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Arizona Democrat Has Slim Lead

Napolitano may have won governor's race in Goldwater country, as vote counting nears end.

November 09, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Arizona, long perceived as conservative, Barry Goldwater country, has apparently elected a Democrat as governor while sending a Republican majority to both houses of the Legislature.

State Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano, 44, held a slim lead Friday as nearly 200,000 ballots continued to be tallied. She was ahead by about 17,000 votes -- and said she expects to win by at least 10,000. Pollsters agreed, but her Republican opponent, retired three-term Rep. Matt Salmon, refused to concede.

Arizona last elected a Democratic governor 20 years ago with Bruce Babbitt's reelection.

"We'll get along with her," said Jake Flake, speaker of the state House of Representatives. "I would have preferred a Republican governor, but sure, we can work with a Democrat."

Napolitano expects no honeymoon. The state is burdened with a $500-million budget deficit that is likely to double within a year, and she said addressing the fiscal crisis will be her immediate focus.

"We're going to have to make some very painful decisions," said Napolitano, who was in Napa, Calif., Friday, taking a break after her campaign. "There are things we can do to get it done, but it will be a very tough year."

Napolitano said she would cut spending and eliminate some corporate tax exemptions but would protect education.

She reiterated one campaign mantra: to dismantle the Office of Excellence in Government. "We ought to expect excellence in every department of government, and not have a separate office in government where we hide all the excellence," Napolitano said.

Her election would bring to seven the number of female governors in the country, the most ever. Hers would be one of 21 Democratic gubernatorial victories among 36 posts up for election Tuesday. With the outcome still uncertain in Alabama, Republicans will hold 25 governorships next year and the Democrats 24.

Republicans were not surprised by Napolitano's showing -- many saw it as comeuppance for a series of fiscal and legislative misfires during Republican Jane Dee Hull's reign.

A key blunder was a law allowing Arizonans to write off half the cost of buying new vehicles if they were converted to alternative energy -- a well-intended environmental act that was going to cost the state more than $500 million in lost tax revenue before the law was rewritten and the rush to car dealerships was stemmed.

Napolitano, elected attorney general four years ago, won plaudits as a firm and hard-working prosecutor for her work in consumer protection, prosecution of crimes against children and support of capital punishment.

Previously, she served five years as the state's U.S. attorney, an appointment by President Clinton.

Republicans have a 6% edge over Democrats in voter registration in Arizona, but 20% of the voters list themselves as independent.

Napolitano was bolstered by other ballot measures that pulled an uncharacteristically high number of Democratic-leaning Native Americans to the polls to vote on the expansion of reservation gambling and to choose Navajo nation leadership.

Napolitano had to counter an eleventh-hour blitz of negative ads and two visits by President Bush on behalf of her opponent, Salmon.

An ad accusing her of not prosecuting a child molester backfired when an enraged Republican sheriff took to the airwaves in Napolitano's defense, saying the allegation was untrue and outrageous.

"Janet was able to get her [voter] base and more, and Salmon ran an unfocused campaign that lacked a clear message," said Margaret C. Kenski, a Tucson-based political consultant who usually polls for Republican campaigns. "But she's certainly quite liberal," Kenski said, given her stance in favor of abortion rights and support of such issues as giving payments from the state's victim compensation fund to undocumented immigrants.

While Napolitano awaited the final results, her father, a retired medical school dean at the University of New Mexico, wondered how the election would affect his daughter, who is single and enjoys the outdoors and travel.

Will she have time to accompany him to the opera next summer in Santa Fe? "She's a big opera fan," said Leonard Napolitano.

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