The State of Her State | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

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...
Share this:
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.

And while Napolitano has been very vocal about Child Protective Services, the agency at the other end of the kid spectrum — the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, which gathers up pre-teens and teens the system has failed, putting them in faux incarceration mainly for petty repeat crimes — has gotten almost no lip service from her.

In fact, the last public reference New Times could find to the agency from Napolitano was a 2004 letter to constituents in which she gingerly discussed the federal investigation into the abuse of children in the state's custody. Of great concern to the U.S. Department of Justice was a rash of suicides and suicide attempts within ADJC facilities. The feds are still wending their way through Arizona's juvenile corrections system, but it is clear that only the minimum (if that) is being done to ensure that these high-risk kids are safe — and thriving.

While states like Missouri celebrate innovative programs that educate these kids, treat their mental illness and encourage them to lead a good life, Arizona continues to lock them up in depressing, gray cells that no amount of retrofitting can ever render 100 percent suicide-proof.

It is as though the throw-away-the-key prosecutor and state mother in Napolitano can't come to terms on the issue of at-risk teens.

And beyond CPS and ADJC, there is a much less publicized group of kids that the state continues to quietly fail. The state Department of Economic Security has for years been violating federal requirements that dictate how infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities get therapy and other services. Recent attempts at overhauling the broken system are apparently backfiring, drawing ire from parents, therapists and other critics who say children will get fewer intervention services than ever before with even less qualified people providing that service.

The state has one more year to fix problems under a federal mandate to make changes. If it blows the deal, it risks losing millions in funding. The U.S. Department of Justice may intervene legally. The state has scrapped several dates to roll out its new system, and can't say exactly when that will happen.

To be sure, saving endangered children on a statewide level is a wildly complex task. And for every statistic that suggests goals haven't been reached, there are indicators that Napolitano's leadership has begun to create a stronger safety net for Arizona's at-risk children, at least the younger ones.

"There was a lot of lip service before Napolitano came in," says Terry Leveton, a clinical psychologist who, besides founding the "Halo of Hope Foundation" for at-risk children, has led numerous child welfare initiatives in the Valley. "But she is the real thing. She has simply done an extraordinary job of bringing government, private and public agencies together to identify and cover gaps in service and protection for children."

Early intervention policies and programs have strengthened greatly under Napolitano's watch. Child welfare agencies that once operated as fiefdoms are now working together to provide "seamless care" for at-risk children, Leveton says.

The great challenge now, though, is making sure investigators and counselors don't, in overzealousness or fear of hindsight, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"Of course we're not where we want to be," Leveton says. "But we are much closer thanks to the work she has done."

Even Phoenix's growing brown cloud was addressed by the governor through the prism of protecting children.

Soon after Napolitano took office, she gave Steve Owens, her newly appointed director of the Department of Environmental Quality, an initiative to focus on children's health. The program was officially launched in April 2003 at a forum that pulled together teachers, school board administrators, asthma experts and environmental activists to talk about the best ways to improve children's health. From this forum, the Children's Environmental Health Project developed with four goals: to fight environmental triggers of asthma, to get rid of lead in drinking water, to eliminate or reduce pesticide use in schools, and to implement a school bus idling program to decrease pollution near schools.

Because Arizona has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, and Maricopa County has the highest rate of asthma prevalence in the state, the major focus was on reducing environmental asthma triggers and improving air quality.

But this worthy project has suffered the fate of several of Napolitano's grand ideas: Amid the flurry of other activity generated by the governor, in a state notorious for underfunding good ideas, the project has languished in relative obscurity.

No legislation has been passed or changed as a result of the project. No departmental mandates have been given to school districts. The momentum and excitement that grew from the first forum has virtually died. The major achievements of the project have all been implemented on a voluntary basis with no enforcement from DEQ.

(A recurring theme in Arizona. ADEQ, also oft ignored and grossly underfunded by a Legislature that hates environmental regulators, is woefully undersized to enforce environmental laws and is still straddled with bizarro pro-polluter policies such as announced inspections.)

