Janet Napolitano does not shy away from tough fights, having first risen to prominence as Anita Hill’s attorney during the Clarence Thomas controversy, and later as a Democratic governor of a very Republican state.
Napolitano was born on November 19, 1957, in New York City to Jane Marie Winer and Leonard Michael Napolitano, an anatomy professor who was the dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. She was raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and Albuquerque, NM, and she enjoyed her time so much as a Girl Scout that she became a lifetime member. She graduated from Sandia High School in 1975 and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Napolitano attended college in California, earning a Truman Scholarship and graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Santa Clara University in 1979. She was valedictorian of her graduating class, the first female to earn the honor in the school’s history. Napolitano then received her Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1983.
After law school Napolitano clerked for Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and then joined Schroeder’s former firm, Lewis and Roca, in Phoenix, AZ. She became a partner of the firm in 1989, and in 1991, Napolitano was part of the legal team that represented Anita Hill, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission colleague of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill’s accusations jeopardized, but ultimately failed to derail, the Senate’s confirmation of Thomas. Napolitano was in charge of preparing the testimony of Hill’s supporting witnesses. Her representation of Hill became an issue in 1993 when the Senate considered Clinton’s nomination of Napolitano for US Attorney. Napolitano refused to answer questions about a private conversation with one of Hill’s witnesses, Susan Hoerchner, whom Republican critics contended changed her testimony at Napolitano’s urging.
In 1993, Napolitano was appointed by President Bill Clinton as US Attorney for Arizona. While awaiting her confirmation by the US Senate (which took a year because of Republican objections), she recused herself from a case against Cindy McCain, wife of US Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who was charged with stealing prescription drugs from her medical charity. During her time as a US Attorney, Napolitano began her political alliance with the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, who became famous for subjecting inmates to chain gangs, rotten food and pink underwear. Napolitano was part of an investigation by the Justice Department that looked into Arpaio’s methods of incarceration, but she downplayed the significance of the final report, which accused the sheriff’s operation of using excessive force, gratuitous use of pepper spray and “restraint chairs,” hog-tying and beating of inmates.
In 1998 Napolitano ran for state attorney general of Arizona and won. Her tenure focused on consumer protection issues. Before the U.S. Supreme Court, she defended (unsuccessfully) Arizona’s right to issue death penalties in non-jury trials. While still serving as attorney general, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, even though she was still recovering from a mastectomy and a battle against breast cancer.
Napolitano became a rising star in the Democratic Party when she became governor of Arizona in 2002. She narrowly defeated Republican Matt Salmon, a former congressman, giving Arizona (and the United States) the first ever back-to-back female governors of a state (she succeeded Republican Jane Dee Hull). Her campaign was helped by Arpaio’s endorsement and appearance in a television ad, and Napolitano continued her hands-off policy towards the sheriff’s controversial ways while she served as governor.
As governor, Napolitano got into numerous fights with the Republican-controlled Legislature over state spending and illegal immigration. She also became a prominent figure in the debate over REAL ID, a federal program launched after the 2001 terrorist attacks to make driver’s licenses more secure. In 2007, Napolitano struck a deal with the Department of Homeland Security that was supposed to lead to her state adopting the REAL ID standards. But in June 2008, she signed legislation refusing to implement the standards. Furthermore, state auditors faulted Arizona’s use of federal homeland security grants, citing sloppy record keeping of millions of federal dollars doled out to communities. If confirmed as homeland security secretary, Napolitano would oversee $2 billion a year in counterterrorism grants to states and cities. Napolitano has fought to curb illegal immigration, supporting the use of radar and the National Guard on the border. However, she has been skeptical that building a fence along the US-Mexico border will solve the problem. She once said: “You build a 50-foot wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder.” Napolitano has supported a guest-worker program and, like fellow Arizonan John McCain, she has spoken in favor of allowing a path to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million undocumented workers.
In November 2006, Napolitano easily won re-election as governor, defeating GOP challenger Len Munsil, and becoming the first woman to be re-elected to the governor’s office. With term limits preventing her from running again for governor, Napolitano was in an ideal position to accept the nomination for Secretary of Homeland Security.
Napolitano endorsed Barack Obama early on in the fight for the Democratic nomination for president, giving the Illinois Democrat a prominent female supporter while battling Hillary Clinton. That endorsement made Napolitano persona non grata among some Clinton supporters. She became part of the president-elect’s transition team in early November 2008. Like Obama, Napolitano is an avid basketball fan. She once climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa.
Napolitano is unmarried, which, according to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), makes her perfectly suited for the job of homeland secretary. “Janet’s perfect for that job,” Rendell told the media. “Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.”