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Commentary: Gov. Napolitano failed when she needed moral courage

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SAN DIEGO -- If Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wins confirmation as secretary of homeland security, she will be responsible for enforcing the nation's immigration laws. This is a chilling thought for those of us who have witnessed up close how Napolitano can be vexed to the point of paralysis by that highly charged issue.

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I met Napolitano when I was working as a reporter and metro columnist at The Arizona Republic in the late 1990s. After serving as a legal adviser to Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, she enjoyed a meteoric rise as a public official. She was named a U.S. attorney by President Bill Clinton, then was elected Arizona's attorney general in 1998. Four years later, she was elected governor, winning re-election in 2006.

One thing that helped fuel her ascent, her critics say, is that Napolitano rarely takes action without doing the political equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis. She often makes decisions based not on what is right and wrong, but on the benefit she'll derive and what that will cost her politically. A lot of politicians do the same thing. But Napolitano does it better than most, and she's more obvious about it. At the end of the day, she is a lawyer with one client: herself. And that instinct gets her into trouble when she puts political expediency before principle.

According to her critics, that's what happened in Chandler, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb where, in July 1997, Arizonans witnessed a horrendous abuse of power. A tag-team of local police and Border Patrol agents -- in a futile attempt to purge the city of illegal immigrants over the course of a few days -- trampled the civil rights of U.S. citizens. What became known as the Chandler Roundup resulted in the apprehension and deportation of more than 400 illegal immigrants. But because the law-enforcement net was cast wide enough to ensnare anyone who looked like an illegal immigrant -- i.e., brown skin, Spanish accents, or even, as one Chandler police officer later told stunned state investigators looking into the incident, a "smell" common to the undocumented -- scores of U.S.-born Hispanics were systematically harassed, detained and asked to produce birth certificates or citizenship papers.

In the months that followed, there were protests, multimillion-dollar lawsuits and demands that elected officials punish those responsible. Talk radio was replete with people defending the roundup and criticizing the activists seeking justice.

It was an ugly time in the modern history of Arizona and a defining moment that separated leaders from followers. According to Napolitano's critics, and from my own vantage point covering the conflict, she was in the second camp. There were maybe a dozen activists, elected officials and media figures taking arrows from pro-roundup nativists -- while Napolitano, then the U.S. attorney with jurisdiction over the Border Patrol and already a candidate for state attorney general, hid under her desk. The most she was willing to do was to say her office had made a referral to the Justice Department.

Take it from one of the people who fought on the front lines of the Chandler controversy, and who is now fighting a different kind of battle. Chandler City Councilman Martin Sepulveda, a Navy commander, is now serving his third tour in Iraq.

"As the U.S. attorney, Napolitano spent more time figuring out how not to get involved," Sepulveda told me in a phone interview from Anbar province. "I'm not sure how she, as the U.S. attorney, figured that she couldn't get involved in a federal issue that involved a federal agency, but she did. This easily was the misdeed of the decade in the entire state if not the entire Southwest. Janet Napolitano was a no-show."

There are plenty of stories like that from Arizonans who expected more from Napolitano and came away disappointed. Granted, this was 11 years ago when the Democrat was just a political novice. Maybe Napolitano has developed more courage and character since then. But, at that moment -- a defining one for Arizona that helped set the stage for the ugly restrictionist impulses that now afflict the state -- she ducked her responsibility and let others take the heat.

Speaking of heat, Dante insisted that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Not long ago, in a city called Chandler, Arizonans experienced a moral crisis. And Janet Napolitano did everything she could to stay out of the fray.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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