Janet Napolitano, Arizona's Greatest Governor.
Hmmm. Feels a bit presumptuous, like renaming Squaw Peak after a soldier who died just weeks earlier in a car accident.
But that's what a few historians and politicos are already suggesting depending on what happens in the next four years.
Janet Napolitano. Saver of Arizona's Children. Mother of the Modern Arizona Economy.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
Janet the Great. The Great Educator. If she cleaned up Arizona's wretched air, perhaps The Janetor.
She does have one big advantage. Being Arizona's best governor is a lot like winning a three-legged race at a nursing home: The competition just isn't that strong.
After all, Arizona suffered Evan Mecham and Fife Symington, just two of the lesser lights in a legacy of inadequacy dating back to the 1880s and John C. Frémont, the appointed territorial governor who spent less time in Arizona than most popes.
If Janet's legacy isn't already enough in this weak field, she still has four more years to close the gap.
Or, perhaps, drop out of the rankings altogether.
Because a lot can happen in four years. Or, as other Arizona governors have proven, a lot can not happen. And once you sign on for two terms, that first term, even as solid as Janet's was in many ways, doesn't mean much in determining your legacy.
That's especially true when a political figure's popularity is based largely on hope. In the second term, with the high hopes she has inspired in Arizonans, her legacy will either be great, or a great disappointment.
Indeed, if hope was the measure of greatness, Napolitano would already be our greatest governor.
"Especially considering she's a Democrat, I've never seen anything like the widespread support that Janet has right now from Arizonans," says Arizona State University political scientist and pollster Bruce Merrill.
Three-fourths of Arizonans have said they believe Napolitano is doing a good job. Amazingly, in Merrill's most recent poll, 45 percent of Republicans said the Democratic governor was doing a good job.
As of press time, we can only predict a landslide in this week's election.
Napolitano is creating her own political party in the center of Arizona politics, à la Bill Clinton.
"And it's beyond this sense that she's doing a good job," Merrill says. "People say they feel good about Arizona, they feel better about the state with her as governor."
And why not? She's proven to be brilliant, savvy and clever. Bolstered by a fairly strong economy, her sweeping policy initiatives have garnered some substantial results. And even when they haven't succeeded, or have been altogether forgotten, they still sounded great coming out of her mouth.
Even when she fails, her message succeeds.
Meaning she has that intangible something that all beloved executives have: that ability, like Ronald Reagan, to make people feel good about the world even if the world hasn't changed a bit.
One bit of perspective on job-performance polls, though: This month five years ago, George W. Bush's approval rating was 90 percent.
Now it's 37 percent.
And he's already beginning to show up on the bottom rung of historians' rankings of America's best and worst presidents. In 2004, 12 percent of historians surveyed already were calling him the worst president ever.
Americans will only put up with talking the talk for so long.
Bush's legacy is looking so bad that he may become known as the Arizona of American presidents.
You know, because Arizona always is on the bottom rung of rankings for just about every measure of statehood success there is.
And even after four years of seemingly inspired leadership from Janet Napolitano, Arizona still remains, well, the Andrew Johnson of American states.
In fact, Arizona still faces many of the problems it confronted a century ago: a reactionary legislature, a mountain of social ills, bad schools, bad roads, tapped-out aquifers, and a flood of immigrants looking for jobs at the bottom of the Arizona economy while a flood of emigrants leaves to find jobs at the top of another state's economy.
As any historian will tell you, what lasts of political figures are their legacies, not their poll numbers. Polls measure the Zeitgeist, the fickle mob, while legacies measure the big-ticket results as well as the moral heft of your good fights.
The great leaders plant the seeds for long-term prosperity. They increase opportunities for the widest possible swath of citizens. They protect the vulnerable, they care for the disabled, they nurture the future generations. And they build big in a way that lasts generations.
Napolitano's policies and successes in her first term suggest she's poised for greatness.
Janet Napolitano may be too much a victim of her own ambitions to push for the big reforms that might define greatness, but also sink a political career.
At times, her pragmatism and diplomacy seem to drift across the line into the moral nothingness of political expediency.
That said, she has promised to avoid running for any office while she's governor of the state. (Albeit, leaving a nice two-year window to then run for Jon Kyl's U.S. Senate seat.)
Toward that goal, Napolitano has a big advantage over governors of the past.
