On May 7, the Prospect's Dana Goldstein sat down with Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona in her Phoenix office. There was no doubt Napolitano had been thinking about the vice-presidential and Cabinet-appointee buzz she had attracted. But at the top of her agenda was -- and still is -- a campaign to convince Arizona voters to approve an increase in the sales tax in order to fund a $42 billion transportation plan, including the construction of a light-rail line connecting Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff. Napolitano, a former prosecutor, also talked about her priorities on immigration, education, health care, and enacting a regional cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.
Here are cut and edited excerpts from the Prospect's exclusive interview. And don't forget to check out Goldstein's profile of Napolitano and her pragmatic progressivism.
Dana Goldstein: At the national level, you're primarily known as a pragmatist on immigration. You're a Democrat, but you lead a fairly conservative, anti-immigration border state. How do you explain your 76 percent approval rating, even as voters in 2006 enthusiastically approved anti-immigrant ballot initiatives you had previously vetoed?
Janet Napolitano: Um, they disagree with me on it. And they're expressing real frustration and anger about the price that Arizona's been made to pay by a nonfederal policy and a federal law that hasn't changed to meet changed circumstances. ... Arizonans, they look around and their ERs are packed and their class sizes are huge, and they see a federal government that has not seemed committed to protecting the border, and they don't see an immigration law that really is enforced firmly and fairly, and they act accordingly. They're tired of taxpayer moneys going to support that.
DG: Arizonans from across the political spectrum agree your law-and-order appeal is part of your success. Did you decide to become a prosecutor, or was it something you fell into?
JN: No. ... I just went to my 25-year law school reunion. ... If you had asked my classmates would Janet end up as a U.S. attorney or AG, they would not have thought that. U.S. attorney was a great position to be offered and to have because it is about law, the rule of law. It's about enforcement. It's making judgments all the time. It's such a judgment-based job, so it was great experience to have, and you really see a different side of society when you're in a prosecution job. It's important to have very, very good prosecutors.
DG: What parts of society did that experience open your eyes to that you hadn't considered before?
JN: Well here I was, I was a partner at a large commercial litigation firm in Phoenix, and all of a sudden I'm dealing with homicides and sexual assaults on Indian reservations, some of which are very poor and isolated. I was dealing with all border-related crime, not immigration, but the massive drug trafficking that goes across the southwest border and the cartels that facilitate that. We did a lot of biker cases, who were the original importers of meth into Arizona, at the very beginning of the meth epidemic here. All of these are things that other than watching the occasional episode of TV I never would have seen. I certainly would never have seen the reality. Learning how to read a search warrant, learning how to decide whether a T3 wire tap should be authorized. How do you use a grand jury and what should it be used for? These are big decisions that require judgment and attention.
DG: How would you respond to liberal critiques of your decision to send National Guardsmen to the border?
JN: I would say to the contrary. I would say that you need a safe and secure border if you're going to have a reasonable immigration policy, one that the citizenry will accept. The federal government simply can't hire enough border control agents for the great expanse of U.S.-Mexican border. What the National Guard does is it takes responsibility off the border patrol so the border patrol can spend its main hours actually working on the border picking up illegal immigrants -- what they're supposed to be doing. Meanwhile, the National Guard is putting up fencing, monitoring cameras, all the sort of processing documents and IDs that takes hours and hours away from the border patrol agents. So they actually facilitate the border patrol doing what they're supposed to do.
This is a common liberal misperception, that the National Guard are kind of policing the border with their rifles and all of that. No. They're not down there for that purpose. They are on a mission designed to off-load responsibility, back room responsibilities from the border patrol, so the border patrol can spend more time on the border itself.
DG: Your endorsement of Senator Obama has obviously raised your national profile. Do you feel that you and he represent a centrist or moderate wing of the Democratic Party that can widen the party's appeal, something akin to what Bill Clinton represented in the early 1990s?
JN: No, I see it more as a way of building the Democratic Party. I hate to say more centrist or moderate, because that seems to suggest that we don't have positions on things, and I have some positions on things that in kind of a traditional framework would be viewed as conservative, and some that would be viewed as very liberal. He has the same. And he and I don't always agree on all our positions. But I think it's more a sense of style, a recognition that there are good ideas held by people of both parties, all parties, a recognition that Washington is in gridlock and that is an unhealthy development for our country. A recognition that a lot of people have been turned off of politics because of the negativity and the kind of ugliness of overall campaigning.
DG: Your transportation plan is built around a sales tax, and must be approved by voters at the ballot. But it seems that throughout the nation, with the exception of a few major cities, asking people to drive less and consider other modes of transportation has not worked very well. That's why we see this pandering from Senators Clinton and McCain on lifting the gas tax. Is mass transit a losing issue?
