Stand by your man: Napolitano and John Kerry.
Stand by your man: Napolitano and John Kerry.
Rand Carlson

Running Scared

Governor Janet Napolitano has finally found her man.

Tucked under the right arm of presumed Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, Napolitano beamed radiantly during a Democratic party rah-rah at the Arizona Biltmore recently.

Normally aloof, Napolitano never drifted far from the Massachusetts senator's side. She got the good lovin' not only from the presidential hopeful, but from a throng of folks clamoring to rub up against the reigning Democratic deity.

For his part, Kerry seemed delighted that Napolitano was beside him. He needs her to deliver big-time if his next home is to be the White House.

Provided Napolitano can deliver Arizona's 10 electoral votes in November, it would be only the second time that the Democratic presidential nominee has taken the state since 1948. A Kerry victory in the realm of Republican Senator John McCain would be a major blow to President George W. Bush.

Napolitano has everything to gain and nothing to lose in the next six months by throwing her energy toward Kerry's election, which she vows to do.

But this isn't about Janet becoming vice president on a Kerry ticket.

It's about banking political capital -- which is Napolitano's greatest skill.

But you're probably thinking, back up a minute, just why wouldn't Kerry want Janet as his running mate?

Well, for starters, she's no McCain. If the nationally popular Republican and Bush hater were to throw in with Kerry, Dubya would be toast. Yet a Kerry/McCain ticket is almost too good to be true, so Kerry would go with somebody who has much more national name recognition than Napolitano.

But there's another reason a liberal like Kerry wouldn't choose Janet: He can't risk naming a running mate who is widely believed to be a lesbian. It's too bad that sexual preference makes such a difference, but it does. That Janet claims to be straight wouldn't cut it; her butch look would seal the ticket's fate.

As I said, Napolitano was hugging Kerry in the hopes that his victory will translate into a stack of political chips to be cashed in later. She's talking about seeking another term as governor, but she will not be satisfied with that. She sees herself as an eventual player on the national stage.

Which is at the essence of what's always been wrong with Napolitano. She's more a career politician than a public servant, somebody who will chicken out if it means a loss of political capital.

Napolitano calls herself a "progressive," but this tendency to cover her ass is why she has so far been unsuccessful in propelling Arizona into the 21st century.

See, there's no political payback to pissing off powerful Arizona political Neanderthals. Better to stick to issues that tend not to rile anybody up. Even cuddle up to your enemies if that's what it takes.

Some cases in point:

In the fall of 1997, Napolitano was U.S. Attorney for Arizona and gauging her political opportunities. She was contemplating a run for governor or state attorney general. In either case, she wanted the support of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In a bizarre October 1997 press conference on her last day as U.S. Attorney, Janet announced an agreement between her office and Arpaio. The pact essentially cleared the sheriff of wrongdoing in connection with abhorrent practices inside the Maricopa County Jail that had resulted in the deaths and injuries of pre-trial detainees.

One of the deaths Napolitano chose to ignore was Scott Norberg's. In 1996, Norberg had been stun-gunned, beaten and suffocated in a restraint chair by Arpaio's jailers. To settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his family, Maricopa County paid $8.25 million.

Janet cashed in that political IOU five years later, when Arpaio, a right-wing Republican, endorsed her for governor. It was just the nudge that a lefty Democrat needed to win. Republican Matt Salmon lost by only 12,000 votes.

Napolitano's willingness to put political advantage over her oath of office re the Norberg case was a bellwether of what was to come.

Take the ongoing situation in Colorado City, where fundamentalist Mormons believe it's their right to impregnate and enslave as many underage girls as they choose.

Napolitano, who calls herself a feminist, has been fully aware of these human rights abuses since she was elected attorney general after leaving the U.S. Attorney's job. During her stint as AG, she launched a halfhearted investigation into criminal activity in the fundamentalist enclave that resulted in no indictments.

Last week, without comment, she signed a bill into law that would make it a felony for a married man to cohabit with or spiritually marry (as the fundamentalist Mormons like to claim they are doing) an underage girl.

Big deal! It's always been illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor who isn't his legal spouse.

So while Janet is getting national press for beefing up the state's mangled Child Protective Services agency, she's ignoring one of the most outrageous abuses of women and children in the Western world.

And why is she sidestepping the issue? Because she doesn't have the nerve to stare down Mormon leaders who control the Legislature's purse strings -- namely Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jake Flake.

While these Republicans say they are against polygamy, which is no longer practiced by the mainstream Mormon Church they belong to, they have done zilch to stop the abuses of underage girls by the Colorado City misfits.

In addition to worrying that Bennett and Flake could make it hard on her administration if she steps out of line, Napolitano is scared that she could become the second Janet with a questionable sexual identity to go down in flames; she has gnashed her teeth publicly that the armed Mormon zealots along the Arizona/Utah border might turn the situation into another Waco.

With Napolitano, it's always about careful political calculation.

Despite her progressive leanings, she has fallen in with the kind of leadership that has put Arizona near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to such measures as college graduates, per capita income, the teenage pregnancy rate and the number of children living in poverty.

Arizona is the Alabama of the West, and Janet hasn't changed that.

One reason she has been able to flourish despite her inadequacies is the docile mainstream press in this state.

When she imperiously called for prior restraint during the Lewis prison hostage crisis, the daily media happily played along. That this was the kind of Nixonian request you would expect from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld didn't seem to bother top editors and news directors.

The truth is, there is no reason to believe that the crisis ended better than it would have because the press kissed her ass. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the hostages would have fared much better if the press had acted like, well, the press and reported the damn news -- especially including the names of the hostages -- from the get-go.

Napolitano's absurd handling of the hostage situation aside, she has done nothing to bring sanity to the way Arizona runs its prisons.

Folks, the state's putting too many people in the slammer, it's costing us too much money, and Janet has allowed the problem to worsen.

There are a couple of reasons for this. She is afraid to cut her ties with her political benefactor, Sheriff Joke, and she fears that she will be nailed as soft on crime by Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who likely will be the Republican nominee for governor.

In the last 10 years, only two state agencies have seen their share of the state budget increase -- K-12 education, up to 45.9 percent from 39.5 percent, and the Department of Corrections, up to 9.4 percent from 7.1 percent.

The prison system is budgeted to get $607 million next year, up $330 million over 10 years ago. The prison population has soared to more than 30,000; more than half of the inmates are behind bars for nonviolent crimes because of Arizona's strict mandatory-sentencing laws.

Rather than pushing for a change in the law that would allow judges to once again use their discretion when handing down sentences, Napolitano has called for building more prisons.

The great progressive wants a 9,134-bed expansion of the prison system. It would cost $700 million to build the facilities necessary for this and another $2.6 billion over the next 15 years for operations.

Despite all my gripes against her (and I've mentioned only a few), I believe Napolitano is smart enough to become a good leader. But to achieve that status, she must stop playing politics and address the serious problems facing this state.

If her buddy Kerry is elected, she will have the political clout to push a far more aggressive agenda.

The question is, will she?

Last Saturday morning, I rode my bicycle to Sun Devil Stadium to attend ASU and Cardinals star Pat Tillman's memorial service. Napolitano was the first speaker, and she acknowledged that Pat's way of life baffled her.

"I didn't understand why he sat up on that light pole. I didn't understand why he didn't cut his hair. I didn't understand why he rode his bike in the summer."

Perhaps she learned something -- and not just about Tillman -- from what former ASU football coach Bruce Snyder said a few moments later. Snyder urged all of us to take inspiration from how the sports hero turned warrior lived:

"Go out and be bold, be courageous, and act upon your beliefs."

E-mail, or call 602-229-8445.


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