Here, at the beginning of the 21st century rather than the 20th, the macroeconomic prosperity desired by modern conservative statesmen depends on the social, intellectual and environmental health desired by modern liberal statesmen.
Meaning, you must now have good schools, clean air, a progressive, protective government and a vibrant, inclusive cultural climate to create and attract the high-paying, technology-based jobs that separate the best American states from the worst American states, which will get even worse as their crummy jobs are siphoned off by the best Third World nations.
Napolitano knows this. She's been working toward this ideal for four years. And in that time, she has built such a broad coalition of supporters across party lines, from big business to the Sierra Club, across the public and private sectors, she may be able to reach great heights even with the reactionary right hovering near veto-override power in the state Legislature.
As Merrill points out, to the extent that popularity provides a mandate for great achievement, polls actually do matter toward the development of legacy.
Popularity also allows an executive to suggest and influence change beyond his or her purview. For example, Napolitano could use her public support to back sweeping reform through public referendum of a legislature that no longer represents the public.
But public support also raises the bar of expectation.
Besides some other notables Paul Fannin, Bruce Babbitt, Jack Williams Napolitano's likely biggest competition for the title of Best Arizona Governor comes from a man named Joseph Kibbey, who was governor exactly a century ago.
As both a federal judge and governor, Kibbey helped build the infrastructure, such as the Salt River Project, that made the modern Arizona possible while also fighting for sweeping social reforms. Most notably, Kibbey vetoed Arizona's segregation laws in their infancy in 1909; then, after his veto was overridden by the Legislature, he served as the attorney for a Phoenix African-American family arguing segregation was not providing equal educational opportunity for all Arizonans. He won in Maricopa County Superior Court, but had his case overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court.
He did this 42 years before Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in America.
Joseph Kibbey, ahead of his time, a victim of his time, is a hero for simply fighting the good fight in the face of public opinion.
A century later, Napolitano has public opinion on her side. For her, then, fighting the good fight isn't enough for greatness. She's going to have to win.
And to win, especially against history, especially against Arizona history, you need a good game plan.
Tom Rex is associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at ASU, which means he spends his time thinking about how to make Arizona great.
Rex, who generally sounds like a Chamber of Commerce Republican, is a fan of the Democrat Napolitano.
"She's been a big supporter of better education and many of the other things that make a state appealing to the kinds of businesses we need," Rex says. "She knows the world economy has changed. There's no doubt she 'gets it.'"
What she gets, and what Rex gets, is the idea that modern prosperity is integrally tied to quality-of-life issues. This is not as obvious as it sounds.
"For much of history, most companies actually didn't care much about quality of life," he says. "They needed cheap labor, they needed the raw materials, and the bottom line was the only line. No doubt we still have those companies. But the higher-end companies no longer can or do think this way."
This is not to say many people haven't come to Arizona because it's sunny. But, on average, the people who come mostly for the outdoor amenities of Arizona tend to be young, high-school-educated lower wage earners, or, retirees. Once here, they take the jobs they can find.
What Arizona needs more of, Rex says, are the companies that can headquarter anywhere, so they choose to headquarter in a place most appealing to their highly educated employees and potential employees.
"They want to be able to retain good workers, they want to be able to recruit good workers," Rex says. "And they also want an educational system around them that can create the good workers they need."
Arizona doesn't do as well with those types of companies. But, Rex says, in the past decade, Arizona is doing considerably better than it used to.
"These companies want to be near major universities," Rex says. "Look at what's happening in downtown Phoenix, here at ASU, around the [Tempe Town] lake. These areas are starting to hop. This effort to integrate the universities of Arizona into the fabric of the community and the high-tech sector is happening."
What's lagging is the quality of life that the world's best employees tend to demand. Weather and landscape are lower on their list of priorities, he says.
Above all: a superior educational system. "They want the best for their kids simple as that." A vibrant arts and culture scene. "That cool vibe thing," Rex says. "It's an environment stimulating to the mind."
(If this sounds familiar, that's because it's a carbon copy of the ideas of civic-planning rock star Richard Florida.)
For this crowd, higher housing costs aren't a critical issue. Even crime isn't a critical issue. The environment could be. Pollution hasn't driven high-end workers from places like Boston or the Silicon Valley, but pollution could be more of a factor in Arizona.
"The outdoors, the air, the water, still matter," Rex says. "If we have a few more winters with the terrible air we had last year, that would definitely make this a much less attractive place."
