Arizonans are flocking to see their governor for breakfast at Mesa Community College, for lunch at a Marine air station in Yuma and for dinner at the Prescott Brewing Co.
They are packing resort dining halls and tribal community centers to hear the woman who bucked the Republican tilt of the 2002 elections. Audience members said they find Gov. Janet Napolitano to be engaging and attentive as she speaks with laserlike intensity about her agenda.
But between the autographs and the standing ovations, the test of Napolitano’s popularity will be determined by her ability to shape the public debate about how Arizona should solve its $1 billion fiscal crisis.
Early indications suggest Napolitano has been more effective than anyone predicted after she won in November by a slim margin. And she’s getting it done with a personal touch, crisscrossing the state since she took office Jan. 6 to attend community events and powerbroker meals.
"She’s got a good, strong message," vegetable farmer Victor Smith said after meeting Napolitano at a March 5 speech before the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce.
"I think she’s got a great personality. I think it’s inspiring. You can obviously get the feel she’s intelligent, she’s focused and that’s important to us. She’s got one tough job, but I’m impressed with her."
As a Democrat, Napolitano is seeking to build a reservoir of public goodwill as leverage in her pending negotiations with Republican lawmakers on the 2003-04 budget. Many people are suspicious of the governor’s proposal to act on a predicted $1 billion shortfall without drastic agency cuts, fearing it is a cover for significant tax hike proposals next year.
"Who controls politics in Arizona today, unfortunately, it’s the ideologues and the right-wingers and more conservative people who actually vote," said Bruce Merrill, a veteran political pollster and professor at Arizona State University. "If that’s your constituency, then the conservative Republican Legislature saying cut taxes and spending . . . that’s going to resonate well with that group."
Napolitano challenges those perceptions. The governor describes Arizona as a rich, diverse state with enough talent and intelligence to weather the budget crisis without sacrificing its future. She depicts the alternative Republican proposal as a disaster for education, health care and the poor.
"(When Republican leaders say) ‘Why are you continuing with spending?’ " I say, ‘Who do want to kick out of school? Who do want to kick off of AHCCCS (Arizona Health Ca re Cost Containment System), which is our Medicaid program, and who do you want me to release from prison?’ " Napolitano said. "If we do it wrong, we’re going to be the Mississippi of the West in the next 10 years."
Napolitano constantly appears on television news cameras and radio talk shows around the state. But the governor said in-person appearances build a direct bond as residents meet the person behind the sound-bite.
"The governor shouldn’t be a mythical being," Napolitano said.
She has spent $7,153 for 11 trips to every corner of Arizona in the past two months. The schedules for the out-oftown visits frequently leave enough time for causal chats. Napolitano also takes questions after almost every speech, a rare tactic for a sitting governor.
Such accessibility has encouraged the interest of people such as Charlie Deaton, president and CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, who was among nearly 300 East Valley business leaders who had breakfast with the governor in early February.
"I do think she is open enough and she wants to keep a balance between the conservative groups of the Legislature and more liberal thoughts," Deaton said.
"She’s going to try to keep peace between both groups. I think it was a good exchange for us and we realized she’s going to listen to us."
Republican lawmakers became alarmed by Napolitano’s success in demonizing their budget strategy. Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jake Flake joined together to make their case through newspaper columns, radio appearances and e-mails sent to the Republican faithful.
Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, RChandler, said Republicans realized they could no longer assume the media would highlight flaws in Napolitano’s budget proposal.
"The Republican leadership and the Republican members need to deliver their message whenever possible," Tibshraeny said. "We will never get the same exposure. It never will happen because of the nature of the beast. The governor is the top elected official."