The Razor's Edge: Janet Napolitano

Arizona governor Janet Napolitano is on the front lines of the battle over immigration.

By Alexis Jetter
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano
Photograph: Photo by: Dan Winters

By the People
Napolitano may well be the most popular governor in Arizona history, no small feat for a Democratic woman in the scorched heartland of Barry Goldwater. And that’s despite a looming $1 billion deficit. In her last election, Napolitano carried every legislative district — the widest margin of victory ever for an Arizona governor. There are Business Leaders for Janet, Sportsmen for Janet, and People of Faith for Janet.
But Napolitano’s most reliable political base has always been women — including Republicans, who have crossed over in droves to vote for her. "Republican women support Janet because she stands for a lot of the things we think are important, like the freedom to make decisions about reproductive rights," says Roselyn O’Connell, a Republican political activist from Scottsdale. "And whether we’re Republican or Democratic, Greens or whatever, we’re women first."
Napolitano’s views are fairly centrist: She’s pro-choice and for the death penalty; in recent months she has talked about a slow pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. She champions issues that are hard to resist: improved protections against child abuse and sexual predators, pay raises for teachers, continued funding for the arts. Yet the right-leaning Arizona legislature has fought her tooth and nail. "You start off wanting to do everything through cooperation, but I’m not a potted plant," she says with a combative grin. "There was a lot of testing going on — and not just because I’m a woman and a Democrat. I was an unknown quantity."
No longer. At 149 vetoes and counting, Napolitano has deep-sixed more bills than any other governor in Arizona history. (Her favorite veto was for a bill that would have made it legal to bring a loaded gun into a bar. When opponents complained that bullets and beer don’t mix, backers amended the measure — so it would have prevented gun toters from drinking in bars. "We called it the designated shooter bill," Napolitano says jokingly.)
Yet Arizona is no longer easy to stereotype. Recent transplants from both coasts are bringing increasingly moderate views. Rather than red or blue, Arizona is turning purple, making it a swing state that’s largely up for grabs. That translates into clout for Napolitano. Rated by Time magazine as one of the nation’s top five governors, she was the first woman to lead the National Governors Association. In addition to becoming the Democratic Party’s go-to person on immigration, she is now a leading party spokeswoman on climate change and education.
Because Arizona puts a two-term limit on its governors, Napolitano will vacate her seat in two years. Already she has been mentioned as a possible presidential running mate in 2008, as the next U.S. attorney general or, most often, as a U.S. senator. In March 2007, she formed a federal political action committee for a possible 2010 Senate race for John McCain’s seat; recent polls indicated that she’d beat him by double digits.
Napolitano may be in Washington sooner than that. Just before the Nevada and Arizona primaries, after long promising to stay neutral, she threw her support to Barack Obama. A clearly gratified Obama hinted there would be room for Napolitano in his cabinet if he wins: "[She has] the kind of tone and temperament I’d like to see in my administration."

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