Asthma remains an enormous concern, especially in low-income school districts. Earlier this year, a fifth-grader at Rose Linda Elementary School in the Roosevelt district died of an asthma attack, prompting the district to start its own voluntary air quality flag program (colored flags are raised each day indicating air quality — green is the best, red is the worst — and children are not to be let outside on poor air quality days). In all, students in this central Phoenix district lost 10,000 days of school because of asthma.

Studies have shown that children must be able to breathe to ace those all-important standardized tests.

Take a step back, and her sweeping, concerted efforts to protect children, flawed as they are at the moment, point to a recurring theme regarding Janet Napolitano's first term in office: You think we're bad now? You should have seen us four years ago.

Which is a variation on another commonly held opinion of Janet Napolitano, especially by those to the left of her in her own party.

Maybe she's not the perfect governor. But damn, it could be a whole lot worse.

This could be the key to her oddly immense popularity. In Arizona, a good leader appears to be a great leader because Arizonans are used to such bad leadership.

Leadership that has kept this seemingly prospering Western state annually languishing in state rankings with the most desperate states of the Deep South.

"Arizona tends to hang around Mississippi and Louisiana when all the data is compiled," says Scott Morgan, co-founder of Morgan Quitno Press, arguably the most comprehensive benchmarking research company in the country, which publishes numerous governmental data rankings books each year.

And no, there is no significant movement in Arizona's national rankings in the Big Three categories of health, crime and education — all sweetheart issues of our governor. We're still last in education, still in the bottom five for crime, and sitting at number 39, up one, in health care.

Take heart, though, Morgan says.

"Even if good things are being done in Arizona, it can take several years for success to translate into these national benchmarking numbers," he says.

Simply, no matter how smart your All-Day Kindergartners are now, those dumb-ass fifth-graders are going to keep showing up as dumb-asses until they fail to graduate from high school.

On that topic of dumb-asses, we confront the other roadblock between Janet and success: the Angry-White-Male butt-end of the Republican Party that keeps hijacking Republican primaries to hold the Arizona Legislature.

The threat is real. And regardless of her new power, the far right will continue to trip up Napolitano whenever possible over her next term.

For example, while Janet wanted All-Day Kindergarten for all, a push she argues will kick-start Arizona's kids down the path to intellectual prosperity, the compromise with the Legislature is All-Day Kindergarten only in Arizona's more economically challenged school districts.

At the same time, Napolitano quietly allowed a $5 million school voucher program to slip into law this year.

(That said, she set a gubernatorial record for vetoes, shooting down more than 100 pet projects, many either outrageously venal or stupid, of the hard right.)

She secured pay raises for state employees, but the state pay grade still lags far behind other states.

She has backed away from politically volatile solutions to protect Arizona's water supply from overdevelopment.

Besides her lagging efforts to stem childhood asthma, she has done little as sprawl has created gridlock and a brown cloud the size of Rhode Island that, ironically, is beginning to drive people away from, and keeping people from coming to, the stinking sprawl.

Perhaps this is a new form of environmental stewardship — Malthusian smart growth.

As for protecting adults, disadvantaged or simply at a disadvantage, Napolitano's record is even less stellar.

Pushed by the courts to better serve the mentally ill, state funding for mental-health services has dramatically increased in recent years. Once near the bottom in state mental-health spending, Arizona is now 10th in overall mental-health expenditures and seventh in per-capita mental-health expenditures.

It's not unusual for this state to be forced by the judicial branch to do what the executive and legislative branches should have done by conscience.

Money given is not always money well spent, though. Channeled through ineffective policy, as well as for-profit management, many veteran mental-health professionals argue that the state is doing no better caring for the seriously mentally ill than it was a decade ago.

For the average Arizonan, care of the disadvantaged is not a household issue.

What is, however, is the household.

