Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007 | 7:06 a.m.
RENO - Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has become the new hope for Democrats in the hinterlands of American politics: a Democrat in a deeply red state, reelected last year by a margin of nearly 30 percentage points.
What's more, Napolitano carried 70 percent of independents, who make up the fastest - growing segment of her state's electorate.
Speaking to about 200 union members at the Nevada AFL-CIO convention in Reno on Tuesday, Napolitano said her rise to power is just one example of how voters are turning to Democrats in the Intermountain West - and setting the stage for a Democratic presidential victory in 2008.
In January 2001 none of the interior Western states had Democratic governors. Now, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are led by Democrats. In fact, last year's elections gave Democrats a majority of the country's governorships, and Napolitano, the first chairwoman of the National Governor's Association, was named their leader.
She said her climb to Arizona's chief executive position was tough - and instructive on how Democrats can win nationally next year.
Napolitano was narrowly elected governor in 2002, winning by 1 percentage point. On Tuesday she attributed that win in part to the intense party building that had happened during the previous four years, after she was elected attorney general.
The real lesson, she said, lies in her first term as governor.
Napolitano battled the Republican-controlled Legislature, vetoing 120 bills in her first term, she said. But her focus on some traditionally conservative issues, such as fiscal responsibility and illegal immigration, won her support and allowed her to enact her agenda.
Before immigration became such a white-hot issue in Washington, she declared a state of emergency on the border and sent the National Guard. (She often calls the current system "silent amnesty" and in July signed into law a measure that cracks down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.)
"We changed the dynamic," Napolitano said.
She said she also turned the state's budget deficit into a surplus, instituted all-day kindergarten, awarded large pay raises to teachers, boosted funding for higher education and created a prescription drug program that covers the gaps in the federal Medicare program, saving seniors 15 percent to 55 percent on their prescriptions.
All of this set the stage for her re-election. Bipartisanship, she said, also played a big role - and perhaps a necessary one in Arizona, where Democrats lag Republicans in voter registration by 6 percentage points.
"It requires an ability to talk to people in terms they understand," Napolitano said. "That's why the Intermountain West is going to be voting differently this time than it has in the past. Our message needs to be concrete and dedicated to people. We must leave no voter behind because of party affiliation."
Public opinion is in the Democrats' favor on the core issues of education, health care, the economy and foreign policy, Napolitano said. She challenged Nevada's labor unions to translate those national themes into local messages as they ready members for the state's Jan. 19 caucuses.
"For far too long, the stage has been that we would see the underbelly of the plane as it went to California," Napolitano said. "Now they have to stop, talk and address our issues. In exchange, we have to make sure our states are in right column come November."