Napolitano's Career, Relationships Position Her for the Court
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; 3:46 PM
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is a former two-term Arizona governor and working Democratic politician with a history of winning moderate Republican support.
Napolitano, 51, was an early endorser of Obama's presidential campaign and before joining his cabinet was the only elected official tapped to serve on his transition team. A former federal prosecutor, she was elected governor of Arizona in 2002 with 46 percent of the vote and re-elected with 63 percent, focusing her tenure on border control, education and economic issues.
At her Senate confirmation hearing for homeland security secretary in January, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) quoted Time magazine's observation when it voting Napolitano one of America's top five governors in 2005: "Positioning herself as a no- nonsense, pro-business centrist, she has worked outside party lines since coming to office."
Speaking for herself in a 2007 Newsweek magazine internet chat on women and leadership, Napolitano said, "I have never had a problem being taken seriously. But I place a great emphasis on preparation and knowing my subject before I speak."
Napolitano came to national prominence in 1991 when she served as a lawyer for Anita Hill in her sexual harassment charge against then-nominee and later Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Then-senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) recommended that president Bill Clinton nominate her to serve as U.S. attorney in 1993, and conservative lawmakers delayed her confirmation for more than a year before relenting.
Napolitano was the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney in Arizona, and became the first woman elected state attorney general in 1998. In 2006, she was the first female governor elected by colleagues to chair the National Governors Association.
Pegged as a rising Democratic star, Napolitano has addressed the party's last three presidential conventions -- appearing three weeks after mastectomy surgery in 2000 -- and chaired the 2008 platform drafting committee.
Obama senior adviser and campaign strategist David Axelrod said of Napolitano's relationship to the president, "Early in the campaign, he said, 'If I win, I want those people with me,' and she was one of those people." Axelrod added, "She's always been on his radar screen because he's known her as a public official, known her as an ally -- she was an early supporter of his, he got to know her well and is enormously impressed by her."
Her departure from the Department of Homeland Security could create an awkward vacancy as the administration grapples with an unfolding pandemic of a new H1/N1 influenza virus and Obama's pledge to push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, which Napolitano has mastered as governor and DHS secretary.
Napolitano would bring to the court a hard-headed approach to issues, a voracious appetite for work, a middle-of-the-road style with colleagues and a Puckish sense of humor in private.
Born in New York City and raised in Pittsburgh and Albuquerque, Napolitano was valedictorian of Sandia High School in 1975. In 1979, she graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Santa Clara, whose football team her father had led as quarterback in the Rose Bowl. He later became an anatomy professor and dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
She studied for a year at the London School of Economics, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1983 and clerked with Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, before joining Schroeder's former firm, Lewis and Roca of Phoenix.
Napolitano was mentored by Schroeder and the firm's senior partner, the late John P. Frank, former Yale professor and expert on Supreme Court appointments, whom DeConcini asked to represent Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Throughout her career, Napolitano cultivated a tough-on-crime image. During her first gubernatorial run, she unsuccessfully defended Arizona's death-penalty system before the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the state may not issue death sentences unless trials were conducted before a jury, not just a judge.
As U.S. attorney, Napolitano oversaw the investigation of Michael Fortier in connection with the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma.
Standing 5 feet 4 inches, Napolitano has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, was treated for rabies after being bitten by a dog while hiking the Himalayas, and celebrated her 50th birthday at Lake Albano in Italy. She is unmarried and has no children.
In a federal financial disclosure firm filed in December, Napolitano listed two years' salary as governor totaling $186,300, annual retirement account income worth $7,916 to $26,108 and reportable assets worth $186,025 to $740,000, including a modest art collection, but not counting her condominium in Phoenix.