Which leads us to what Napolitano must do in the next four years to help build her legacy of building prosperity.
She must continue to fight for education, Rex says.
"Money isn't everything, but, you know, it is something," Rex says. "We aren't as bad as some of those national rankings suggest. We're generally average. But that doesn't cut it. You've got to be better than average. And if Napolitano can substantially impact our educational system, that would be huge for the future of this state."
She must push hard in support of new state university campuses. "Downtown is going to be great, and the campus at Williams Field will pretty soon be right in the middle of an urban area. We may need more. They are such huge job generators and they also increase the opportunities to better educate our existing population."
Rex and other state economists generally suggest small revisions to the state's tax codes. The general property tax on businesses is "still pretty high," he says. The difference could be picked up by individual property taxes, which, Rex says, "aren't really that big of a deal to these kinds of people."
Going the other direction, Napolitano could greatly increase revenue for the state by pushing for the end of numerous state tax breaks that exist for specific industries. State Representative and University of Arizona professor Ted Downing says that he and other legislators identified $1.7 billion in tax exemptions "that started out as attempts to stimulate an industry, but then have stayed on forever as ridiculous subsidies." One example is the ostrich farms, known as the "Ratite Industry" in tax code, which were given tax incentives with no sunset clauses.
"A lot of these guys getting subsidies are far from poor anymore," he says. "They're just freeloaders. The money that could be put to good use from closing down these entitlements is very significant.
"If you want a tax break, it should come with a sunset clause and performance indicators," he says. "You know, like the performance indicators we demand from our children."
Napolitano could also overhaul the administrations of agencies such as the Department of Commerce, where duplicative and just plain inefficient programs and procedures cost millions of taxpayer dollars to no good end.
Another storm brewing on the horizon: the lack of affordable housing.
With the huge surge in housing prices in recent years, Arizona is nearing the point where, like California, those who provide critical services such as police and fire protection could no longer afford to live where they work.
Although the state has little control on this issue directly, economists argue that a governor, especially a popular one, can put pressure on municipalities to assist lower-income homeowners. One solution: Lower the often outrageous fees levied by cities for approval on home remodeling projects.
And if Arizona has any hope of creating a brighter organic work force, the state must help middle-class parents send their kids to college.
As Arizona's university campuses have begun massive upgrades that should help incubate partnerships with high-tech industry, the average student who might someday work at those industries can't afford to go to the university.
"If Janet wants to ensure mobility, she needs to help the middle class get their 40-year-old kids out of the household," Downing says. "The middle class must be able to afford to send their kids to college."
With tax reform and a focus on creating an incubator for good jobs, and keeping homeownership and a higher education within reach of all Arizonans, Napolitano's state should prosper.
And with all that prosperity, she should finally have the resources necessary to adequately help those Arizonans who are not prospering.
Specifically: the children.
Janet Napolitano would make an interesting psych study.
Here is a woman with no children who at the same time possesses what seems to be the strongest of maternal instincts.
(Or, okay, cynics, just ass-kickin' political instincts, which, because we love our mothers, would look exactly like maternal instincts.)
Protecting children was her first order of business in her first term. It has been her greatest passion. The state's children have become her own.
Her efforts to make a better life for kids in Arizona could be her greatest legacy.
But an immense amount of change and resources has so far led to only limited results. (For example, Arizona ranked 37th in this year's Casey Foundation state rankings of child health and well-being, which measures 10 key indicators. That's up from 41st, a marked improvement, but, child advocates point out, still 37th.)
And Morgan Quitno Press, as has been widely reported, also just named Arizona the nation's Dumbest State.
Much more will have to be done in Napolitano's second term to not only reform Child Protective Services, her first priority, but to make a safe, productive future possible for at-risk kids of all ages and from all sorts of challenging beginnings.
Disabled kids, homeless kids, troubled kids.
As previous New Times stories in the "Deconstructing Janet" project have documented, they all have been underserved by Arizona.
With CPS, by most measures, Napolitano is heading in the right direction.
But the increased number of children being taken from dangerous situations has created its own problems. Not enough kids are reaching safe, secure, nurturing environments.
With CPS, experts suggest, Napolitano must:
Focus on reducing the number of children in foster care or, worse, temporary shelters. Programs have been started toward that end, but they will take an increased commitment to succeed.
