Cabinet Watch: Janet Napolitano

Created: November 14, 2008 13:17 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Gov. Janet Napolitano (Arizona Governor's Office) Gov. Janet Napolitano (Arizona Governor's Office)

PHOENIX — In late February 2007, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama asked for a private meeting with Arizona Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, it was the ambitious, smart and politically savvy Napolitano who was making political history. She was the nation’s first woman chair of the National Governors Assn.

Three months before announcing his improbable candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in May 2007, Obama and Napolitano held a long discussion on a wide range of policy issues during a break at the governors’ winter meeting in Washington. “From that point forward,” Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said, “she began thinking about him as a viable presidential candidate.”

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Over the next 21 months, the two developed a close relationship. Napolitano, 50, became an early supporter of Obama, endorsing him some weeks before Arizona’s Feb. 5 primary, one of those held on Super Tuesday. The endorsement reportedly upset Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), then the party front-runner. She went on to win the state’s primary, 50 percent to 42 percent.

Napolitano continued to support and campaign for Obama and is said to have acquitted herself well on the hustings. Now, she has been named to the 11-member transition advisory committee assisting the president-elect in the selection of hundreds of high-level officials — the only elected official on the panel.

The Arizona governor is even being mentioned as a possible member of the Obama administration. Napolitano, a graduate of the University of Virginia law school, is a leading candidate to be the next U.S. attorney general, or, barring that, head of Homeland Security. With two years remaining on her second gubernatorial term, she refuses to discuss the possibility of joining the new administration — but she hasn’t taken herself out of the running either.

“Janet is an exceptionally talented person, both intellectually and politically, so it is not a surprise to me that the president-elect would have to seriously consider her for membership on his team,” said Don Bevins, the Arizona Democratic Party chairman.

In an interview last summer with the American Prospect, a liberal magazine, Napolitano expressed an interest in serving as attorney general, citing her experience as Arizona’s former attorney general and U.S. attorney. State Republican and Democratic political observers agree she’s highly qualified to run the Justice Dept. and restore it’s tattered reputation under former Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. In November 2005, Time magazine named her one of the five best governors in the country.

Napolitano made her mark in a state controlled by a conservative Republican legislature. Using common sense and relying on the veto pen — she has rejected more than 125 bills — the Arizona governor signed budgets that increased spending on education.

Her pragmatic approach to illegal immigration scored her political points nationally. She called for the deployment of the Arizona National Guard on the border with Mexico to stem the flow of illegal immigrants four months before President George W. Bush announced a similar plan. She supports comprehensive immigration reform along the lines pushed by Sen. John McCain before the presidential campaign.

“She would be a great attorney general,” said Paul Charlton, a Republican former U.S. attorney for Arizona, who was one of the eight U.S. attorneys fired by Gonzales in November 2006 for political reasons. “It would be a great opportunity for somebody like Janet to go in and rewrite the ethic that these people practice under.”

“Is she qualified to be the attorney general of the United States? I certainly believe so,” said Barry Dill, an Arizona Democratic political consultant and former staffer for former Sen. Dennis DeConcini. “But is it a job she wants to do?”

Dill said Napolitano has many options to consider — including preparing for a 2010 run for Senate seat now held by McCain.

Chuck Coughlin, a GOP political consultant, believes Napolitano would jump at the opportunity to join the Obama administration, especially at a time when Arizona is facing severe budget shortfalls.

Napolitano’s appointment to Obama’s transition team is political plum in its own right. The advisory committee includes eight former Clinton administration officials, including two Cabinet members: Federico Pena, who served as secretary of transportation and then secretary of energy, and William Daley, who served as commerce secretary. Others with ties to Clinton include the former EPA administrator, Carol Brower, and a former deputy chief of staff, Christopher Edley.

But Napolitano’s rising national political star is a mixed blessing for Bevins and other Arizona Democrats. If she goes to Washington, the Republican secretary of state, Jan Brewer, would become governor and preside over a GOP-controlled state Legislature looking to slash spending to erase a mounting $1.3 billion deficit.

“A lot of programs put in place by Napolitano would be in jeopardy with a new Republican governor,” said Jim Pederson, a former state Democratic Party chairman. “Instead of a scalpel, you would see a meat ax hit the state budget in Arizona.”

Napolitano’s political career was launched when Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. attorney for Arizona in 1993. Before then, she had attracted national attention during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. She was one of two attorneys representing Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Napolitano’s nomination as U.S. attorney was held up for almost a year because Republicans were so angry over her representation of Hill.

As U.S. attorney, Napolitano played a prominent role in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. She oversaw the case against Michael Fortier of Kingman, Ariz., who pleaded guilty to knowing about the plot by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to bomb a federal building. He later testified against the two. Napolitano also served as chairman of the U.S. attorney’s advisory committee to then Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Charlton, an assistant U.S. attorney when Napolitano ran the U.S. attorney’s office in 1990s, said that she displayed “good leadership qualities” and that her experience would be invaluable if chosen U.S. attorney general. “There would not be any learning curve,” Charlton said. “She knows the prosecutors’ job is to do what’s right, and not what’s politic.”

Napolitano’s record is not without blemishes. She was criticized for signing a consent agreement with politically powerful Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on her last day as U.S. attorney, thereby ending a federal investigation of allegedly inhumane jail conditions in county jails.

Napolitano was elected Arizona attorney general in 1998. Her tenure was marked by efforts to protect children, women, senior citizens and the environment. When she left office, Napolitano had reduced the backlog on child dependency cases from more than 6,000 to 1,200. She initiated prosecution of the Arizona Baptist Foundation in one of the nation’s biggest fraud cases. She was the first Arizonan to argue a death-penalty case in the World Court and appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court on a different death penalty case.

Her strong performance as a prosecutor positioned Napolitano to run for governor in 2002, a race she won by about 21,000 votes — less than 1 percent of the vote. But once in office, her political skills and strong support for education has made her one of Arizona’s most popular governors in decades.

“After winning the governor’s race by a slim margin, she won every county in the state in her next election,” Bevins said.

Jose Cardenas, a Phoenix attorney, has known Napolitano since 1983, when she joined his law firm, Lewis & Rocca. “She was one of the brightest, smartest people you would ever meet,” he said. “She was superstar in our firm as a young lawyer.”

“She knows the importance of integrity in a law firm,” he said. “I think she could restore the reputation of the Justice Dept.”