Raising Arizona

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano ’79, a rising political star, uses the lessons learned at SCU to serve her state.

A dozen women and men drift into an imposing conference room on the eighth floor of the Arizona Capitol Building. The cityscape dominates the room, courtesy of wall-to-wall windows, but no one is taking in the view. They chat among themselves as they take their places at the long, polished table.

At 8:01 a.m., a short, dark-haired woman in a bright red cardigan strides in, a wide grin lighting up her face. “Good morning,” she sings out. The people around the table rise. “Good morning, Governor,” they respond. Then, as Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano ’79 serves herself coffee from a nearby table, her Monday morning briefing begins.

“Do we have a fire?” she asks first. The summer fire season has begun and she wants to know if the state’s latest blaze has grown since last night. An aide gives her a three-minute update. As she settles into her chair, she’s already in that special zone that effective leaders develop—focused, organized, decisive. “Have we talked to the mayors of the towns in its path? They count on vacation visitors right about now….I want to call them later if this thing continues to move, tell them we’ll do all we can to help.”

The fire, they agree, is today’s top issue. But it wasn’t even on the agenda, and now they move quickly through a host of other issues. Ways the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on who sentences convicted criminals may affect cases in Arizona. Training the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention so they know what to expect in Boston. Which media from the state are likely to cover the convention and what that means for coverage. Child-care funding. Throughout, she listens, asks questions, and posits likely outcomes from suggested strategies. She accepts some counsel, declines some recommendations, spots the problem buried in a complex issue quickly, and gets especially animated when a legal issue is raised. It’s an appropriate response for the woman whose last job was as Arizona’s attorney general, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, and who clerked for the judge who now heads the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.


They review her schedule for the week. She’ll see Senator John McCain, the powerful Republican from Arizona. John Kerry, Democratic candidate for president, will be back in town. Someone says he comes to Arizona so often that there’s a buzz about what’s next for the governor. Later, her press secretary will say stoutly that the governor has never discussed with the press secretary the possibility of a post for Napolitano in a Kerry administration. But it is on people’s minds in Arizona for sure, as evidenced by recent newspaper mentions, one of which points out that if Napolitano did accept a position in a Kerry administration, the current secretary of state in Arizona, a conservative Republican, would succeed Napolitano. For the new Democratic governor of a state where both houses of the legislature are Republican, a governor who won her race by a small majority, that’s got to be problematic.

The group covers at least a dozen items, clarifies the governor’s appointment schedule for the week, and agrees on a set of actions. Then, Napolitano makes a brief joking remark, and they’re done. It’s 8:45 a.m.

It’s tempting to look for parallels with “West Wing,” NBC’s Emmy Award-winning series about a hyper-Democratic White House, and there are some: talented, whip-smart staff, a passion for social issues, a leader with a dry sense of humor who sets the pace without apparent strain.

But this is the real thing, and no one is writing the script. These folks have to think on their feet, anticipate problems, and come to meetings with carefully researched answers, not wisecracks. And the whole thing starts all over every day at 8 a.m. or earlier.

Working for Arizona

The staff rises as she does, and they filter out of the room in several directions as she quickly marches down the corridor to her office. First on the agenda are several phone calls—one to an official working on the Democratic campaign. She speaks plainly about Arizona’s interests, notes the desirability of having Western states visible on the speaker list, and offers to help however she can. She doesn’t ask to be on the podium, but it’s clear she wouldn’t turn it down.

Her office is large, lined in the same dark red polished wood paneling as the conference room with a similar view of Arizona’s big sky and distant mountains. Behind her desk is the portrait of a man who looks about 70, with white hair, glasses, and a large bow tie. He is John Frank, her mentor and the senior partner in the Arizona law firm, Lewis & Roca, which she joined after earning her law degree from the University of Virginia. A number of framed political cartoons decorate her office. One shows her sitting at her desk. Her in-box is full to bursting. Her out-box is not quite so full and the papers in it are labeled “Outmoded policies.” She is smiling broadly.

Small steps toward big goals

The reputation she has earned in less than two years as Arizona’s third female governor is one of disciplined, focused achievement, especially on issues of education, child welfare, and health care. She inherited a $1 billion deficit, which she has whittled down dramatically. She not only hasn’t cut critical social services, she has expanded some of them, noticeably programs for improved day care and all-day kindergarten, the first steps in a comprehensive plan to tackle the state’s low high school graduation rate and the needs of Arizona’s business community for an educated work force. She has worked with moderate Republicans on important legislation and budget priorities. And, while she acknowledges the scale of the challenge, she explains her step-by-step strategies for making significant progress.

“You break it [these big challenges] down into pieces,” she says. “If you have your overall goal—this where we want to be—then you ask, Where can we be by the end of this year? Next year? How do you pay for it? Year by year, you set your goals.”

She uses the example of school readiness. “It involves quality child care, pre-K and kindergarten to be ready for first grade. We took off the first block, which is all-day kindergarten, and we got that through last year, which was a heck of a fight. We also did a big chunk on childcare. Now, we’re focused on the quality of childcare and expanding all-day kindergarten. You don’t just snap your fingers. But over five or six years, there will be a system in place.”

When Napolitano spoke at Santa Clara University’s Commencement in 2003, she said of her education, “I learned how to read critically…I learned the value of discussion for its own sake… how to write coherently and explore new ideas… how to combine different disciplines…how to recognize the limits of my own knowledge….” Today, she says, those skills are key parts of her leadership style. She mentions faculty members Eric Hanson, Mary Gordon, William Stover, and Bob Senkewicz as among those who had an influence on her career. She says Santa Clara gave her access to a broad-based, liberal arts curriculum and “exposure to many disciplines.” (Napolitano was in the honors program and was named a national Truman Scholar in her senior year.)

At Commencement, she also recalled the “sense of ethics you take from here.” “The most important value of a Santa Clara education,” she told the graduates and their families, “is the realization that the intellect is incomplete without character that will enable you to make decisions beyond your own self-interest, compel you to participate in the affairs of your community, and demand that you hold yourselves to strict standards of honesty.”

Today, Napolitano says, “having an ethical core is important because you get pulled in so many directions. I ask myself: How will I explain this to my family and friends if they read about it?”

A full calendar

At 9:15 a.m., she receives a report on the progress of the fire from the State Land Office. It’s moving faster than anticipated, and she wants a briefing from someone who is on the scene.

At 9:20, she walks briskly down the hall to a budget aide’s office to talk with some visiting administrators about funding for the arts. They all agree funding is tight, the arts are important, and that this is not an atypical situation for arts organizations. She speculates about alternatives to legislative budget approval, but promises to investigate. She tells them about an arts festival idea she has, and they agree it would be great…if they had money.

By 9:40, she’s back in her office for a handful of succinct briefings from staff members, followed by a conference call on education arranged by a national task force of which she is a co-chair. She’s pushed up the sleeves of her red sweater by now. Her assistant brings her fresh coffee, and her aides take their places across the desk. “Good morning, Governor,” comes the caller’s voice on the speakerphone at 10:30.

“I’m looking for some creative and innovative ideas for 21st century education,” she says by way of introduction. She is focused during the 45-minute call, pumping her fist and smiling broadly to her aides at one point as someone recommends a program Napolitano wants for Arizona’s students.

The call ends and the governor quickly checks her schedule. It’s 11:20. A new group of staff members files in along with an Arizona advocate for children, and they settle in comfortable chairs around a coffee table in another part of the room. The governor joins them and the guest compliments Napolitano for her strong leadership on behalf of children. The governor has led a drive to eliminate waiting lists for daycare and the visitor wants to suggest a strategy to improve the quality of the expanding daycare network. She and the governor agree enthusiastically about the importance of quality and brainstorm several “carrot and stick” incentive plans. They move on to the issue of juvenile corrections facilities—children in prison. There is apparently little financial motivation in the state system to send youthful offenders to alternative settings. In fact, there are built-in disincentives, the visitor notes. “Give me the pieces I can work on in the next couple of years,” the governor says. Everyone at the meeting contributes. The meeting runs long.

At 12:05, the president of Arizona State University, Dr. Michael Crow, stops by for a quick meeting. He wants to assure the governor that teacher preparation is important in ASU’s program priorities.

