Napolitano has a reputation as a caretaker. She prides herself on being highly responsive to the needs of her constituents and fiercely protective of federal resources used by those under her watch. “I’m focused on rendering service to the people who elected me to be here,” she said. “I’m their voice.”
She is best known for her grandmotherly image. Recognizable by her bright white hair—usually cropped short and teased high—she’s quick to talk about her grandchildren and prepares food for her staff. “I treat my friends and my relations the same as I do my family. And what I cook for them, I cook for my family,” she said.
Napolitano touts her work with local officials and has fought throughout her career for funding for her district. She believes earmarks are appropriate when the projects are “based on need”; in 2012, California State Polytechnic University named an aerospace lab in her honor after she helped secure more than $5 million in federal funding for wind tunnels and lap equipment.
With earmarks banned in the 112th Congress (2011-12), she explored other avenues of assistance. In 2011, she helped persuade the White House to eliminate duty-free importation of sleeping bags made in Bangladesh. The move brought jobs for Exxel Outdoors, a sleeping bag manufacturer, back to her district. Exxel had lobbied for the change for several years.
Water is always a pressing concern for California, and Napolitano is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. She chaired the panel during the 111th Congress (2009-10).
She has had some success moving water legislation through the Republican-controlled House. Her bill to fund water desalination research passed as part of a fiscal 2012 appropriations package, and Napolitano introduced another bill to extend such funding in the 113th Congress (2013-14). She worked with Nevada Republican Joe Heck on a Hoover Dam power allocation bill, which was signed into law in late 2011.
Napolitano enjoys favorable ratings from environmental groups and backs strong state and federal water quality standards. In that vein, she opposes hydraulic fracturing, the injection of high-pressure fluids into rock layers to allow access to new deposits of gas and oil—there hasn’t been enough research into its effect on local water supplies, she said. It’s a key issue in her region. The city of Whittier, which was in Napolitano’s old 38th District, voted in 2011 to re-open local oil wells.
From her seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Napolitano pays a lot of attention to railroad safety, spurred by a series of derailments in or near her district. A 2008 railroad safety law included her provision barring safety inspections performed in Mexico from satisfying U.S. standards without certification from the Transportation Department. She has fought to maintain the funding and schedule for the implementation of positive train control systems included in that law.
But she has been less committed to a proposed $68 billion high-speed rail line running from San Diego to San Francisco that received about $1.8 billion from the 2009 economic stimulus legislation. “I don’t oppose high-speed rail,” she said. “I just don’t propose that they take away from current transportation projects that affect my community or my area.” Her priority is expanding transit systems in her district. “We need to be able to take people to work and get cars off the streets,” she said. “The high-speed rail’s not going to do it.”
She has a passion for mental-health issues that stems from her work on the Norwalk City Council in the 1980s and ‘90s, when hospitals in her area began closing and sending mentally ill patients onto the streets. She co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus and has proposed creating a competitive grant program for schools that partner with community groups to increase student access to mental-health resources.
As Democrats began a push in the 113th Congress for measures to curb gun violence, Napolitano was named a vice chairwoman of a task force on the subject. Her initial policy suggestions were all tied to strengthening federal support for mental health services—including cementing guidelines to ensure that insurance companies treat mental illnesses the same as physical ones, as required by law.
Napolitano, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is the daughter of a divorced Mexican immigrant who raised her two children on a shoestring budget. In 2007, Napolitano played a key role in writing a Democratic immigration overhaul proposal that would have created a guest-worker program and provided a path for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
She married at 18 and had five children by 23; she worked for the California government and then spent two decades with Ford Motor Co., starting as a secretary and working her way into the transportation division.
Napolitano caught the political bug as a volunteer in Norwalk’s efforts to cultivate a sister-city relationship with Hermosillo, Mexico. Though she “hated politics” and had a fear of public speaking, she says she got involved to show her children and “other youngsters on this side how lucky they were.”
She launched her first political campaign for city council, with $35,000 she borrowed against her home, and won by just 28 votes. She served six years, two as mayor, before moving over to the California Assembly for six years.
In 1998, she ran for the House seat of retiring Democrat Esteban E. Torres and defeated his son-in-law by 618 votes in the primary. Napolitano sailed to victory in the general election and has easily won her re-election bids.
Napolitano drew some scrutiny in 2009 when Bloomberg News revealed that she had earned more than $200,000 in interest over the years on a $150,000 loan she had made to her initial 1998 campaign.
The new congressional map for 2012 dismantled her old district and created a new 38th District where both she and Democratic Rep. Linda T. Sánchez were residents. After some consideration, she opted to run in the 32nd District, most of which was new to her. Napolitano said it was better to have “two strong Latina congresswomen representing the people of this area instead of just one.” She easily defeated Republican David L. Miller.