Elephant Slayer

Napolitano deftly played politics this legislative session to fend off all GOP foes

Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano's taking it to the House -- and the Senate -- leaving no doubt about who's the most powerful politician in state government.

Brash, abrasive and confident, Napolitano craftily used this past legislative session to capture the pole position for next year's gubernatorial race that's shaping up to be a laugher.

With state coffers flush with cash, Napolitano seized the rare opportunity to advance her kids-come-first political agenda while thwarting a deceptive Republican effort at immigration reform that failed to include employer sanctions.

Throughout the session, Napolitano shrewdly portrayed herself as the lone voice of reason overseeing a legislative madhouse that sent her scores of inflammatory, unnecessary -- and just plain stupid -- bills.

Many of these she thankfully vetoed.

In fact, the governor drained her pen vetoing more than 50 bills during the session. Most of the vetoes were accompanied by pithy critiques that ripped apart the logic of various legislation.

Nearly three years after winning a cliffhanger over Matt Salmon in the 2002 governor's race, Napolitano's expanded her political base into a formidable fortress that's left Republicans scrambling to find a sacrificial lamb to oppose her in November 2006.

At this point, the 47-year-old former U.S. attorney and Arizona Attorney General is unbeatable.

It's a remarkable position for Napolitano to find herself in. Remember, Republicans have 150,000 more registered voters statewide than Democrats.

The governor is deftly exploiting the political middle ground and is making headway in a very tough environment where the GOP controls both the House and Senate.

"My job is to make sure we are moving Arizona forward, and that's what I intend to do," she said.

So far, the public is embracing Napolitano's leadership. She's enjoying approval ratings as high as 70 percent for good reason.

Though it may not be saying much, she's by far the most effective, honest and dedicated governor this state has had since fellow Democrat Bruce Babbitt left office in 1986. Three Republicans won the governorship in the intervening years, delivering a nasty mix of incompetence, corruption and lackluster leadership.

Pontiac dealer Ev Mecham's intolerant administration ended in less than two years with his 1988 impeachment and removal from office. Real estate developer Fife Symington's scandalous tenure was cut short late in his second term following his 1997 federal bank fraud conviction and resignation from office. Career politician Jane Hull's listless reign culminated with the alt-fuels scandal costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Though I have criticized Napolitano for putting politics over principle in some instances (it took her forever to do the right thing about the polygamists in Colorado City, for instance), she has reversed this dreadful trend of inept leadership with a superior intellect, a smart staff and a commitment to long-term investments in the people and economy of Arizona.

Equally important in making her unbeatable is that not even a whiff of corruption has drifted from her administration.

Napolitano's support of smart economic development policies that include moderate tax cuts has pleased conservatives without sacrificing dollars for social programs supported by her core liberal constituency.

Last week, the governor signed legislation granting an income tax cut to corporations investing at least $1 billion in the state. The bill could lead to a major expansion in Arizona by Intel.

And she's agreed to a property tax cut that will benefit businesses large and small. She signed into law legislation providing tax breaks to encourage movie production companies to film in Arizona.

At the same time she's priming the state's economic engine, the governor delivered important advances for education and children. She told me the most important issues approved this session are increased spending for all-day kindergarten and child protective services, and obtaining $7 million in start-up funds for a medical school that will be a key component in downtown Phoenix's renaissance.

Despite the successes, there's more wrong with her administration than just her lax attitude about the sexual abuse of underage girls by the fundamentalist Mormon church.

Her attempt at comprehensive tax reform fell flat and is worth revisiting. She's done little to protect the environment, even as one of the world's most important wildlife areas -- the San Pedro River valley -- is threatened with destruction by rampant growth.

She's also missing a golden opportunity to combine economic development with progressive politics by failing to advance a comprehensive renewable energy program that would make Arizona the world's leader in the development and manufacture of solar energy equipment. Instead, she's supporting construction of the nation's first new oil refinery in decades near Yuma.

This is the wrong solution at the wrong time.

Napolitano's cozy relationship with incompetent and corrupt Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is embarrassing the state and needlessly tarnishing the crime-fighter image she's attempted to hone.

These criticisms aside, as long as state tax collections continue to increase at a healthy pace, Napolitano will be able to cut business additional tax breaks and provide other favors that will help ward off any serious Republican challenger for her job.

That's why the Republicans' three best shots at winning the governor's race -- U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth, U.S Representative Rick Renzi and former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley -- announced this spring they weren't going to run against her. Symington toyed with the idea until polls showed he would be trounced by the incumbent.

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