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Dammit, Janet! Napolitano's Ascent to Homeland Security Could Leave Arizona High and Dry

02/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For a state accustomed to being strip-mined, it's still a bit disconcerting to see our sitting governor tapped for D.C. duty, leaving Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer to fill the open seat. Janet Napolitano was far from perfect, but as a centrist Democratic governor in a state where the legislature makes Dick Cheney seem liberal, she played an important role in keeping the worst of the far-right agenda from being enacted here.

It's been a big year for Arizona in national politics. First John McCain's unsuccessful, Goldwater-lite bid for the presidency. Now the nomination of Napolitano to head a key cabinet department, one that subsumes dozens of crucial (and oftentimes problematic) agencies including FEMA and ICE -- plus, of course, the intelligence-gathering and surveillance-oriented entanglements of the Homeland Security apparatus.

On the positive side, Napolitano may do a reasonable job in her new role, hopefully bringing some sanity to the haywire practices of the Big Brother Bush Administration. By most accounts, she's been a competent and capable governor, which is something of a rarity in the annals of Arizona. She's walked that fine line between the liberalism and libertarianism that bridge the region, has rarely appeared bombastic or self-congratulatory, and is known for her genuine bipartisanship. And much of her rhetorical focus (if not her legislative effort) has been on positive issues including education, health care, and "smart growth."

But she hasn't always endeared herself to progressives in the state. She's favored the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, opposed gay marriage, and failed to take on directly the worst of the state's politicos such as the renegade so-called "toughest sheriff" and ultra-conservative legislators. She also supports the death penalty as well as a pro-development agenda, and has done next to nothing on green energy and resource conservation.

Indeed, Rogue Columnist Jon Talton notes that Napolitano is "leaving not much of a legacy in Arizona," and that she failed "to take on issue No. 1 (land use and all its permutations, including sprawl and water) -- to do otherwise would have caused the Real Estate Industrial Complex to destroy her ambitions." He further characterizes her tenure as "risk-averse" and filled with "half measures [that] will be quickly undone."

Still, she's drawn praise in some circles -- often including intertwined expressions of concern about her departure and the void it will leave here -- from people like pro-solar Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:

"It's a big loss to the state of Arizona -- she's been an effective governor, hard-working and bipartisan. I understand there are needs at the federal level that she will be very good at, but it's going to be a big loss for us."

Even the more cynical Talton acknowledges the same, pointing out that Napolitano's departure leaves the state at the mercy of what he calls the right-wing "Kookocracy," and noting that she "served as a fire wall against the worst excesses" of this faction. Echoes of this were heard in comments to the November 2008 Huffington Post article breaking the news of her nomination to head up Homeland Security:

"As an AZ resident who voted for Janet Napolitano for Governor I am saddened to see her leave. She has had an uphill battle dealing with right-wing conservatives in the AZ legislature, but has held her ground on repro rights, but has had to compromise on other issues such as militarizing the border using the national guard, appeasing crazy sheriff Joe Arpaio and his anti-Latino antics, the list goes on. Now we will have a full throttle right wing take over with Jan Brewer taking Janet's old position. Crap."

"This is really irresponsible by Obama and Napolitano. Shame on you two for ditching AZ and leaving us with a severe deficit and a Republican governor."

Some of these comments read almost like an epitaph -- both for progressivism in Arizona and for Napolitano herself:

"I look for the complete GOP control of Arizona to be the next and biggest phase in our slow but steady shift from Red to Blue.... J-Nap has her flaws, but the nation will be lucky to have her. I miss her already."

"I am happy for her but this leaves those of us in Arizona in a bad situation. Ugh, Jan Brewer? As Governor?? We finally were getting some more Democratic/progressive things done here because of Janet. This state is a mess in so many ways. Overbuilding, terrible schools, the air quality in Phoenix is awful, the health care is terrible, I could go on and on........ Well, congrats Janet! Sorry to see you go."

Then there's the mixed-bag view, celebrating and lamenting the state's newfound legacy:

"J-Nap! Say it isn't so! You leaving us with a republican Secretary of State as new governor is unforgivable! But we love you and can show the world that there are Arizonans in politics who are winners! Best wishes and don't be a stranger!"

"Wait till Jan Brewer takes over. Brewer is Palin on steroids! God help us all here in Arid-zona."

And in the end, even the stodgy Arizona Republic recognized the full implications:

"Gov. Janet Napolitano's appointment to the incoming Obama administration would put a Republican at the state's helm, potentially leading to harsher budget cuts and a U-turn on state policy governing everything from gun restrictions to abortion.... 'If (Napolitano) leaves, we'll have a very different landscape than we did yesterday,' said incoming House Assistant Minority Leader Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat girding for Life After Janet.... More blunt was state Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Phoenix Democrat: 'It's going to be a travesty. We will have no one to stop the extremist legislation that inevitably will be put forward by the Republican majority.'"

So there you have it, an albeit selective sample that speaks volumes about the mood here, at least from folks of a more moderate and/or progressive sensibility. Empirically speaking, Napolitano did veto a number of harshly anti-immigrant and pro-gun bills passed by the state legislature, and wound up breaking (by far) the state's all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes. The AZ Capitol Times even alluded to her as a "goalkeeper" who wielded her veto power like a "backstop" against the tide of legislative rapacity -- much to the chagrin of conservative forces.

Whatever view one takes on all of this, it's obvious that things will be changing here in the desert. The incoming governor has publicly indicated that she will work "in tandem" with the Republican legislature, which is already gearing up to re-introduce (among other things) anti-abortion bills that the outgoing governor had previously vetoed.

Janet Napolitano's ascent to the Obama Cabinet may turn out to be beneficial to the nation, but it threatens to leave many Arizonans high and dry in the process.