in office: 1939-1941
Pros: Coined the term “Valley of the Sun”; helped shape Arizona into a tourism destination.
Cons: Fumbled the water issue.
A pharmacist from Superior, Jones emerged from a crowded field of Democratic candidates to take the 1938 election in the waning days of the Great Depression. One of the last Southern-style states-rights Democrats to hold the top position in Arizona, Jones espoused a narrow view of water policy and held a single two-year term before Sidney P. Osborn – the architect of Arizona’s post-war boom years – bounced him from office in 1940. “We did see a significant spike in tourism [under Jones],” August allows. “In part, because of the war in Europe, and the fact that travelers on the East Coast needed somewhere else to go.”
17. Wesley Bolin (Democrat)
Years in office: 1977-1978
Pros: Gave us Bruce Babbitt; has a plaza named after him.
Cons: Never made it out of the second trimester.
A charismatic and personable lawman who served as constable of the old West Phoenix Precinct, Bolin ran for Arizona Secretary of State in 1948 and went on to serve 13 consecutive terms in that position – a still-standing longevity record for elected office in Arizona. Since the state has no lieutenant governor, Bolin was also first in line of succession should any sitting governor leave office prematurely. That scenario finally came to pass in 1977, when Raul Castro resigned to become the U.S. ambassador to Argentina. Unfortunately, Governor Bolin never got to strut his stuff. He died of a heart attack just five months after assuming office. Trimble speculates the Valley’s infamous flooding crisis of 1978 wore on his health: “Shortly before dying, he flew over the Salt River, which was just rampaging... wiping out bridges and buildings. And then he died at home. The stress must have gotten to him.” Bolin’s early demise triggered what Trimble refers to as “the crazy years.” (More on that to come.)
16. Raul Castro (Democrat)
Years in office: 1975-1977
Pros: Secured federal highway funds; mobilized Navajo vote.
Cons: Lacked the compromise gene; Kemper Marley connections; bolted early for Argentina.
Following a distinguished career in law and international diplomacy – he led the U.S. missions in both El Salvador and Bolivia in the 1960s – the University of Arizona-educated Castro returned to Arizona and won a sharply contested open-seat election for governor against Republican Russ Williams in 1974. Early on, Castro made hay as Arizona’s first Mexican-American governor, but the honeymoon didn’t last, particularly when it came to dealing with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. “He was an ex-judge, and was temperamentally ill-suited to an office in which he had to persuade and convince and cajole as opposed to issuing a statement,” says August, who co-wrote the Castro autobiography Diversity Is My Angel. Two years into his term, Arizona’s groundbreaking “immigrant governor” resigned to serve as U.S. ambassador in turbulent, post-Peronist Argentina.
15. Rose Mofford (Democrat)
Years served: 1988-1991
Pros: Likable, reassuring salve for Arizona’s Mecham hangover; first to break the office’s gender ceiling.
Cons: Probably didn’t want to be governor.
A “competent steward,” August says. Like Bolin before her, the beehived, kachina-collecting Mofford ascended to the governor’s suite from her role as Secretary of State – in her case, because of the Evan Mecham fiasco. A convivial, good-natured Democrat who worked well with Republican legislators, the Globe native – who started her career as a pool secretary at the capital – was precisely what the state needed: a steady maternal figure to comfort her constituents after the humiliating and costly birch-switch spanking Arizona suffered on the national stage. The state’s first female governor chose not to run for reelection in 1990.
14. Samuel P. Goddard (Democrat)
Years served: 1965-1967
Pros: Embraced Fair Share program for needy school districts; wrested budgetary control from legislature.
Cons: Out of step with rural Democratic power base; enmeshed in liquor department scandal.
Perhaps Arizona’s first “modern” Democratic governor, Goddard – father of former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard – was an unapologetic liberal who embraced education reform and the Civil Rights Act in the midst of social upheaval in the 1960s. He also alienated many conservatives from his own party, which left him with little legislative leverage. An expense-padding scandal within the Arizona Department of Liquor didn’t help his profile, and he was bounced after one two-year term.
