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By Anne Bromley

April 22, 2004 — Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the U.Va. Women’s Center’s 2004 Distinguished Alumna, gives new meaning to the word “tough” — and not only because the Democrat was once brave enough to wear a glass pendant full of Florida chads to a Republican function.

Visiting U.Va. Wednesday to receive the Distinguished Alumna Award, the 1983 Law School graduate recounted another example in her talk at the Caplin Pavilion to show how women leaders deal with difficult issues.

By Michael Bailey
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the U.Va. Women's Center's 2004 Distinguished Alumna, makes a point Wednesday at the Law School's Caplin Pavilion.

She faced the toughest situation in her career in January, she said, when two inmates took over the guard tower at the Lewis Prison Complex, a maximum-security facility. The tower, which sat in the middle of the prison yard and was supposed to be impregnable, contained stores of pharmaceuticals and ammunitions. The prisoners, who were serving the equivalent of life sentences, held two guards hostage, one male, the other female.

SWAT teams and other law personnel told her there were no clear, tactical options for rescuing the hostages. The two prisoners showed that they would have no problem using weapons, as they periodically sprayed the yard with submachine-gun fire.

Negotiating was the only route, said Napolitano. Among the people working on the case was the head of corrections, Dora Schriro, the first woman to hold that position. A diminutive, soft-spoken woman, “she’s just about the toughest person I’ve ever met,” Napolitano said.

It took 15 days to resolve the crisis, and “the pressure to storm the tower was enormous,” she said. After 10 days, the male guard was released, but not the woman. Negotiations continued. The two inmates finally gave up five days later when promised new placements in prisons closer to their relatives and out of state — moves that would have been made in any case, Napolitano said, so the convicts would not jeopardize the security of this particular facility again.

When the Arizona governor greeted the woman prison guard as she arrived at a nearby hospital by helicopter, the guard thanked her for not storming the tower. One of her captors would hold a gun to her temple as the other spoke with officials. “They would’ve killed me,” she said.

Despite the fact that the hostage crisis was resolved without any loss of life, the Arizona legislature, mostly men, decided to conduct an investigation of the handling of the crisis. To Napolitano, who also formed a panel to review the prison system, that inquiry raises questions about gender differences and what kind of leadership style is perceived as “being tough.”

The hostage incident made another point, she said. Although she wanted to be governor to fulfill some priorities still labeled as ‘women’s issues,’ Napolitano, a native of neighboring New Mexico, said that whatever the agenda and priorities politicians might pick and choose to work on in office, the issues often choose them.

She made no apologies for allowing her life experiences to guide her decisions and priorities. For instance, soon after being elected Arizona’s first female attorney general in 1998, she discovered a backlog of child abuse and neglect cases and got busy working with her staff to clear them — 6,000 cases involving 10,000 children. “I don’t think my male predecessors perceived it as a priority.”

Napolitano makes that assessment even while giving the history of strong women in Arizona politics. A relatively young state that has been mostly conservative, it has now become one of the battlegrounds for the upcoming presidential election, she said. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is neck-and-neck with President Bush in state polls, and the battle will be for the 23 percent of independent voters, she predicted.

Being a Democrat in a Republican-controlled state, Napolitano’s successful gubernatorial election in 2002 is credited to her ability to build coalitions and consensus across party lines and ethnic groups.

In her first year in office, she won approval of a state budget that erased a $1 billion deficit without raising taxes or cutting funding for public schools or other vital services. She also improved a prescription drug plan for seniors by making it more affordable.

After earning her U.Va. law degree, Napolitano moved to Phoenix to practice law. President Clinton tapped her to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. She then served a term as Arizona attorney general before running for governor.
The number of women in top political positions has been increasing since the 1970s, but women need to take public stands more often on difficult, complex issues, she said. That way, society will get more used to women in high places; then, we may see a woman in the Oval Office.

The U.Va. Women’s Center established the annual Distinguished Alumna Award in 1991 to recognize a female graduate of the University who has demonstrated excellence, leadership and extraordinary commitment to her field, and who has used her talents as a positive force for change.

   
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