Give more support to CPS's in-home service division a great idea that some CPS workers say has not received adequate staffing.
Push the anti-secrecy provisions that she and the media were pushing four years ago. Where was this idea buried?
Begin a widespread campaign to increase the number of foster homes in the state.
Increase the number of visitations for foster kids.
And better, not just longer, training for new CPS employees. Supervisors say they need more thorough skill-testing of new hires, similar to methods used by some police agencies.
The most radical reform idea comes from an unlikely source, former Maricopa County attorney, and arguably a top 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Republican Rick Romley.
Romley suggests that CPS should be completely separated from its parent agency, the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
CPS should be "a unique interest" of the agency director, Romley argues, instead of being part of a much larger agency, where CPS gets "an hour of the director's time."
The marriage does seem forced: "A child's in danger? Get Economic Security."
Romley suggests a stand-alone "children and families" agency. Such agencies have been successful in other states.
"The culture within the system is that there are such competing interests," he says. "It needs to be taken totally out of DES. . . . Otherwise, we'll be back at the problems year after year."
Romley makes a compelling argument for a new agency. And there is ample data supporting his view.
It's a big idea, the kind that builds legacies.
And Napolitano might want to change course and consider it seriously.
Because if she doesn't, it probably will end up being part of Governor Romley's legacy.
Romley's suggestion of a separate agency targeting specifically children, families and foster care would have another advantage: It would help state leaders focus energy and resources on all at-risk youth, not just those who come in contact with Child Protective Services.
To be sure, Napolitano is already heading in that direction. Longtime child advocacy expert Terry Leveton says that before Napolitano took office, all the agencies charged with protecting children operated more as fiefdoms than partners. The governor "has brought these groups together in a real way to begin covering the gaps in protection," she says.
"Whether it's child welfare, child abuse, children who witnessed violence, children caught up in the system already, she's been very effective at yanking segments of government out of their traditional turf issues."
Part of that, Leveton says, has been efforts at better helping the mothers of at-risk children. Forty-nine percent of homeless people in Maricopa County are women, many with children. A massive coordinated push, from building shelters to providing educational and job opportunities, is under way to help an estimated 7,000 women and children get off the streets.
"This is the state, private parties, nonprofits and faith-based groups all coming together to create a real safety net for mothers and children," Leveton says. "I have never seen anything like it in Arizona."
Better than the upheaval of creating a new agency, Leveton and other advocates suggest, essentially, "staying the course." Their argument: Napolitano, with this broad spectrum of child advocates, has worked thousands of hours to build the framework for a greatly improved safety net. What's needed now is fine-tuning, not overhauling, and, more important, the continued intense focus on the issue Napolitano showed in her first term.
"We just need her to keep going the direction she's going with the energy and commitment she's shown so far," Leveton says.
Others suggest, though, that Napolitano must now go further, showing the same level of commitment to departments such as the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into conditions at ADJC before Napolitano took office. Their findings, released once she was governor, have been implemented over the past two years, and are on target for completion by September 2007. The investigation revealed horrible conditions substandard education, kids kept in solitary confinement too long, kids not being treated for mental illness, and, ultimately, a pattern of suicide and attempted suicide. Conditions are better now, but participants in the process and observers alike worry that once the feds leave, ADJC will suffer again a pattern that has repeated over the years. It is up to the governor to do two things: create a permanent oversight committee for ADJC (instead of the namby-pamby citizen advisory board her director, Michael Branham, wants), and bring real reform to the department. The kids housed by ADJC are not violent offenders, for the most part. They are troubled kids who need help, the kind of help that states like Missouri and Utah give their own troubled kids. There are models in place, and there is no reason Napolitano can't bring significant changes that will affect young lives, and likely cost the state less money.
It's up to Governor Napolitano, says Russ Van Vleet, one of the federal court monitors, to make sure history does not repeat itself.
Van Vleet touches on a concern throughout Arizona government. At times, perhaps because of the enormousness of the change Napolitano has promoted, perhaps because of politics, programs that were heading in the right direction have been abandoned to obscurity.
Once such program was an attempt to help asthmatic Phoenix schoolchildren survive the growing air pollution in the Valley.
The program was launched with great fanfare and hope. At the end of Napolitano's first term, though, no legislation has been passed, no departmental mandates have been given to schools, and there's no enforcement from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
To paraphrase Santayana, Napolitano is dooming these kids to repeat their history of asthma attacks.