13. John Howard Pyle (Republican)
Years in office: 1951-1953
Pros: Refined, gentlemanly leader; helped push Barry Goldwater into national politics.
Cons: Mishandled Arizona’s first polygamy crisis.
A popular radio personality, Pyle defeated Democratic candidate Anna Fromiller – the first woman to run for Arizona governor – in 1950, initiating what Trimble terms “the beginning of Arizona as a two-party state.” Two years later, Goldwater ran for U.S. Senate, partially at the urging of Pyle, scoring a surprise victory against Democrat Ernest McFarland. However, it would prove a short-lived governorship for Pyle, whose leadership mettle was cast in doubt after an unpopular raid on the polygamist community in Colorado City. “It was the way the arrests were handled,” Trimble says. “Seeing those kids and their mothers paraded around. It was really sad.” In 1952, Pyle was hoisted on his own petard, in a manner of speaking, losing reelection to McFarland.
12. Jane Hull (Republican)
Years in office: 1997-2003
Pros: Embraced high-tech sector and laid groundwork for TGen; lowered taxes while improving public school financing and programs.
Cons: $200 million worth of propane-fueled SUVs.
Remembered first and foremost for the alt-fuel rebate boondoggle that cost Arizona taxpayers $200 million, Hull was in fact a capable and accomplished leader, August and Trimble both contend. “She held diverse views,” Trimble says of the veteran politician, who worked as a school teacher in the Navajo Nation before embarking on a seven-term career in the state legislature. “I’d say the only real blemish was the alternative fuel issue.” Echoes August: “She made some important investments in education with Proposition 301. And she got her staff rocking and rolling to land (TGen President and Head Researcher) Jeff Trent. She really deserves credit for that.” Reelected in 1998 after serving out the final days of Fife Symington’s impeachment-shorted second term, she was also the first woman elected to Arizona’s highest office.
11. Benjamin B. Moeur (Democrat)
Years in office: 1933-1937
Pros: Fought to fund Arizona’s New Deal programs; upbeat, man-of-the-people temperament well-suited to the times.
Cons: Declared war on California.
The lone physician to serve as governor in Arizona’s 112-year history, Moeur also had quite the mouth on him. “He was supposed to have the most vivid swearing vocabulary in the state,” Trimble says. When one constituent badgered him about a previous meeting that he couldn’t recollect, Moeur – an obstetrician who delivered upwards of 30,000 Valley babies – purportedly replied, “Ma’am, if I looked up your dress, then I might recognize you.” Moeur’s most visible failing as governor was his decision to deploy Arizona National Guardsmen on antiquated steamboats to suppress construction of the Parker Dam; ultimately, the troops had to be rescued by the very same California workers they were sent to chase off. Though his political wisdom wasn’t top-notch, Moeur was an ideal Depression-era figurehead. “During the Depression, he went to the rotunda at the capital during lunch to provide medical service to the needy,” Trimble says. “I think that speaks well of his character.”
10. Jan Brewer (Republican)
Years in office: 2009-2015
Pros: Pragmatic second term; willingness to put Arizona above strict party politics.
Cons: Not the most sophisticated or composed communicator; “fingergate.”
Though August and Trimble concede the jury is still out on Brewer’s governorship, both believe her prospects for a positive legacy have improved over the past two years. “She’s departed from the hard right on certain pieces of legislation,” August notes, referring to SB1062 and Medicaid. “Upon historical reflection, I believe that will serve her well in the pantheon of Arizona governors.” At the same time, August wishes “she more vigorously followed through on jobs and the economy” during her early governorship. On her support of SB1070, Trimble notes: “It was a very popular position at the time.” Brewer’s X factor: the outcome of her efforts to fund a replacement for Arizona’s disbanded Child Protective Services department before leaving office in early 2015.
9. Thomas E. Campbell (Republican)
Years in office: 1917, 1919-1923
Pros: Upstanding, forward-thinking leader; tangible contributions to Arizona’s early-century infrastructure.
