Governor Napolitano’s office, may I help you?” I said, greeting our first caller to Janet Napolitano’s office, former governor of Arizona.
“A spirit named Misty invaded my body. I need $600 to remove the spirit,” the woman said as if asking a friend for a handout. “The guide wants the money up front and no one will lend it to me. Not my mother, not my sister, no one. Can I get it from the Governor?”
No, I said. Psychological counseling was more prudent than a costly medium. She balked at the idea. Furious that the state of Arizona wouldn’t hand over $600 for spirit removal, the caller slammed down the phone.
That started a typical morning as a volunteer in Janet Napolitano’s office of constituent services. Every Monday I answered calls from residents, nearly all from Arizona although calls sometimes filtered in from California, Michigan and other states.
During my second week in November 2004, a caller asked for Janet. I didn’t recall meeting anyone named Janet. Quickly, I sorted through the people I’d met. There was Carolyn, Melodee, Ezra, Betty Sue, but I couldn’t remember anyone named Janet. So I asked, “Janet who?”
The caller shot back, “The Governor.”
The caller wanted legal advice from Janet Napolitano who had served as state attorney general from 1998-2002. Prior to that, she served as a US Attorney. I said the Governor didn’t give legal advice on the phone. The small business owner hadn’t paid rent and faced eviction proceedings.
“I suggest you contact a lawyer. The state can’t help you, I’m sorry,” I said.
In December, volunteers shared a holiday lunch with the Governor and I told that story. The Governor laughed.
Sometimes it took seconds to determine a call was unrelated to Arizona. A woman wanted the Governor to “use her influence” to move up her passport request. She made vacation plans when the Bush Administration imposed stringent requirements on foreign travel. Deluged with passport and visa requests, the State Department warned citizens to apply months in advance because of processing backlogs. Some travelers shrugged off warnings and booked last minute travel plans anyway. Airline tickets to foreign countries without passports and/or visas were useless. Pressure tactics on our office didn’t work. Despite glowing comments such as – the Governor can do anything or I really like Janet – we told callers the Governor had no influence over the State Department. We suggested calling their Congressional delegation.
Another caller wanted the Governor for an urgent matter.
“The Governor doesn’t take calls from the public. That’s the purpose of the office of constituent services. I’ll try to help you,” I said.
“Tell her that God blesses her. He won’t bless you though because you won’t let me talk to her.”
I didn’t take it personally.
A man from out of state claims the state of Arizona is blocking his ability to work. Why, I ask. The irate caller received a traffic ticket in Arizona ten years ago.
“I paid it, of course,” he said. “You people didn’t get your records straight. When I tried to renew my license, which I need to drive, they said I owe the ticket. This is an outrage. I have a family to feed.”
“Did you call the Department of Motor Vehicles?”
“The phone lines are constantly busy.”
As a rule, I referred callers to the appropriate department for resolution. As an alternative, they could write the Governor for further investigation. This time, however, I wilted and offered to look into his problem.
“What county were you ticketed?” I asked.
“Sir, there is no Solano County in Arizona.”
“It says right here, Solano County.”
I asked him to read the ticket. I moved to Arizona in 1997 so I wasn’t entirely familiar with the state’s geography but Solano County didn’t exist.
“Maybe it’s a town called Solano,” he said.
“That’s a big help. Let me do some checking and I’ll call you back.”
The man omitted a few salient points. He paid the ticket late on Friday afternoon, not years ago. The county clerk, who worked alone in a rural part of Arizona, didn’t have time to process his credit card payment until sometime later on Monday or Tuesday. Because I called on behalf of the Governor’s office she offered to rush through his paperwork.
“Take your time,” I said. “This guy lied. Process the payment at your regular schedule. I’ll call him back and tell him it’ll be done today or tomorrow.”
When I confronted Mr. Late Payment, he sounded miffed. I reminded him that Arizona wasn’t responsible for his inability to renew his driver’s license. He was. I vowed that I wouldn’t make any more calls for constituents as many only told us bits and pieces of the truth.
Hard luck cases often found their way to our office. Sometimes we could help; sometimes we could not. A woman who lost her job called with a pickle of a story. The Department of Economic Security denied her unemployment application because of identity theft. To qualify, the caller had to file a police report then request an administrative hearing. She would probably qualify for benefits but the process might string along months. In such cases, there was nothing we could do. What a double whammy – she loses her job then runs up against a thief who stole her identity.
Now and then the calls were absurd. “What’s the name of the Governor’s psychic?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“The Governor’s psychic. What’s her name?”
