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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty