Elephant Slayer

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

They all realized that beating Napolitano is a daunting task not worth the time or money.

Republicans are now scrambling to find a second-tier candidate, offering up such duds as former vice president Dan Quayle's wife, Marilyn Quayle, and U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona of Tucson.

One key to Napolitano's success is that she's assiduously avoided getting cast as a tax-and-spend liberal by severing ties to the Democratic party's far left. Napolitano's ready to offend members of her own party, especially when it's to her political advantage.

Last week, she ducked Democratic party chairman Howard Dean during his one-day visit to the Valley, thereby avoiding politically damaging photos of her palling around with the former presidential front-runner that Republicans love to hate.

Instead, Napolitano spent the afternoon Dean was in town with East Valley Republican leaders at the mainstream Mormon Church's welfare distribution center in downtown Mesa learning more about how the church provides for the needy.

While I have called on her to make more of a stand against the Mormon leaders in the Legislature, this is a different thing. Plus, it was a shrewd political move.

Napolitano has also stymied, at least for now, Republican efforts to muddy the 2006 race by attempting to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot in the hope of increasing conservative voter turnout.

The governor, who many believe is a lesbian (though she denies it), is seeking to immunize herself from this hot-button issue by repeatedly stating she's opposed to gay marriage. Once again, Napolitano is willing to offend a significant segment of her core supporters to fend off a serious political attack from the right.

Another strategy she unveiled this session was a policy of refusing to state whether she supported bills as they moved through the Legislature. I was highly critical of this approach because it appeared to be an abdication of her duty to lead.

But in retrospect, Napolitano's no-comment policy on pending bills diminished the ability of political opponents to tag her as a "flip-flopper" if she later decided to veto or sign legislation she had previously publicly supported or opposed.

The governor departed from this policy last week, and she's now paying the price with screaming newspaper headlines accusing her of deception.

Napolitano said during a May 18 radio interview on KJZZ that she supported a compromise with Republican legislative leaders that would grant $5 million in state tax credits annually for business donations to private school scholarships.

"When I lined up all the things I was getting in the budget, a $5 million tax credit to me was not a bad price to pay," Napolitano said on the Here and Nowshow.

Napolitano's support for the tax credits put her at odds with Democratic legislators who vigorously opposed the measure, fearing it would lead to school vouchers. Republicans strongly support vouchers, which would allow parents to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

The governor told listeners that the corporate tuition tax credit was the key compromise that led to the Legislature's passing the $8.2 billion budget that included increased spending for her priority programs -- all-day kindergarten, child protective services and the downtown medical school.

Anyone listening to the program would have safely assumed that the governor would sign the corporate tuition tax credit bill.

But two days later, Napolitano stunned Republican legislative leaders when she vetoed the measure.

Speaker of the House Jim Weiers and Senate President Ken Bennett accused Napolitano of political skullduggery.

"There is only one way to put this: The governor lied to me," Weiers said. "The governor's legacy can only be termed 'promises made, promises broken.'"

The governor wisely brushed off the personal attacks, making the dustup a one-day story. She said she vetoed the tuition tax credit bill because it didn't include a provision automatically terminating the credits after five years.

The governor said she's willing to revisit the bill in a special legislative session later this year.

The tax credit veto capped a session where the governor repeatedly shot down Republican bills, ranging from allowing patrons to bring guns into bars, to building a prison in Mexico for housing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, to requiring voters to present photo identification to obtain a provisional ballot.

Napolitano used her veto to crush a series of anti-immigration bills that she said would have had no meaningful effect on the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the border.

"Most of the bills they passed . . . would impact lawful Arizona citizens way more than the border," Napolitano said during the radio show.

She was particularly incensed that Republicans sent her immigration bills that failed to include penalties for employers hiring illegal workers.

"The one thing that I think would really work [is] employer sanctions, which they stripped off of every bill because they didn't want to offend employers," she said. "Well, this is a supply-and-demand problem, and if you aren't addressing the demand side of the equation, you are not going to have a real impact."

Napolitano has mastered the supply-and-demand side of politics. She's supplying a steady stream of reasonable ideas and pragmatic leadership that Arizonans are finally demanding of their chief executive.

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