“The state of Arizona doesn’t employ a psychic.”
“That’s not what I heard. It’s a waste of taxes.”
“Where did you get that information?”
The caller hung up. I wanted to know who spread that rumor so we could squash it.
A woman called in a panic. Her husband, a heart transplant patient, had been receiving AHCCS, Arizona’s version of Medicaid. His application for Social Security Disability was recently approved thus edging his income over AHCCS strict limits. The state just paid for his heart transplant but would no longer cover life saving rejection medication because Social Security. Social Security Disability recipients don’t receive Medicare for another two years. Another volunteer worked the phones for several hours that morning, trying to find a solution. The Arizona Heart Hospital that performed the surgery kept an emergency pharmaceutical supply. After we came up empty, the hospital offered to supply the rejection drugs unless another arrangement could be made. No matter how we tried to calm this woman, she was sure her beloved husband would die.
The governor sometimes traveled to Mexico to promote trade with Arizona. Trade created jobs at home and in Mexico, increasing tax revenue. Not everyone saw it as a boost to the economy A woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a Buick said promoting trade with Mexico violated the US Constitution. As she rattled off parts of the Constitution I politely interrupted her and said, “My shorthand skills are limited. You’re free to write to the Governor either through email or snail mail to express your views.” She shrugged me off and reminded me that promoting trade with Mexico was illegal and that Janet Napolitano should not make any more state sponsored trips to “that” country.
Parents and family members often asked Gov. Napolitano for help with their children’s tuition, medical expenses, dance lessons or summer camp. One woman owed back taxes and wanted the Governor to kick in towards her unpaid balance. Others represented charities and wanted the Governor to make a contribution. Undoubtedly, the Governor had her own charities but that was her business.
Self-important people wanted to convey ideas directly to the Governor. I offered a sound alternative, such as contacting the head of a particular department but to some, that wasn’t good enough. They insisted on talking directly to Janet Napolitano. If I couldn’t produce a direct line or personal email they threatened to report me for insubordination. Some did just that and I got chewed out for being nasty. I defended the state of Arizona and I defended Janet Napolitano but I was never rude.
A volunteer returned a constituent’s call by leaving a message on his machine. He called back and insisted it was Janet Napolitano who had called. I assured him it was not.
“Sir, it was someone from our office,” I said. “We call everyone back in a timely fashion.”
“No, the Governor called me. I want to speak to her.”
“She doesn’t return these calls. That’s what we do.”
“I’ll just wait for her to call.”
I said to myself, he’ll be waiting for a long time.
One woman called for the Governor’s personal intervention in her husband’s criminal case. Recently sentenced to a long term for his third drunk driving conviction, the man would serve a long time. The single mother of two feared crushing poverty without his income. “What am I going to do? I can’t make it alone.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said. “The Governor can’t undo his sentence. That would be illegal. I can refer you for public assistance. That’s about all I can offer.”
I heard sniffling. “Please don’t do this,” she pleaded. “I need him.”
There was a strong chance she would drift into poverty, maybe even become homeless, but the state couldn’t intervene. Some situations left me feeling like a heel.
Illegal immigration framed Gov. Janet Napolitano’s tenure and thrust her into the national spotlight. Local and national television invited her to discuss immigration and how Arizona confronted it. In Washington she pressed former President George W. Bush for National Guard troops and an increase in Border Patrol agents. In 2007, she signed a controversial state law that would sever the license of a business that knowingly hired undocumented workers. Intense pressure built from citizens, the legislature, local officials and the business community to deal with illegal immigration. No matter what the Governor did, someone would be unhappy. Take the man who called to complain about the Governor’s state of the state address. He said it didn’t include immigration.
“Sir, it’s only 10:00 a.m. The Governor hasn’t given the speech yet,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, in a thick foreign accent.
“Well, she better include it.”
“I bet she will.”
Undocumented citizens from Mexico in search of jobs and a way to escape grinding poverty streamed across the porous US/Mexican border. For years immigrants entered the US for low wage jobs as laborers, construction workers and in agriculture. Most raised families and blended into the community. Their children attended school and ate at McDonald’s. When gang violence involving Latinos tore apart neighborhoods and the US economy soured, demand for immigration reform increased. For hard-liners that only meant deportation. Our office took calls demanding the Governor seal the border with troops. Others wanted an electrical fence. One man called and said he had a simple solution. “Shoot everyone who crosses the border and ask questions later.” A woman called and demanded to know why the National Guard couldn’t stand “shoulder to shoulder” along the entire border. I always said I’d pass along your comments to the Governor but once in a while that wasn’t good enough. They wanted immediate action to quell their anger.
