Nowhere is that caution more apparent than in another border crisis, this one domestic.
If there is a single Arizona issue that suffered from a lack of leadership, that demanded politics take a back seat to character, it was the state's polygamy scandal. Is there a rising national star in this drama?
Napolitano's failure to deal with this crisis should make the Obama administration doubt whether she has the courage to attack problems that will surely plague her as Homeland Security chief.
In 2002, New Times reporter John Dougherty began a remarkable investigation into the nation's largest polygamous sect. Over a span of five years and 33 articles, Dougherty shed a harsh light upon the practices of the 8,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see "Polygamy in Arizona," at phoenixnewtimes.com).
Child abuse, sex crimes, welfare fraud, tax evasion, diversion of state school funds to church purposes and stunning genetic health problems infested Colorado City and Hildale, two polygamist communities that straddled the Arizona-Utah border. The case was complicated by the church's vast holdings on both sides of the border. At one point, lawyers defended men against charges of sex with underage girls by claiming that prosecutors did not know in which state the sex acts had occurred.
Underage girls, the estimates climbed into the hundreds, had been forced into "marriages" with men who already had wives.
Despite enormous holdings, as well as a trust valued well north of $100 million, Arizona taxpayers underwrote the polygamists to the tune of $20 million annually, including $172,000 in monthly food stamps. Church leaders stole so much money from the state that they referred to it as "bleeding the beast."
Since 1990, the state had been treating a rare and devastating genetic disorder within the polygamous sect. Although some 8,000 strong, approximately half the community was primarily descended from only two families who had intermarried with abandon. Fumarese Deficiency was occurring within this isolated sect with the greatest concentration in the world. At the time of the series, about 20 children were afflicted.
"Victims suffer a range of symptoms, including severe epileptic seizures, inability to walk or even sit upright, severe speech impediments, failure to grow at a normal rate, and tragic physical deformities," noted Dougherty in one article.
The community was receiving $12 million annually to pay for health insurance premiums.
Before Dougherty was done, the FLDS would come under intense government scrutiny. Their leader, Warren Jeffs, was placed upon the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
Yet both as Arizona Attorney General and governor, Janet Napolitano was more than ineffective in the face of this crisis. She was silent.
Although the FLDS is a breakaway cult from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many current members of mainstream Mormonism have decidedly mixed feelings regarding their history of polygamy. Furthermore, politically active Mormons continue to exercise huge political sway in Arizona. During Dougherty's series, church members held the key legislative chairs in the statehouse, including Senate President Ken Bennett and Speaker of the House Jake Flake. Flake was, in fact, the descendent of a prominent polygamist patriarch.
The last time a governor had tried to go after the polygamists, it was a political disaster. In 1953, Governor Howard Pyle was voted out of office after he raided the polygamous community of Short Creek.
Napolitano's dithering suggested she was too concerned about political fallout to act decisively.
The Governor's Office, frustrated at the repeated questioning of her seeming inability to act, lashed out at Dougherty.
"We can't fix every problem at once," the governor's spokeswoman, Jeanine L'Ecuyer, famously responded to one of the reporter's questions. "The question [of what to do] is a big one. It's a broad one, and it's a difficult one to answer."
Napolitano never did, in fact, solve the issue. She never addressed any part of the problem.
In 2002, a spokesman for then-Attorney General Napolitano told Dougherty her office had an investigator on the polygamy situation five separate times. Napolitano's grand jury proved inconclusive.
As law enforcement scrutiny lingered over years, residents of the two border towns began to build fortifications. Prophet Warren Jeffs vowed never to be taken alive.
"Does he have bodyguards? Yes. Are they armed? Yes. Will they put down their lives for him? Yes." One investigator told Dougherty.
"You know damn good and well nobody wants to go there," said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson in 2005. "Everyone is damn afraid of another Waco."
In her entire tenure as attorney general and governor, Janet Napolitano assigned one part-time worker from Child Protective Services to face the polygamy issues.
In 2005, other authorities took matters into their hands.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, as well as Arizona's Mohave County Attorney and Utah's Washington County Attorney, moved to end the abuse. Arizona Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne joined in the legal assault.