Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (left), shown in a Jan. 2008 photo with Sen. Barack Obama, is the likely choice for the job of Secretary of Homeland Security. (AP Photo)
By Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON — Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to run the Homeland Security Department, is tough on illegal immigration, child abuse and Republicans.
A former federal prosecutor, state attorney general and twice-elected governor of Arizona, Napolitano would bring a wide skill set to what many have called the hardest job in government.
If confirmed by the Senate, she would take over the newest and third-largest department in Obama's Cabinet.
The Homeland Security Department, formed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, includes divisions that protect the borders, develop new radiation detection equipment, study and test infectious diseases, enforce immigration and maritime laws, protect the president and other dignitaries, coordinate disaster response, work to keep terrorists off of airplanes and other forms of transportation, and monitor and prevent cyber-intrusions.
Under the scrutiny of more congressional oversight than any other federal department, Homeland Security has weathered a run of controversies including its handling of emergency response during and after Hurricane Katrina, its involvement in a scuttled deal that would have allowed a Dubai company to manage certain U.S. ports, its mismanagement of large government contracts and its delayed implementation of key, post-9/11 security programs.
Napolitano, 50, an early Barack Obama supporter, is no stranger to Washington controversy either.
As a private attorney in Phoenix in 1991, Napolitano was part of the legal team representing Anita Hill, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission colleague of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom Hill had accused of sexual harassment. Her work on that case postponed Napolitano's own Senate confirmation as U.S. attorney but did not derail Thomas' confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. At the time, some Republicans suggested she coached a witness for Hill into changing testimony. Napolitano refused to answer questions about that on grounds it would violate the lawyer-client confidentiality agreement.
She was the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for Arizona when the Justice Department decided against prosecuting Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, for stealing prescription drugs from her medical charity, but she took no part in that case because she was awaiting Senate confirmation, on which McCain was to vote.
Napolitano's not known as a great orator; when she does speak, she takes care to be grammatically correct. She usually introduces herself on the phone as "Janet Napolitano," not "Gov. Napolitano."
Single and a breast cancer survivor, Napolitano is a basketball fan, plays tennis and regularly visits her brother and his family in California.
People who work with her say she has a strong temper on occasions. She can be both brusque and evasive when fending off reporters' questions she doesn't want to answer. She is known for her partisanship and has patronized and belittled critics, such as Republican legislators.
Napolitano earns $95,000 a year as governor. Her assets last year included a trust and a retirement account worth at least $100,000 each, a personal financial report she filed with the state earlier this year showed. Arizona doesn't have a governor's mansion; Napolitano lives in a condominium her trust purchased in 2004 for $165,000. If Napolitano becomes a Cabinet secretary, she will have to disclose her assets in greater detail than the state requires.
For homeland security secretary, "you want somebody who has a politician's touch and can communicate with the public," said David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Among the homeland security secretary's most visible tasks is announcing to the public when there's been a change in the color-coded terror alert system and why. The alert level - currently at orange, or high, for the aviation sector, and yellow, or elevated for the rest of the country - has not changed since 2006.
Napolitano, in many ways, is a combination of her would-be predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.
Ridge was a sitting governor, of Pennsylvania, when he helped create the new department that he later led and initially defined for the public. As a former federal prosecutor, judge and top Justice Department official, Chertoff had law enforcement credentials to wrestle with the many difficult policy issues that came across his desk as secretary.
As governor, Napolitano set career records for vetoes as she battled with the Republican-led Legislature over spending and illegal immigration. In her first term, she resisted initial efforts on a state crackdown on illegal immigration, instead taking the position that immigration and border security are federal responsibilities. As attorney general, she put a priority on cases involving abused and neglected children.
Napolitano also has been a prominent figure in the debate over REAL ID, a federal program launched after the 2001 terror attacks to make driver's licenses more secure. In 2007, Napolitano struck a deal with the Homeland Security Department that was supposed to lead to her state adopting the REAL ID standards. But in June of this year, she signed legislation refusing to implement the standards.
As homeland security secretary, she would be in the position of persuading other governors to get on board or lead the administration's effort to abandon the new rules, if Obama's administration decides to do that.
State auditors faulted Arizona's use of federal homeland security grants, citing sloppy record keeping of millions of federal dollars doled out to communities. As homeland security secretary, Napolitano would oversee $2 billion-a-year in counterterrorism grants to states and high-risk urban areas.
Napolitano has fought to curb illegal immigration, but has been skeptical that building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border will solve the problem. She once said: "You build a 50-foot wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder."
Last year, her state passed a law that requires all Arizona businesses to use the federal online database, E-Verify, to confirm that new hires have valid Social Security numbers and are eligible for employment. This has been a cornerstone of the Bush administration's immigration policy.
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As governor she has overseen wildfires and severe flooding and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now part of the Homeland Security Department. If confirmed, she could oversee a fight to remove FEMA from the department, a position gaining some traction on Capitol Hill.