Napolitano Thrives in GOP Stronghold

 

CHARLESTON, S.C. - In the final months of her first term, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is in an enviable political position, one few would have predicted after her razor-thin 2002 victory and ongoing battles with a Republican-led Legislature.

She is holding a double-digit lead in polls over a field of GOP challengers as she seeks re-election in the home state of Republican icon Barry Goldwater. Her successes include funding statewide full-day kindergarten and boosting teacher pay while holding the line on taxes.

In addition, she has gained national recognition as she steps up Monday (Aug. 7) to become the first chairwoman in the 98-year history of the National Governors Association (NGA), a bipartisan policy and research organization serving the elected executives of all 50 states and four U.S. territories. As NGA chairwoman, Napolitano will launch a hand-picked initiative to increase the nation's economic competitiveness by promoting innovation and creativity in mathematics and science education.


Photo courtesy of Janet Napolitano 2006
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is the first woman to chair the National Governors Association.

Political experts say Napolitano is savvy and appeals to moderates of both parties with her practical approach to controversial topics such as illegal immigration, in which Arizona is epicenter of the national debate over how to control illegal border crossings. Republicans concede Napolitano is a formidable foe, but charge that her political maneuvering and record number of vetoes have frustrated the legislative process.

Supporters say her success is due to a keen intellect, hard work and an ability to connect with voters on everything from complex policies to the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team to 19th century Italian opera.

"The key to understanding who [Napolitano] is takes place outside the office environment," said Barry Dill, a political consultant who has run two campaigns for her. "If we could get a five-minute audience with every voter in the state, she would win 85 percent of them," he said.

While Napolitano's hobbies run the gamut from music to mountain climbing — she has scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — her professional background is as an attorney. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Santa Clara University and a law degree from the University of Virginia and served as a law clerk to a federal appeals court judge. Afterward, she joined a Phoenix law firm, where she was one of the team of attorneys representing Anita Hill, who leveled charges of sexual harassment against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearings.

While practicing law in Phoenix, she also built political connections in the state Democratic Party and attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D), who recommended her to be U.S. attorney for Arizona in 1994. She served in that position until the state's attorney general seat was open in 1998.

"I had kind of done what you can do as a U.S. attorney, and I was 39, and I said, you know what, if I don't run now, I never will," Napolitano told Stateline.org at the NGA's annual meeting, held this year in South Carolina.

While her actions as Arizona's attorney general garnered positive press, including a $217 million settlement with the accounting firm Arthur Anderson, Napolitano won her 2002 gubernatorial bid by only 11,819 votes — less than 1 percent of the 1.2 million ballots cast — in a three-way race against former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon (R) and an independent candidate.

After a three-year effort, Napolitano's centerpiece achievement during her first term is $160 million budgeted for voluntary, all-day kindergarten statewide and another $100 million to boost teacher pay.

In order to win that amount, Napolitano gave conservative lawmakers a $10 million tax-credit program for companies that provide scholarships to private school students and a $370 million cut in income and property taxes for the fiscal year that began in July.

"The governor has been willing to compromise and work out agreements, but [she] is a tough negotiator," said David R. Berman, professor emeritus of political science at Arizona State University.

But Napolitano's battles with the Republican-controlled Legislature have dominated the headlines. Her record-setting 127 vetoes over four years made national news, surpassing the previous record of 115 set by Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt between 1978 and 1987.

This year, among other vetoes, Napolitano nixed five bills aimed at restricting abortions and the sale of human eggs for fertility treatments, as well as a package of eight bills designed to crack down on illegal immigration.

"There is no constructive dialogue" between the Legislature and the governor's office, said state House Majority Leader Steve Tully (R) , who is stepping down after six years in office. Napolitano has used the veto to "thumb her nose" at lawmakers and often changes her positions to fit public opinion, he said.

Tully criticized Napolitano's stance on illegal immigration as one example of what he calls her inconsistency on issues. Napolitano dismissed legislators' calls to have National Guard troops help seal the border between Arizona and Mexico. Arizona is the biggest illegal gateway for immigrants in the Southwest, accounting for two-thirds of all border arrests last year. But she eventually changed her position and called on President Bush to federalize troops for that mission.

The governor also caught flack from conservatives last year when she opposed a successful ballot initiative to deny social services to illegal aliens, require citizens to prove their citizenship when registering to vote and present photo identification to vote.

Napolitano, who along with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) declared a state of emergency over illegal immigration in 2005, said she rejected the Legislature's mandate to send the National Guard to the border because state taxpayers would have footed the bill. In May, the president ordered the deployment of more than 6,000 Guard troops to assist federal agents in the four states that border Mexico.

On the ballot measure to sanction illegal immigrants, Napolitano said: "It was broadcast as it was going to stop illegal immigration, and I just thought it was a false promise. It has not, in fact, stopped illegal immigration."

Doug Cole, a Republican lobbyist and previously an aide to former GOP Gov. Fife Symington, said Napolitano has had to be a cautious politician who picks safe battles in order to keep Democratic and moderate Republican voters on her side.

So far, her clashes with conservatives in the state have not damaged her political popularity. A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports said 52 percent of respondents would vote for Napolitano, compared to 37 percent for her nearest Republican challenger, Don Goldwater — nephew of the late U.S. senator and 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, one of the architects of the modern conservative movement.

The Sept. 12 primary will determine which of four Republicans hopefuls gets to compete against Napolitano in November.

While Republicans complain about her insistence on having everything her way, Arizonians appear to approve of her determination and toughness, said political scientist Berman. "Some data suggest that voters are closer to the governor on many issues than they are to the Republican conservatives who control the Legislature," he said.

Over the next year, Napolitano will try to recreate some of her successes at the national level, by promoting policies to improve science and mathematics education and spur new technological innovations. She said her effort builds on the 2004 initiative of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) who took on the issue of reforming high school education when he was chairman of the NGA.

"If we don't maintain our spot as the No. 1 country for innovation, we will lose our ability to sustain a high-quality economy. There really needs to be a sense of urgency about this because we're fast losing our position," Napolitano said.

 
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