And if there's any simple definition of a great leader, it is this:
They are the people who stop history from repeating itself.
The greats of Arizona political history all knew that nothing happens in Arizona without water.
The dams of the Salt River Project, the Central Arizona Project, the canal systems, the landmark water settlements, all provided the foundation for modern Arizona.
In her first four years, Janet Napolitano did surprisingly little to secure Arizona's future water supply.
More than just conservationists, the call for strong governmental leadership in state air and water resource issues is coming from numerous sectors, including pro-growth think tanks such as the Center for Prosperity and Competitiveness Research.
"There's no doubt the quality of the environment is a fundamental quality-of-life issue," Tom Rex says.
What Napolitano has failed to do, and needs to do, is push for stronger measures to protect Arizona's water.
Some suggestions from researchers and advocates:
Move toward water policies that better recognize that pollution and degradation of the state's rivers and streams deeply affects the quality and quantity of groundwater on which life here depends. As part of this, with more than 90 percent of Arizona's stream and river beds degraded or destroyed, put in place strict groundwater-pumping guidelines within scientifically established preserves to better protect the few remaining riparian areas of Arizona.
Once again, Napolitano, even in an area where she has come up short, is still perceived to be better than most of her predecessors.
"Well, to be honest, she didn't make a lot of promises regarding the environment her first term," says Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. "But we had nowhere to go but up. And she has definitely shown leadership in some areas. We'd just obviously like to see a little more leadership."
And Bahr notes that some of the pro-conservation measures that Napolitano has supported have gotten spit out by the hard right in the Legislature.
"That is a very hostile place for anything that might require conservation or more planning or proof of water adequacy," Bahr says. "Simply, she's not that culpable for what's wrong with Arizona right now."
She might want to up her culpability, though, because the environment likely will be something on which her legacy is judged in the future.
Simply, most would agree that Arizona can't continue to sprawl at its present rate without serious ramifications, some of which, like the brown cloud and L.A.-like traffic snarls, are already upon us.
It will be the leader who guides the state toward a more sustainable future who will be remembered.
Set an aggressive goal of "no bad air days" within four years for downtown Phoenix. Asthma is reaching epidemic proportions under the Valley's widening brown cloud, and so far, Napolitano has done little of substance to fight it.
Support and implement meaningful energy conservation and renewable energy policies. For one, she could create a statewide building code for energy efficiency.
Attempt again an alternative-fuel incentive program that involves only small, efficient cars. Arizona's previous alt-fuel incentive plan could have been successful if not written to include open-ended rebates for any vehicle, most notably in the alt-fuel debacle of a few years ago, giant luxury SUVs.
Push transportation policies that focus more on buses, light rail, bike paths and pedestrian-friendly areas.
Environmentalists like Bahr suggest these policies primarily for their intrinsic value of improving the health and sustainability of the landscape and the creatures living in it.
But, if sustainable life is too fruity a concept, once again, as Rex points out, these policies also are necessary, in modern America, to attract the type of industries and jobs that raise the income and general quality of life in a region.
This is the nexus at which the progressive thinkers in both parties now meet.
It is here in the center, where people talk of prosperity and progress and humane, efficient government going hand-in-hand that Janet Napolitano has built her power base.
Considering her poll numbers, it appears this is where the vast majority of Arizonans want to be.
Which leads us to some final, big ideas to help secure Janet's place in history by the greats like Joseph Kibbey.
What if Janet could help make Arizona's government representative of the people again?
As it now stands, a tiny but deeply engaged minority of Arizonans, perhaps 10 percent, push ultra-conservative candidates in gerrymandered districts past moderate Republicans in the primaries, then into office by garnering the majority Republican vote in the general elections.
An overhaul of the system, ungutted like past reform attempts, is badly needed, analysts suggest.
Or, even more daring, what about a new coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans led by Napolitano, a third party of sorts, an entity that could work to galvanize support, especially in the primaries, for Arizona's moderate, progressive thinkers regardless of political affiliation?
Okay, maybe Janet Napolitano isn't Teddy Roosevelt.
But heck, she's better than John C. Frémont, who often gets the nod for Worst Arizona Governor. And even Frémont was able to make history playing political maverick when the current political system broke down. In 1856, before his failed stint as our governor, he was the first candidate for president for another brand-new political group, the Republican Party.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.