JN: I would disagree. I would think, for example, that light rail to link Tucson to Phoenix to Flag, up the center spine of our state, particularly if there are spokes that go out into other transit, particularly in light of the ever-increasing cost of gasoline, makes a lot of sense from a commercial-traffic standpoint if not just a passenger-traffic standpoint. And again, well over half of these funds are going toward highways and roads. It's going to reduce what I call the time tax. The time tax is the time you spend stuck in traffic. And when you talk to people, they're stuck in traffic, they're not home with their kids, they can't get to work. What's more valuable, your time or your money? Well they're both valuable, but for some people, time is actually at that point worth more, so you've got to cut the time tax.
DG: You've been working with the Western Climate Initiative to impose a cap-and-trade system in this region. Do you feel that Arizona Democrats have caught up with your thinking on cap-and-trade?
JN: If you say "cap and trade," there's still a lot of educating. Most people don't really know what that means. If you say climate change, I think absolutely, people get it and are concerned about it. ... I think they'll support it once they know what it is. But we want to do it in the right way. We'll have a stakeholder process. We'll have the utilities, for example, sit down. We understand that within our Western Climate Initiative there are some regional differences that will have to be worked out between the different states. So we'll do this.
DG: A lot of people don't remember, or never knew, that you represented Anita Hill when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Seventeen years later, what do you take away from the Clarence Thomas episode, which still remains a touchstone when people discuss issues of women in the workplace and women in politics?
JN: Well, I'd always been interested in public service before then, but it really did bring home how issues of women really didn't have an avenue to be heard at that time. And it was my first experience dealing with the media and appreciating how complicated that can be in terms of just the pressure of it, the constant…leaving a hearing room and having a lot of cameras and lights in your face; I had never experienced that before. I think that from Professor Hill's standpoint, that experience cost her a lot personally. But I think she should have a satisfaction in knowing but for that experience, the fact that women need to be treated fairly and are entitled to go to work without being harassed, when they're in the workplace trying to earn a living, would never have gained the prominence it did, and all the protections we now have.
DG: Do you consider yourself a feminist politician?
JN [looking down at her hands]: No, I just consider myself Janet. I really resist lots of labels because labels assume a whole package of characteristics and stereotypes. And as I said before, on some things you can characterize me as liberal, on some as a conservative. And the one thing that runs constant is I always try to evaluate things on what I think is best. And people who support me agree with me on some things, and disagree with me on other things.
DG: On what issues would you characterize yourself as more of a conservative?
JN: Oh, I think on criminal-justice issues I'm more conservative.
DG: You've worked on immigration, education, climate change, transportation, women's issues. Ideally, which of those issues would you most like to work on at the national level, if given the opportunity?
JN: Oh, do I have to pick? It's like going into 31 flavors. I like that, oh I like that flavor, I like that flavor too. You know, I could happily work on any of those issues, and they're all important. They're big issues, they're complicated, they require you to be able to unite good public policy with a sense of how you get things done through the critical process. And I think at this stage, what I bring is that I've been an attorney general. That's the skill set I bring.
DG: Here in Arizona, if there's one issue you had to compromise on that you just really wish you could have had more support in the legislature, what is it?
JN: That's a hard question to answer because some things I haven't given up on. We're not done yet. What's that Monty Python line? "Not did yet!" [She laughs.] But the budget negotiations have been the essence of compromise, and I've had to agree to some things that as a policy matter I don't agree with to get bigger things.
DG: Such as?
JN: Well one example I would give is in order to capture a $100 million pay raise for public school teachers, I had to agree to a $5 million voucher program for special-ed students. And I don't like vouchers; I don't think vouchers help the public education system.
DG: What happened with your failed effort to get state health insurance for children whose parents make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line?
JN: We couldn't get the votes. Republicans don't like providing any health insurance much less up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line. They will say, "Well $60,000 a year is a lot, why should tax payers pay for that?" What they didn't take into account is that the vast majority of that population earns less than that and many of them are single parents in jobs that don't offer any insurance whatsoever. But once it got translated to $60,000 a year ... we couldn't get the votes. But we just keep coming back. This year we have a revised request on that.
DG: How has it changed?
JN: This year we didn't do 300 percent of FPL per se, but we went for children who have been uninsured or uninsurable because of the conditions that they have. We said that children who are insured should be able to stay on the policy until they're older, and those kinds of things.
DG: With the original proposal, did you think you'd have support for it?
JN: Well, you don't put anything out there that you don't think you have a shot at, but we knew it would be uphill. But the people need to know what I'm shooting for.
DG: Was it frustrating to be fighting for this at the state level and at the same time see President Bush and congressional Republicans kill S-CHIP in Washington, D.C?
JN: Ugh! I was just ballistic on that one.