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

The Click Moment
Napolitano wasn’t always a political animal or even a particularly outspoken one. Raised (mostly) in Albuquerque, where her father was dean of the University of New Mexico medical school and her mother stayed home with the kids, Napolitano jokes that her childhood resembled the television show The Wonder Years. "I even had that bicycle with the banana seat," she says. She attended college in Santa Clara, California, and law school at the University of Virginia, before moving to Phoenix in 1983. "I had a Honda hatchback," she says. "Everything I owned fit inside, and my bicycle was on the back." She clerked for a federal judge, then worked as a commercial lawyer for a well-heeled firm.
And so she might have remained, if not for Anita Hill’s electrifying accusation, broadcast on national television in 1991, that she’d been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It happened that Napolitano’s charismatic mentor at her Phoenix law firm, John Frank, was an expert on derailing Supreme Court confirmations. When Hill’s allies asked Frank for help, Napolitano agreed to join the legal team. "I thought it was amazing that a complete stranger would come forward and show that kind of commitment," Hill recalls. "There were some pretty powerful lawyers in Washington, D.C., who would not touch it. But Janet was absolutely courageous, and she put her career on the line to get involved."
At the hearings, sitting under the hot lights of the television cameras and watching the older, white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee display its tone-deaf obliviousness to sexual harassment, Napolitano, then 33, had an epiphany. "I sat in that committee room, and I looked up at that panel, and I thought, this is crazy," she says. "That was a life-changing moment. I said to myself, you know what? At some point, you might want to get in the game yourself."
The following year, 1992 — the Year of the Woman — Napolitano threw herself into Democratic party politics in Arizona. By 1993, she’d made enough of a name for herself in legal and political circles that President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. attorney for Arizona; at 35, she was one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the country. In 1998, she decided to run for state attorney general. "I was getting ready to turn 40," Napolitano recalls. "And I thought, do I want to do this another four years or try something else? I didn’t want to be 80 and look back and think, I would’ve, should’ve, could’ve run for office."
Napolitano won that election handily and was continuing at her breakneck pace — white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon, trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro and following Wagner’s Ring cycle to Italy — when a mammogram stopped her in her tracks. At 42, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "They did a lot of biopsies, and they were all positive," she says. "I didn’t have many options. I had a mastectomy." Napolitano rarely talks publicly about her ordeal, but she says it profoundly affected her: "I had great healthcare because I was the AG of Arizona, so they caught it early. If I had not been so fortunate, I would have been in really bad shape. It drove home, personally, the value of early detection and education and intervention." These are lessons she has tried to apply as governor: In the past five years, she has opened a new medical school, recruited 50 percent more sorely needed nurses, and handed seniors one of the nation’s first free prescription-drug discount cards.
Napolitano is close to her father, Leonard Napolitano, and happily turns to him whenever she needs a family member to help with a campaign ad or inauguration ceremony. "It humanizes me a little bit," she says candidly. "You know: I have family too." (Napolitano is single. Her mother died when Janet was 35; her older brother, Leonard Jr., is a computer engineer; and her younger sister, Nancy, is an audiologist.) Napolitano’s home page as governor includes a gallery of photos from her childhood and college years. It’s a quirky, skinned-knee tour of her life that’s notable for what is missing: the generic photo of the governor with a glowing spouse and children.

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