“What’s she doing to do about it? I want those illegals out and I want them out now.”
Even children got into the act. A grammar school child wrote a letter where he suggested digging a moat between the US and Mexico and filing it with snakes, scorpions and other “creepy things.” Some people unabashedly suggested emptying animal shelters of unwanted pit bulls and using them to attack undocumented immigrants as they crossed. The venom in people’s voices scared me. I hoped the US never followed the genocide in Rwanda.
Some calls amused me. A woman with a thick Slavic accent wanted a phone number in the Phoenix city government. I didn’t like enabling people but I looked anyway.
“Do you have a phone book at home?” I asked.
“No, only one from Bucharest,” she said.
I chuckled. “May I suggest you call Qwest and ask for a phone book. They’re free.”
“Good idea, I’ll do that.”
A man asked me if I’d heard about the Rumsfeld report. “Excuse me,” I said, totally caught off guard.
The Rumsfeld report, he said. “Have you read it?”
“Please elaborate,” I said.
He supposedly obtained a copy of a confidential arms report that was vital to national security interests. “I’m prepared to sell missiles to the state of Arizona.”
“Missiles!” I exclaimed. Missiles, I repeated. I could hardly believe this. Only the Armed Forces buy missiles, I said. Arizona isn’t in the market for weaponry, no matter how cheaply you can sell them. I hung up and immediately went into Melodee’s Jackson’s office, the department director. I told her that if the Governor approved, I could get a sweet deal on missiles. We both laughed.
A man calling himself an apostle wanted to speak to the governor. He offered a cure for one of the many droughts that plagued Arizona.
“Speaking to Gov. Napolitano personally isn’t possible but you can leave a message,” I said.
“I have to talk to her,” he said.
“Sir, I can give her your ideas,” I said.
“Then the drought will continue and it’s your fault.”
On a relatively peaceful day with mostly routine call, an irate man calls and wants to talk to the Governor. No bank will approve a loan on a condemned house. He wants the state to lend him the money.
“The state doesn’t lend money,” I said.
“It’s a great investment I’ll have to pass up,” he said.
“I guess you will,” I said.
“Can’t you put me through to the Governor?”
“I can’t do that but I can pass along your comments.”
“I really need the Governor. She’d agree this is a good deal.”
The conversation ended with me passing along his comments about the fabulous deal that slipped through his fingers because Arizona wouldn’t lend him money.
The rich and famous sought help from Governor Napolitano too. A relative of a high ranking official in the Bush administration asked me if I recognized her name. I did. She asked to speak with the Governor. I handed her my usual response and I offered to help.
“It’s personal. I’d like to talk to her,” the woman said. For security reasons, the caller shall remain anonymous.
“The governor doesn’t take calls from the public.”
Convicted of a DUI she wanted the Governor to intervene. I asked if she had a lawyer. She didn’t like the deal he arranged and thought the Governor might smooth something more to her liking. The Governor never intervened in criminal cases. I told the Melodee, the office director. The governor’s chief of staff call her attorney, warning him never to call again asking for special favors.
The governor’s office received many letters from children. Melodee said the governor enjoyed reading their letters. Once in a while, the Governor picked out letters and called the children personally. That must’ve really thrilled the children when they heard, “The Governor is calling.”
Each child who wrote received a Kid’s Pack containing information about the Governor, state history, Arizona landmarks, and how to remain safe.
For years, I volunteered in a homeless shelter as a pet therapist with my adopted dog Luke. I met a 12 year old girl named Lacy who adored Gov. Napolitano. I told Lacy I volunteered in the office and would have a Kid’s Packet sent to her. Apparently someone called the homeless shelter to verify Lacy’s last name and address. At my weekly visit, Lacy was ecstatic. She honestly thought that Gov. Napolitano herself had called. Usually honest with the kids I saw no reason to let her down. So I didn’t.
Stories spread that the Governor sent tech jobs overseas, which was not true. A group supposedly representing hi-tech workers flooded our office with thousands of e-mails and faxes blasting the Governor for being un-American by stealing their jobs. Melodee called one of the letter writers and was surprised he hadn’t written the letter. He belonged to a computer list serve and someone used his name without permission. Still, we had to log onto the computer perhaps 3,000 letters angrily denouncing the Governor for sending hi-tech jobs overseas. What a waste of state resources.
