Janet Napolitano and the Nativist Sheriff

At Slate, Tom Zoellner pulls back the curtain on Janet Napolitano's relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the rabidly anti-immigrant chief of police in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. Napolitano's history of looking the other way when it comes to Arpaio's excesses might mean that as DHS secretary, she couldn't be trusted to "stand up and speak out against excesses in law enforcement," Zoellner writes.

[Arpaio] is "America's toughest sheriff," a man who rose to prominence in the 1990s with such newsmaking stunts as feeding his inmates green bologna, clothing them in pink underwear, housing them in surplus Army tents behind barbed wire in the desert, and putting them to work on chain gangs. This punishment is inflicted equally on convicted criminals and those who have been convicted of no crime at all but are awaiting trial and unable to afford bail. Inmates who assault guards are put on rations of water and fortified bread. …

More than a decade ago, Napolitano was in a position to help curb Arpaio's excesses. As a U.S. attorney in 1995, she was put in charge of a Justice Department investigation into atrocious conditions in Arpaio's "tent city." Napolitano carried out her task with what can best be described as reluctance, going out of her way to protect Arpaio from flak almost before the probe had started. "We're doing this with the complete cooperation of the sheriff," she told the Associated Press. "We run a strict jail but a safe jail, and I haven't heard from anyone who thinks that this is a bad thing."

Napolitano is a moderate on immigration. She sent the National Guard to the Arizona-Mexico border, but she also vocally opposed ballot initiatives in Arizona that would have made it illegal for immigrants to access public services. She is far to the left of most of her constituents on these issues, so she has actually shown some political courage. What's more, when it comes to Arpaio, Napolitano's spine seemed to stiffer in her second term; as Zoellner acknowledges, she rescinded the state funding Arpaio was using to conduct immigration raids that broke up families in the Phoenix area.

There's also the fact that as a female politician — and one who came onto the national stage as a lawyer representing Anita Hill — Napolitano has always gone to great pains to burnish her "tough" credentials. As I wrote in my July profile of Napolitano, "Her career since the [Clarence] Thomas hearings has been almost perfectly calibrated to play against feminine stereotypes. As U.S. attorney and, later, state attorney general, Napolitano built up law-and-order credibility and learned to appeal to Arizonans' libertarian sensibility, sometimes disappointing her progressive allies."

That's no excuse for the bad decision of overlooking Arpaio's excesses as U.S. Attorney. Similarly, Hillary Clinton doesn't get a pass on supporting the Iraq war just because she is female and her advisers believed no antiwar woman could credibly run for the presidency. But I think it's only fair to consider these women's political history alongside the stereotypes they had to overcome to get where they are today.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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