Janet Napolitano Biography

Government Official, U.S. Governor, Lawyer (1957–)
Janet Napolitano was the Democratic governor of Arizona (2003-2009) before becoming secretary of Homeland Security under Barack Obama (2009-2013).


Born in New York City on November 29, 1957, Janet Napolitano served as governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009, when she was nominated and confirmed as U.S. secretary of Homeland Security by President Barack Obama. Known for being an outspoken critic of the federal government's immigration policies, and for pushing for tougher penalties for employers hiring illegal immigrants, Napolitano forged new partnerships with international allies and expanded information sharing with federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies while serving as secretary. In July 2013, she announced plans to resign from her post in September 2013 in order to head the University of California system.

Early Life

Janet Ann Napolitano is the oldest of three children born to Jane Marie Winer and Leonard Michael Napolitano. With her brother, Leonard, and sister, Nancy, she was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her father served as dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

As a young girl, Napolitano excelled in the arts, becoming quite accomplished at playing clarinet and guitar. She graduated from Sandia High School in 1975, where she was voted most likely to succeed, and attended Santa Clara University in California, where she graduated as valedictorian with a degree in political science. From there, she attended the University of Virginia Law School, receiving a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. She then traveled to Arizona to serve as a law clerk for Judge Mary Schroder of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. After that, she joined the law firm of Lewis and Roca, settling in Phoenix, Arizona.

Entering the Public Service Arena

In 1991, Janet Napolitano entered the public stage serving as attorney for Anita Hill during Senate testimony against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment while she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Napolitano U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. While there, Napolitano pushed for innovative gun laws, including the Youth Handgun Safety Act, making it illegal to transfer a handgun to a minor when it is known that the weapon will be used in a crime. She also prosecuted one of the first Violence Against Women cases in the country, prosecuting offenders who crossed state lines to commit acts of domestic violence. Napolitano also led a cooperative effort of local, state and federal prosecutors to bolster prosecution of violent and dangerous offenders, and prosecuted the first "Three Strikes" cases in Arizona.

In 1998, Napolitano ran and won election to the position of Arizona attorney general, where she focused on consumer protection and general law enforcement. She defended Arizona's death penalty law—allowing capital punishment cases to be heard before a judge, not a jury—all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court, however, disagreed, stating that such cases must be heard before a jury. Napolitano gained national attention again while serving as attorney general in 2000, when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention just three weeks after having a mastectomy for cancer she'd developed in 1998.

Governor of Arizona

Janet Napolitano ran for the governorship of Arizona in 2002 as a pro-choice centrist, winning by a very slim margin. During her campaign, she identified the state's challenges as education, children, border control and rapid growth rate. As governor, Napolitano converted a $1 billion deficit in 2003 to a $300 million surplus without raising taxes. She supported voluntary all-day kindergarten programs and historic pay raises and training for school teachers, and directed school boards to issue construction plans for building 21st century schools. Governor Napolitano was also an outspoken critic of the federal government's immigration policies, and pushed for tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. Additionally, she implemented one of the first state homeland security strategies in the nation and opened a counter-terrorism center.

Napolitano also made a reputation for herself by setting a record for the total number of vetoes in a single session (58), and during her second term as governor, she issued a record 115 vetoes. Among these was a bill to crack down on employers who hire illegal aliens and authorize law-enforcement officials to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges for just being in the state. Napolitano explained that she believed the bill was too weak at penalizing guilty employers, and that enforcing the trespassing law would have overwhelmed police.

Secretary of Homeland Security

On January 11, 2008, Janet Napolitano endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency. After the election, she was appointed to the Obama-Biden transition team, and in January 2009, she was nominated and confirmed as U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. While serving as secretary, she forged new partnerships with international allies and expanded information sharing with federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies.

However, in her first year as secretary, Napolitano suffered from several bouts of "misspeak." In April 2009, she incorrectly claimed that the September 11, 2001, terrorists had entered the United States from Canada, provoking an angry response from the Canadian ambassador. That same month, the Department of Homeland Security produced an internal threat assessment report that cited "disgruntled returning military veterans" as possible targets for recruitment by right-wing extremist groups. Napolitano made multiple apologies for any offense experienced by veterans in the assessment, and promised to meet to discuss the report. The American Legion criticized the report while the Veterans of Foreign Wars praised it, though the VFW agreed that it could have been worded differently.

In late December 2009, in an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley discussing the attempted terrorist attack of the "underwear bomber," who tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a flight landing in Detroit, Michigan, Napolitano claimed that "the system worked." She later indicated that her remarks had been taken out of context and that the system had indeed failed, adding that extensive review was under way.

Thereafter, Janet Napolitano continued to work on counterterrorism, border security and making sure the country was prepared and ready to respond to any threat. She also continued to build upon the skills and resources of the young Department of Homeland Security, forging partnerships between the private sector and state, local and tribal governments to make the department better equipped to protect the nation.

In July 2013, Napolitano announced that she would be stepping down from her post as secretary of Homeland Security in order to head the University of California system. It was reported that Napolitano would resign in September 2013, with Former U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Transportation Security Administration Administrator John S. Pistole and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate among those named as Napolitano's potential successors.

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