And for consumers, especially home buyers, Napolitano's centrist positions tend to leave her in a no man's land between those who sell and those who buy.

A 2003 report from the auditor general concluded that the state Registrar of Contractors did too little to help homeowners. The report recommended developing a program to discipline problem builders. But though the ROC officially developed such a program, its parameters were so narrow that virtually no builders qualified as "problems." The program, staffers have admitted, has fallen by the wayside without a single builder being disciplined.

Perhaps because builders are not being held accountable, lousy construction has become a major problem in Arizona. When Napolitano took office, Phoenix was ranked tops in the nation on J.D. Power & Associates' survey of "customer satisfaction" with new-home buyers. (Other Arizona cities are too small to be included.) Satisfaction has dropped steadily ever since, with a five-point drop in 2005 and then another seven-point decline in 2006. Those are among the biggest drops recorded on the survey in recent years.

When it comes to new-home building, Phoenix now ranks 25th — putting it in the bottom third of the major new-home markets in the survey.

And really, if a state built on home-building can't build homes right, what the hell can we do right?

With a state so far below mediocre in so many areas, Napolitano's willingness to concede ground on critical issues, whether because of genuine centrist beliefs, legitimate Arizona realpolitik or base political positioning, can be disconcerting to those who believe she is a leader capable of truly raising Arizona.

Tracking her State of the State addresses over the past four years reveals the political beast in Janet.

Out of the gate, besides the budget crisis at the time, she aggressively targeted Arizona failings toward the young and old alike. Besides the assault on CPS, she helped seniors with their prescription medicine bills. She laid out plans for more efficient, effective government operated by people earning above the poverty level. She sounded very pro-business, but it was pro-high-tech, high-end business, a pro-business stance that looks more to education and quality of life than tax breaks and other giveaways.

In her last State of the State, the rhetoric moved considerably to the right — really, a speech any middle-ground Republican could have made. It was politically brilliant. Knowing the left has no alternatives to her, she went right and co-opted Republican issues before they could be used to gain traction against her. But, alas, it was very political.

National Guard troops to the border. Immigration, security, tax breaks.

Truth is, though, Napolitano has as much or more right to these issues as Republicans. For one, back when Republicans weren't even talking about immigration, she was arguing that the federal government has been shirking its duties at its international border with Mexico. She simply argued that the United States, not Arizona, should pay for border security.

To the limited extent a governor is responsible for such things, she went about strengthening security after September 11, 2001. Shortcomings, again, can legitimately be blamed on a lack of promised federal backing.

And that she has pushed for certain tax incentives for Arizona's businesses, especially to help small businesses cope with skyrocketing health insurance costs, has fit ideologically within the centrist idea of promoting "smart growth."

But the question now is: Which Janet will show up for her next State of the State address?

The Political Janet, who will cut and run on tough solutions so she doesn't cut her chances of running the world?

After all, this is the same champion of women's rights who was unwilling for years to run through the political minefield of Colorado City to save young women from horny old polygamists. And on law and order, she was downright sleazy as attorney general when she gave a pass to atrocious conditions in Joe Arpaio's jails to garner the endorsement of "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Or, will we see the Statesperson Janet, who, agree with her or not, will follow through on a bold progressive vision of a state running with elegant precision toward the Greater Good?

If anything, Napolitano's first four years, like Matt Leinart's first few football games, have Arizonans hopeful. Although the full promise is still unfulfilled, flashes of talent and heart suggest a bright future is possible.

And in a way, both have it easy. Like Leinart, Napolitano enters an arena where expectations are so low that success could mean just ascending to mediocrity.

But in time, we will demand more success from both our heroes. The charm of not-totally-sucking will fade. At that point, winning just the easy ones will no longer be enough.

Next week: An examination of the Napolitano administration's efforts on behalf of children in three areas: juvenile corrections, environmental protections for kids, and early intervention for the developmentally disabled.

Week three: The Legacy.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.