When Crow leaves, there’s another call about the fire, which now has a name: Willow. The caller has been at the scene and they talk about the dangerous period ahead, and what happens if the fire crosses the river. Napolitano calls out to her assistant across the corridor for the phone numbers of the local mayors.
Then, a brief lull and a quick sandwich at the table in her office, where she gives an interview while popping french fries into her mouth.

At 1:20 p.m., she moves to a larger room, where she is briefed by five members of her staff from the Department of Economic Security. One of her chiefs of staff (she has two, one for budget and one for policy) leads part of the discussion. She listens intensely as a complex financial issue is rolled out, then asks a “why” question that sparks a lively debate.

Governor Napolitano jumps up and heads down the hall to sign some papers, and then she’s off to the protocol room to film a public service announcement. With white lights bathing her and making her sweater look even brighter, she whips off her glasses and smiles a bit stiffly at the camera as someone reads her the first line: “Children who learn to read at home are the ones who love school immediately.” In 10 minutes she has finished a handful of accurate takes for the three-sentence television spot that will encourage Arizona parents to read to their pre-school kids. An aide reminds her that a reporter from the television network Univision is waiting in her office and, good-naturedly, waving her thanks to the film crew, she turns back down the well-traveled corridor. She knows the young reporter and they talk casually about the Latino conference Univision will cover. Then, a few quick questions about the state’s traditionally low Hispanic voter turnout. On camera, the governor looks stern as she says Hispanic votes are “critical” and encourages viewers to register and vote. It’s over in six or seven minutes, clearly a practiced communication between the network and the governor of a state in which nearly a quarter of the residents speak Spanish at home. The governor speaks a little Spanish, she says, and wants to become more adept. It’s hard to tell when she might have enough time, given the pace of days like this, although her press secretary says today is actually an easy day—all her meetings are in her own offices in Phoenix.

Building bridges

Between 3 and 4 p.m., Governor Napolitano closes the door and works the phones. She says her success with a legislature that resists her vision relies on building coalitions and alliances, finding moderate Republicans, citizen groups, and advocates who can come together around programs that will improve the lives of Arizona’s population, and in so doing, its economic health. “Sometimes I do it indirectly,” she explains. “I go around the state and talk to the people who will talk to their legislators.”

For this day, and in much of her first 18 months, the governor’s focus has been on children—their health, safety, and early education. It’s a theme that does break through barriers, interests the business community and many special interest groups, and has helped her create models for future, perhaps more contentious programs. She is passionate and vocal about the necessity of an educational environment for all children that begins as early as daycare. Given that so many parents in her state are un- or underemployed, daycare becomes even more pivotal for family stability and the benefits that stability creates for youngsters.

At 4 p.m., she returns to the protocol room for a meeting with the president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who wants to brief her on a pilot program the team is sponsoring. Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix is visible from her office, far down a wide, straight city street, and Napolitano, an avid baseball fan, is hoping to get to an early evening game. She is impressed at the proposal for an eye exam and treatment program for poor children that an earnest young doctor presents.

At 4:45, she’s back in the protocol room for pictures with a handful of self-conscious, giggling YMCA teenagers and their proud parents. These teenagers have been “elected” to state office in a model government program. As they tell her their official titles, she chuckles. “Yeah, I’ve done that. Yup, did that, too.” The kids laugh and squirm, clearly loving their moment with her. The Diamondbacks game starts at 5:15, she mentions wistfully to an aide, but everyone wants a picture and the parents don’t want it to end.

But this is the governor who told SCU’s 2003 Commencement audience in Buck Shaw Stadium that she always remembers a line from 20th Century British politician Nancy Astor: “Real education should educate us out of self into something much finer; into a selflessness which links us with all humanity.”

Governor Napolitano, a rising political star and a woman who freely acknowledges the vital role her mentors have played in her ability to serve others, has become a mentor, too. She has an instinct about what these teens need right now, so if selflessness means missing an inning or two, the Diamondbacks will have to wait.

As the chatter dies down and the room falls into an awkward silence, Governor Napolitano grins widely. “Say, I bet you haven’t seen the view from my office. It’s really spectacular. C’mon.” The young leaders give each other “high-five” looks and trail after her, through her office and out onto the balcony.

“Over there,” Napolitano’s voice comes from the balcony, where parents, YMCA officials, and kids are all crowded, “is the stadium, and….”

Susan Shea is SCU’s director of communications and marketing.

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