Cons: Didn’t intervene to stop the infamous Bisbee Deportation.
Arizona’s first native-born governor unseated George Hunt in a 1916 election decided by a mere 30 votes, but was forced to vacate office after serving 11 months of his term after Hunt successfully contested the election in the Arizona Supreme Court. No matter. Campbell later won two successive elections. Described as “bright and ethical” by August, the one-time Prescott postmaster labored to improve Arizona’s transportation grid of highways linking mining towns to developing cities, and helped modernize the state’s tax and revenue laws. He also laid out plans, unsuccessfully, to consolidate Arizona’s ungainly hydra of 50 agency heads into a few departments under the purview of the governor. “He was ahead of his time on that one,” Trimble says.
8. Ernest McFarland (Democrat)
Years in office: 1955-59
Pros: Shrewd maneuvering during Colorado River Compact negotiations; first person to serve as a U.S. Senator, state governor and state supreme court justice.
Cons: Limited success pushing progressive agenda on conservative Arizona lawmakers.
Famed for coauthoring the G.I. Bill as a two-term U.S. Senator, McFarland was booted from office by Barry Goldwater in the 1952 elections and turned his attention to the Arizona governorship in 1954, besting incumbent John Howard Pyle. The former prosecutor was, by August’s estimation, a “better senator than governor,” but he did make several key moves in Arizona’s ongoing water drama, including appointing attorney Dean Willmer in a lawsuit to prevent California from reneging on the Colorado River Compact.
7. Jack Williams (Republican)
Years in office: 1967-1975
Pros: Arizona’s first four-year-term governor; expanded power and influence of the office; presided over unprecedented economic growth; keyed up Central Arizona Project.
Cons: Union-busting farm labor bill resulted in recall effort.
A basso-voiced KOY radio broadcaster who wore a trademark frosted lens to conceal an empty eye socket ruined by a childhood bout with cancer, Williams “was basically a team player who believed in appointing good men to top posts and letting them do their job,” according to Trimble. It’s hard to argue with the results. Encouraged to run for office by Goldwater and predecessor Paul Fannin, the former Phoenix mayor saw statewide employment rise almost 50 percent during his eight-year governorship. Meanwhile, he gave our “19th-century buggy government a major overhaul,” realizing Thomas Campbell’s plan for direct appointment over agency heads, Trimble notes. He also collaborated on the Valley-sustaining Central Arizona Project. “We’re Tucson without CAP,” August says. “He gave us an economic future.”
6. Janet Napolitano (Democrat)
Years in office: 2003-2009
Pros: Exemplary national profile and political instincts; pushed full-day kindergarten through Republican legislature; had good fortune to preside during boom economy.
Cons: Blew through $1.5 billion budget surplus; left Arizona to lead Team America.
After narrowly defeating Mesa lawmaker Matt Salmon in the 2002 election, the former Arizona Attorney General went to work impressing the pants off national pundits, being named one of TIME magazine’s top five governors in 2005, and becoming the first woman to serve as the chair of the National Governors Association. Though known mostly for swatting down Republican legislation – she issued a record 180 vetoes over six years – Napolitano also knew how to play ball when put to the test. Her great weakness: “She and [lawmakers] were spending like drunken sailors,” says Trimble. She left for Washington just as the bill came due.
5. Fife Symington (Republican)
Years in office: 1991-1997
Pros: CEO-style efficiency and professionalism; created budget surplus and kept taxes low; UFO watchdog.
Cons: Convicted of seven counts of bank fraud. (And pardoned.)
Arizona’s 19th governor is going through his Nixon-in-the-’80s phase; people are starting to look past the misdeeds that toppled his administration to the good works that preceded them. “I consider him one of the best latter-day governors,” Trimble says. “He introduced a lot of efficiencies into government. But obviously the scandal overwhelmed that.” August thinks Bill Clinton is a better analog for Symington, a Harvard man who majored in Dutch art and made a bundle developing the Esplanade and other Valley addresses. “Both had special prosecutors, neither was found guilty of anything. I’d put Clinton in the top third of presidents, and Fife in the top third of governors.” Full disclosure: August is collaborating with Symington on his autobiography, and Trimble was named Official Arizona Historian by the ex-guv.
