The State of Her State

Janet Napolitano is the most unlikely of political superstars.

A career born in bureaucracy and raised in political backrooms; physically frumpy, asexual and thick, a voice somewhere between that of an adolescent male and the overexcited Howard Dean; brusque, oft combative, grudge prone; hints of Girls State I'm-Trying-Too-Hard rah-rah; more hints of really, really wanting to be somebody.

But God bless Arizonans for growing up and looking past looks. Because a few things are for sure: Janet is freakin' smart, she works her ass off, and she surrounds herself with equally agile staffers. And Arizonans have responded to her energy, prog-moderate rhetoric, pragmatic application of policy, and her almost freakish comprehension level of all the little fiefdoms under her purview. She's even damn funny, especially when she's rattling the cages of Know Nothing birdbrains such as Russell Pearce.

Like quasi-psychopath Diamondback Eric Byrnes, she has given such a strong appearance of competence that even her vague creepiness has become sweetly peculiar.

So, Janet, as we now affectionately, or begrudgingly, refer to her, is our next governor — at least, that's clear as of press time. And this time, she comes in with what political junkies like to call "political currency."

And briefcases full of it. Janet Napolitano now owns the broadening political center of Arizona. Meaning, she should have much less trouble battling both the Bash-'n'-Slash Right in the Legislature and the much less powerful Fruitcake Left in her own party.

So what will she do? Place that currency in a safe for her inevitable run for the U.S. Senate? She has been known to play it safe rather than do the right thing when facing hard targets (polygamist Warren Jeffs and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, just to name a couple nuts she wouldn't crack).

Or, will she spend it on a journey down the politically rough road to a better Arizona for all Arizonans? At times, she has been downright inspiring in both her vision and her execution of that vision.

Along with "political currency," another hot governmental groupie term is "benchmarking."

Benchmarking is a wonk-tank attempt to get past politics and posturing to quantify if anything of real value is actually getting accomplished.

It is easy to determine if someone is politically successful. It is much tougher to determine if his or her policies are successful, or, put another way, have in fact brought about the perceived successes of government.

To point: Was it Janet's genius that single-handedly brought us out of the $1.3 billion debt she found at inauguration?

Not likely.

But she sure flaunts that success. And voters have certainly credited her with that success.

Conversely, this past week, Morgan Quitno Press once again ranked Arizona's schools last in the country. Is it Janet's fault we're still America's Dumbest State?

Probably not. In this case, though, she's the first to explain how hard it is for a governor to affect those national state rankings, or, how flawed those rankings are.

At her first inauguration, Governor Napolitano rolled out the red carpet for likely the longest list of proposals and promises in the history of Arizona gubernators.

Before she rolls out another one, let's inspect the first carpet for holes.

First and foremost were the children.

Apparently, they are our future.

For one, Napolitano made fixing the state's Child Protective Services one of her top four priorities. She quickly created an executive-level "Children's Cabinet." By her first State of the State address, she had already created an advisory commission and charged it with recommending systemic changes for CPS.

There is no question Napolitano kick-started a flurry of reforms aimed at getting children out of dangerous environments.

The real question is twofold: Have the reforms worked? If not, have the reforms had time to work?

With CPS, for example, the answer is as complicated and gray as most troubled homes.

After Napolitano's first year in office, Child Protective Services removed 32 percent more children than it did the year before.

But what does that statistic really mean?

What it means is a swell in the number of children entering foster care, which has not been met by a parallel rise in the number of foster parents or adoptions. Meaning, the number of Arizona children in out-of-home care swelled from just over 6,000 in 2003 to 10,000 today — an increase of 62 percent.

Indeed, so many kids were left to flounder in shelter or group homes that a San Francisco-based child welfare agency threatened a lawsuit.

Equally alarming: While more kids are being pulled from their homes, more kids than ever are still dying in their homes.

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Robert Nelson