Another rumor spread among Christian churches that the state planned to give preferential treatment to Muslim students in public schools. Our office was deluged with form letters angrily demanding that no such action be taken. None of this of course was true.
Someone called from California and didn’t get the response they wanted. She said, “I’m calling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from California. He’ll help me.”
Sometimes, we sorted through the Governor’s mail. Prisoners sent dozens of letters asking for a way out of jail. Nearly all proclaimed innocence. A few said they’d join the Army and serve in Iraq if the Governor released them from jail. Others swore they found religion and if released, they’d serve God and never again get in trouble.
Out of all the letters a handful of prisoners really were wrongly convicted. They had to pursue their cases through the criminal justice system, not the Governor’s office. Some letters made me laugh, others I felt like shredding and a few were clever such as an inmate serving a life sentence in California on a three strikes you’re out offense. If the native Arizonan had committed his crimes in our state and not California, he’d be eligible for parole in a few years, not serving life. He asked Gov. Napolitano for a transfer to an Arizona prison so he could be released in the near future. I fell out laughing. There was no way that would happen. Too bad he wasted his talent and would spend his life in jail.
The 2008 presidential election was a tumultuous time. Gov. Napolitano campaigned for Obama, much to the disappointment of Clinton supporters. Some called and said that Janet Napolitano owed her political career to Bill Clinton who appointed her as US Attorney in 1993. They felt she was obligated to support Hillary. Some female callers insisted they’d never vote for the Governor if she ran for national office. Other callers wanted to know how much of the state’s money the Governor spent stumping around for Obama. I told them all the same thing.
“Her trips are paid for by the Obama campaign,” I said. “No state tax dollars are used.”
After Obama won the election, a woman called and was just furious. She could hardly speak.
“How do I sell my citizenship? I don’t want to be an American anymore.”
Each Christmas, children from Valley schools were invited to sing songs in front of the Capitol tree. Family and friends sat in chairs. The children added a festive touch to the often testy mood at the Capitol. Sometimes the Governor’s office had children from across the state make ornaments for the tree.
On the day of the tree lighting ceremony, a large crowd gathered, including school children, their families, state employees and visitors. The media surrounded the tree and waited for the Governor to make her grand entrance. She lit the tree to a hearty round of applause. Then, she made a short speech and wished everyone a happy holiday.
One year we helped send out the governor’s Christmas cards. I had access to addresses of famous politicians from across the US. No state funds were spent on the governor’s Christmas card project.
In mid September 2007, I left that Monday as usual around noon. I said good-bye to Melodee who was finishing lunch. Before she headed out for her after meal smoke, I said, “See you next week.”
“We’ll be here,” was her typical response.
The next Monday she wasn’t. During a casual dinner with her sister she collapsed and never regained consciousness. She died September 21st. At her funeral, which was attended by hundreds, I cried as the Governor talked about their special friendship. Melodee Jackson and Janet Napolitano formed a friendship around twenty years earlier when Melodee was head of the fledgling Arizona Democratic Party and Janet Napolitano, an attorney in private practice, served as their legal counsel. Melodee was a wonderful human being who served the state well for many years. The office was much duller after she passed. I missed her wisdom, her caring, and her concern for Arizona and all the people who lived here.
Janet Napolitano resigned in January 2009 to become Secretary of Homeland Security. Perhaps the only noticeable difference in the office was the missing artwork. Donated paintings of the Governor were gone. Employees removed anti-Bush signs from their cubicles too.
On that first Monday, a woman called from a downtown light rail station saying “I have to pee” and there are no public restrooms. I want Gov. Jan Brewer to know.”
Others demanded to speak with Gov. Brewer just as they insisted on talking to Janet Napolitano. When we said the Governor doesn’t take calls, their response: Why not? People wanted the new Governor to intervene in Workmen’s Compensation cases the Industrial Commission turned down. They wanted grants from the state to supplement their income. The nature of the calls didn’t change even though the administration switched from Democratic to Republican.
Lee and I were the only two hold-outs from the Napolitano administration. Due to differences with the department manager, still a Democrat, we left the office in the spring of 2009. Serving Arizona for all those years was a rewarding experience for us both. A day at the office was always a challenge. Calls were mostly ordinary but some tested our resolve. We referred people to various government agencies. We listened to them complain. Once in a while, we hung up on rude, obnoxious offensive callers. But the experience uplifted us in ways we didn’t expect. We met lots of interesting, fun and sometimes crotchety people. Public service made us proud to call Arizona home.