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.

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.

It's now time to demand the same level of competence from state legislators.


NBA playoff basketball comes at you fast.

Within 48 hours of the Phoenix Suns' thrilling overtime victory against the Dallas Mavericks that clinched a spot in the Western Conference finals, the Suns were crushed by the one thing this young and exciting team is missing -- a dominant big man.

The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan didn't score the most points in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at America West Arena. Suns center/forward Amaré Stoudemire did, with 41.

But Duncan was the dominant force in the Spurs' explosive fourth quarter as San Antonio poured in 43 points to shut down the Suns 121-114.

The Suns tried to slow Duncan with extra defenders. But he was unflappable, passing the ball to open teammates who punished with Suns with deadly outside shooting.

The Suns must find a way to contain Duncan -- the team can't stop him. And the Suns must play near-perfect basketball elsewhere on the court or this series could turn into a rout.

"Tim puts so much pressure on our defense, whether it's in the box score or not," Suns playmaker Steve Nash said at a postgame press conference that I attended.

As this column goes to press, the Suns are preparing to play the second game of the best-of-seven series on Tuesday night -- a game they must win if this youthful team is to have the momentum it needs to advance to the league championship round.

To reach the NBA Finals, the Suns will have to play with far more intensity than displayed in the last six minutes of Game 1.

"It's going to come down to how much heart we have and how hard we can play [for] 48 minutes," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.

I think the Suns have a stronger pulse than the Spurs and can do it.

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