Consorting with anti-immigrant enforcers, indulging rank opportunism, and adhering to failed policies seem an unlikely recipe for change we can believe in. And yet this very cocktail of mediocrity — stirred by an early endorsement of Barack Obama — has thrust Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano into the heady midst of Washington's inaugural speculation.
She finds herself on the president-elect's short list for a cabinet seat, as well as on Saturday Night Live's hot seat for parody.
The governor captured the front page of American journalism this month with the announcement that she is the frontrunner to take over the Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano must protect this nation's borders and ensure our safety from terrorism and natural disasters while overseeing billions of dollars in contracts in service of theses goals.
Janet Napolitano has considerable experience failing at administrative oversight.
But it is her role in securing Arizona's frontiers that bears scrutiny.
Confronted with a border state's unavoidable immigration challenges, Napolitano defended the citizenry with a devil's pitchfork. Her multi-pronged strategy: embrace the nation's most regressive legislation; empower a notorious sheriff using cynical political calculations; employ boots on the ground.
And yet she remains beloved by Democratic apologists. Those who cling to Napolitano point out that the alternative to her tepid, and occasionally disgraceful, leadership would be a Republican. That sends her partisan supporters to the fainting couch.
Her faithful base, supine with the vapors, is in no position to consider the record.
Here, quite simply, is the situation.
According to September's GAO report, Homeland Security squandered $15 billion in the past five years on contracts that failed, fell behind schedule, or were over budget. From Katrina to airport security, federal money grew on stunted trees.
And there is little reason to believe this is the sort of mess Napolitano can untangle.
In Arizona, the Department of Transportation, which Napolitano oversaw, bungled billions, the largest contracts in the state's history, by hiring firms embedded with the state agency's former employees and cronies. The ballot proposition that made all this possible was financed, of course, by the very corporations that stood to benefit. The glaring favoritism in the roadway contracts precipitated expensive litigation ("Friends at Work," Sarah Fenske, June 1, 2006).
Furthermore, Homeland Security, like every government agency, is under acute budgetary pressures having little to do with malfeasance.
Facing similar revenue shortfalls in Arizona, Napolitano ducked hard choices, refused to tighten the state's belt and opted for accounting gimmicks: highway radar to raise funds with increased ticketing of motorists; future lottery money diverted to current funding gaps.
Mere corruption, greed, and the cupidity of boondoggle bookkeeping in hard times — these are simple things to understand, if not sanction, within a state government.
But when the Valley of the Sun was in crisis, when the community was torn apart by the worst human-rights tragedy in the state's history, the central villain owed his political power to Janet Napolitano.
And when Arizona became the epicenter of anti-immigrant fever, when armed militiamen patrolled our southern flank with Mexico, our governor followed the advice of a notorious outlier congressman, an anti-immigration foghorn of despair.
She militarized the border.
The mere suggestion of work visas or a reasonable path to citizenship for the 12 million Mexicans living in America burned both President George W. Bush and John McCain in the wildfires of anti-immigrant populism before the election.
Immigration was the only major issue facing this nation that was studiously avoided by the candidates in the presidential campaign. The future of this hot-button issue is, at best, murky.
In Arizona, Governor Napolitano fed — and fed upon — the anti-immigrant fever that rages in our state. Though Napolitano's reputation is that of a modest progressive, her true profile is that of a pragmatist who is willing — in fact, is adept — at riding political currents.
She has signed several pieces of legislation that have criminalized that most human desire: the need to work and feed one's family.
This remarkable definition of lawbreaking behavior has created an era in Arizona that is the equivalent of a new Prohibition. Once, teetotalers, the temperance movement, and the anti-saloon league drove us into the Noble Experiment and the hands of mobsters. Today, those who migrate here seeking work, like those who once sought drink, are increasingly in the grip of organized crime.
"As the border gets tighter and tighter, it requires more professional smuggling operations," said Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network. "It makes everyone more desperate to ensure that the cargo gets across."
Governor Napolitano took a page from the anti-immigrant playbook and deployed the National Guard to the state's border with Mexico.
"Cartels fight for corridors, violence increases as they move contraband across the border. We've seen increased violence with the militarization," observed Allen.
And that violence has moved north away from the borders and into our cities.