4. George W.P. Hunt (Democrat)
Years in office: 1912-1917; 1917-1919; 1923-1929; 1931-1933
Pros: Arizona’s most electable governor, serving seven terms; got the ball rolling on the Colorado River issue; espoused women’s suffrage, income tax and universal public schooling.
Cons: Maybe liked the job too much.
Known as the “Old Walrus,” Arizona’s founding governor was 5 feet 9 inches, 300 pounds of pure politician. “He’d keep note-cards with details about people he met on the campaign trail,” August says. “And then the next time around, he’d use the cards as reference and know all these facts about voters and donors he only met briefly years ago. People loved that.” A tireless champion of Arizona’s water interests, the Holbrook progressive invariably made Colorado River water rights his main platform issue through seven successful campaigns, jokingly telling friends that his epitaph would be “Jesus walked on water, Hunt ran on the river.” According to Trimble, his biggest misstep as governor happened before he assumed office, allowing unfriendly factions in Arizona’s statehood caucus to drastically limit the governor’s powers. Passing away less than a year after his last term ended, Hunt is buried in a pyramid on a hill in Papago Park.
3. Paul Fannin (Republican)
Years in office: 1959-1965
Pros: Skillfully managed Arizona’s economic transition from copper and agriculture to manufacture and industry; launched Arizona’s community college system; worked both sides of the aisle.
Cons: Struggled at times with constitutional limits of the office.
The first in a line of effective, modernization-minded Republican administrators, Fannin won three terms on the strength of his economic vision and competence. The former energy executive created Arizona’s community college system, shepherded the state’s transition to a 20th-century economy and worked well with a legislature that was still Democrat-majority. “That was one of the few times you really saw Democrats and Republicans working together smoothly for the good of Arizona,” Trimble opines. The terms of the landmark Colorado River Compact were finalized on Fannin’s watch. Both August and Trimble put the Stanford grad in their Top 5.
2. Bruce Babbitt (Democrat)
Years in office: 1978-1987
Pros: Arguably Arizona’s smartest governor; authored Arizona’s Underground Water Act, setting the template for water management across the country; still the only AZ governor to complete two full, four-year terms.
Cons: Loved the veto.
Babbitt held the office of attorney general when Wesley Bolin’s passing in 1978 propelled him into the governor’s office; since the sitting secretary of state, Rose Mofford, was appointed and not elected, she was ineligible to succeed Bolin. A closet technocrat with a rare grasp of resource management, Babbitt was a natural executive, leaving the state with “a much stronger governor’s office than the one he inherited,” according to Trimble. He was also a favorite of August: “The ability to harmonize competing sectors, and the complex political dance required, was really a remarkable accomplishment... [in addition to] the Groundwater Act of 1980 and the brave new water world it created in Arizona.” Babbitt maxed out his gubernatorial dance card before an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988 (in retrospect, he could hardly have done worse than Dukakis), later serving as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior.
1. Sidney P. Osborn (Democrat)
Years in office: 1941-1948
Pros: Skilled communicator and manager who maximized his mandate; ratified the Colorado River Compact; created a retirement system for state employees; reformed groundwater policy to stop over-pumping.
Cons: Evidently a bit of a hard-ass on his underlings.
Both August and Trimble ranked the wartime governor among the two best Arizonans to ever hold the office. Despite governing during the office’s “ceremonial” era, the lifelong public servant wielded virtual hegemony over the state legislature and did so sagely. He ratified the long-languishing Colorado River Compact, figuring “that if we didn’t jump on the train, it would leave us,” according to Trimble – securing the millions of acre-feet that would irrigate Arizona’s future. He served four terms, the last of which saw his body ravaged by Lou Gehrig’s disease, “reduced to putting a pencil in his mouth to tap out instructions,” Trimble says. Due to his accomplishments and the high comparative degree of difficulty of governing before the modern era, Osborn gets our vote.
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