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.

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.

"She focuses on problems and how, in practical terms, to solve them," says Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster in Tucson, Ariz. "She's a Democrat – has liberal credentials going way back. But she doesn't push that in anybody's face. If you leave your rhetoric at home and focus on the problems, you get a lot done."

Her success as a moderate mirrors the changing demographics in Arizona. Once a magnet for Midwesterners, which shifted its politics to the right, Arizona over the past two decades has seen an influx of many more immigrants from Latin America as well as Californians, who have liberalized the political climate.

"Arizona is really a kind of watershed state with respect to how it's changing," says Earl de Berge, research director at Behavior Research Center, an independent public-opinion polling firm in Phoenix. "People are no longer happy with the far right nor the far left and are switching their [voter] registration to independent."

Until 15 years ago, independents represented less than 10 percent of registered voters, he adds. "Now, we have 27 to 28 percent registered independents."

Known simply as "Janet" by most Arizonans, her political history is bound up with the state. After receiving a law degree from the University of Virginia, she moved to Phoenix in 1983 to clerk for an appeals court judge. She then moved to a local law firm, assigned to work with a Democratic Party operative who began to introduce her to Democratic politicians.

In 1992, she chaired the Arizona delegation to the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton for president. In 1993, President Clinton appointed her US attorney for Arizona. Four years later, she ran for state attorney general. "I was 39, just turning 40," she says. "I thought: 'If I don't run now, I never will.' "

She won handily and, for four years, ran for governor – a political rise inspired, in part, by her parents.

"My parents were a huge influence on me," Napolitano says. Her first political memories are the televised Watergate hearings, which her parents had on nearly continuously. "I could list all the members of the [House Judiciary] committee. I remember the speeches."

Voracious reader and big sports fan

Her memory, like her intellect, is legendary. A friend from law school, Alice Hill, met a friend of Napolitano's from junior high school who said the governor still remembered the combination to the locker they shared in 8th grade.

"She always was very politically attuned," says another friend from law school, Kent Alexander. "She read then and continues to read voraciously. She has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge."

She's also a huge sports fan, attending Diamondbacks baseball and Phoenix Suns basketball games. Yearly, she's guest coach for the University of Arizona and Arizona State University girls basketball teams. "I sit on the bench, go in the locker room, cheer them on," she says.

If she has aspirations for the future, she isn't sharing them. Most experts here think she will run for the US Senate.

"I am here until 2010 as the governor, and that is a lifetime in politics," she says.

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