In Goldwater country, a woman makes her mark
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has won over voters by championing centrist issues.
She reads some five books a week, sleeps four hours a night, and guest coaches two girl's college basketball teams. She also happens to govern Arizona, the nation's fastest-growing state.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Not bad for a single woman and Democrat who, just shy of her 50th birthday, enjoys widespread popularity in the state once dominated by conservative icon Barry Goldwater.
On Friday, Gov. Janet Napolitano steps onto the national stage again, chairing the annual meeting of the National Governors Association – the first woman ever to do so.
Despite a low-key demeanor, Governor Napolitano is adroitly managing a fast-rising political career. In some ways, her ascent reflects Arizona's transformation from a GOP stronghold to a bigger, more diverse, and independent state.
"It is such a pivotal time in our state," she says in an interview in her office, in front of a table that holds a bowl full of autographed baseballs. "We're really going from a medium-sized state to a large state, an ever-more diverse state. There's basically no issue in domestic politics in the US that is not here in Arizona."
Despite her credentials as a liberal, Napolitano chooses more centrist issues. Her progressive causes, especially education and other children's issues, have caused frequent run-ins with the Republican-controlled legislature. She's vetoed 143 bills, more than any other Arizona governor during her tenure. Nevertheless, she won approval for voluntary, full-day kindergarten for all public school children and has secured more state funds for the agencies dealing with disadvantaged children. She's pushed for better science and math training in public schools and created Science Foundation Arizona, which partners with businesses to expand the state's bioscience and high-tech industries.
On the other hand, she's steered crucial bills through the legislature that have turned a $1 billion budget deficit into a $1 billion surplus – without raising taxes. Earlier this month, she signed into law the nation's toughest sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Her critics in the legislature say she has changed positions over the years to reflect public opinion. Other observers say she leads on issues with broad appeal.
"She's incredibly intelligent, and she gets it as a politician," says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. "She chooses issues that cross party lines, and that allows her to take the right side against the legislature.... The Republican legislature was fighting early-childhood education and all-day kindergarten, but 75 percent of the people in Arizona supported them."
Squeaked by in first governor's race
After winning the governorship in 2002 by the smallest margin in state history – 11,819 votes – she breezed through reelection with 63 percent of the vote. A June poll found that 65 percent of Arizonans believe she is doing a good job.