No, No, Janet

Like a bowl of granola laced with prune bits, I know I am supposed to like Janet Napolitano. But, damn, it's a dry chew.

Here in Arizona, amongst a certain crowd that came of age during the civil rights and Vietnam protests, it is gospel that Napolitano must be our next attorney general.

Certainly women who suspect that political incompetence and venality are, somehow, limited to the Y chromosome, expect that any well-intentioned voter will mark an X beside Napolitano's name on the ballot.

I am nothing if not well-intentioned.
And I remember well that Napolitano represented Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing for the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. How one feels about the protagonists in that spectacle explains one's political allegiances. The Anita Hill case is the barbed-wire fence of sexual harassment that cannot be straddled. It is every bit as culturally defining as the ability to remember where you were when Kennedy was shot.

As for myself, I applaud Thomas' electronic lynching in lieu of the public horse whipping he so richly deserved.

For all of her Anita Hill bona-fides, however, Napolitano's real call upon our conscience has been her status as the United States Attorney in Arizona. In a community that still chooses beauty contestants to read us the evening news, Napolitano is the state's most visible example of what a determined woman can achieve. With no husband, boyfriend or children to flatter her campaign literature, her accomplishments are her own.

Yet for all of the progressive aurora borealis that has backlit her campaign for attorney general, Janet Napolitano is a moral anorexic who casts the merest shadow.

Confronted with palpable evil, Janet Napolitano stands for the nearest exit instead of standing on principle.

The racist roundups of Latinos in Chandler by local cops and members of the Border Patrol in the summer of '97 elicited no public response from the top federal prosecutor in the state. When questioned last week by Stephen Montoya, the attorney representing the rousted Hispanics in a $35 million class-action lawsuit, Napolitano suggested lamely that she preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. Then she attacked Montoya for not bringing the matter to her attention sooner.

There was a time when the Justice Department in this country protected minorities from police dogs instead of ducking behind closed doors.

The Chandler incident is not the first time Napolitano has been a meek church mouse on civil rights.

On her last day in office before resigning to run for the attorney general's chair, Napolitano shared the podium with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the target of a federal investigation by her superiors in Washington, D.C. In a stunning display, she downplayed her own agency's probe of the sheriff, dismissing it as a legal technicality. She provided cover and sustenance for a man with a badge the likes of which the nation has not witnessed since Bull Connor.

Arpaio's jail has made him a national media figure. He is also the target of Amnesty International, federal litigation and mediation aimed at relieving the conditions within the cellblocks, and tens of millions of dollars of inmate lawsuits. Renowned for running a jail that has tortured, crippled and killed prisoners, Arpaio is the single most popular political figure in Arizona with an 80 percent voter-approval rating.

Napolitano knows the numbers. She understands that Mexicans and prisoners are not going to get her elected.

Instead of confronting the evil within her grasp, Napolitano has run for the office of attorney general by boldly opposing telemarketing fraud, therein drawing a clear line between herself and those public officials who support telemarketing fraud.

What is the point of Napolitano's progressive patina if she comforts Sheriff Joe Arpaio while her own Justice Department attempts to control the jailer's savagery?

Federal investigations dating back to 1995 have generated detailed reports documenting the brutality in the Maricopa County Jail. Children have been locked down in solitary confinement, vicious beatings have been administered, stun guns are routinely used (there are allegations that inmates' testicles have been zapped), the extraordinarily excessive use of "restraint chairs" has crippled and killed prisoners. All of this has gone on in holding facilities where 70 percent of the incarcerated are unable to make bond but are presumed innocent.

The sheer number of accounts is staggering.
Because Scott Norberg was the son of a wealthy utility executive who could afford to hire topnotch legal help, his 1996 suffocation death in Arpaio's restraint chair has received considerable media play.

Less well known is the case of Richard Post, first discussed in these pages by Tony Ortega.

A paraplegic who spent a single night incarcerated in 1996 for possession of a gram of marijuana, Post was mauled by Arpaio's jailers. When the deputies denied him a catheter so that he might relieve himself, Post raised hell. Deputies snatched him out of his wheelchair and strapped him into the restraint chair, breaking the prisoner's neck. By the time Post was removed from the chair, he had an ulcerated anus. He was bedridden for months.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey