Homeland Security Pick Napolitano Praised by Left and Right Alike

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano attended a town hall meeting with Barack Obama at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas in January.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano attended a town hall meeting with Barack Obama at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas in January. (By Ethan Miller -- Getty Images)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama's pending selection of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) as secretary of homeland security was greeted yesterday as a sign that the new Democratic administration will fundamentally change the tone of the nation's post-Sept. 11 approach to domestic security.

Immigrant advocates, business groups and civil libertarians said that the choice of a two-term governor from a Republican-friendly border state could lead to a reversal of policies that they contend unduly punish illegal immigrants, commerce and Americans' privacy. Agency observers on the right and the left say that her selection appears to reflect a calculation that she could do so without appearing weak on terrorism.

In fact, immigration opponents and counterterrorism analysts praised Napolitano. They said, however, that they think the former federal prosecutor would continue much of the Bush administration's enforcement-first policies, including border security enhancements and promoting national standards for identification cards.

In both promising to restore "balance" to what Democrats say has been a one-sided security debate and seeming to straddle wide political divisions, Napolitano is much like Obama, both Republican and Democratic observers said.

Napolitano is "someone who's fair. She listens. She understands complex issues," said Grant Woods, an Arizona Republican whom Napolitano succeeded as state attorney general in 1998, and who likened her to Obama. "Most importantly, she's someone who has excellent judgment."

Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, called Napolitano "the perfect choice," given that no Democrat has run the troubled and sprawling department since its creation in 2003.

Napolitano "has run a major bureaucracy," Gorelick said, "and the biggest challenge for the DHS right now is the management challenge of leading nearly 200,000 workers."

If Napolitano, 50, is confirmed, Obama will gain a hardheaded lawyer with a voracious appetite for work, who picks her way deliberately through difficult problems.

She graduated from the University of Santa Clara in California and the University of Virginia Law School before gaining national attention as a lawyer for Anita Hill in her 1991 sexual harassment case against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In 1993, she was acting U.S. attorney pending confirmation when the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for stealing prescription drugs from a nonprofit she ran.

Napolitano also offers a skill set well-suited for DHS secretary, a role that is a combination of cop, politician, international negotiator and comforter in chief. She was the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney for Arizona, in 1993, and state attorney general, in 1998, and was the first Democratic governor to be elected twice in Republican-leaning Arizona in a quarter-century.

Her selection "bodes well for state and local officials," a U.S. intelligence official said, acknowledging that Washington has frequently clashed with them over DHS grant funding, the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and innumerable security mandates.

In 2003, Napolitano developed the first state homeland security strategy that highlighted the role of state and local law enforcement, information-sharing and law enforcement-led intelligence "fusion centers" for preventing terrorism. Its themes were later adopted by big-city police chiefs, DHS's own advisory committee experts and the Bush administration.

On immigration, Napolitano has cultivated an image of toughness, calling for National Guard troops on the border and signing legislation to punish companies that hire illegal immigrants. But she has also argued for humane treatment of such immigrants and for the need to strengthen Arizona's economy.

Groups including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the National Council of La Raza, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to reduce immigration, praised her yesterday. She "knows better than anyone how important border security is to our national security," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), chairman of the hard-line immigration reform caucus in Congress.

In Arizona, news of Napolitano's selection was welcomed by both Republicans and Democrats.

Wes Gullett, a Republican consultant in Arizona, noted that Napolitano won reelection in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote and GOP support, and chaired the Democratic Party's 2008 platform drafting committee without controversy. "That says volumes about her ability to run a tight ship," said Gullett, a former McCain aide.

State law barred the governor from seeking a third term, and her departure for the Obama Cabinet would eliminate a potential top-tier Democratic challenger for McCain in 2010, when the senator is up for reelection.

McCain called to congratulate Napolitano and said in a statement that her government experience "warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate, and I hope she is quickly confirmed."

Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican, is in line to become governor, inheriting a GOP-controlled legislature.

On Capitol Hill, members of the Senate homeland security panel were not notified before Napolitano's emergence as the top choice for the job was reported. Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) did not comment. Ranking Republican Susan M. Collins (Maine) said only that it is critical for DHS to have "a strong leader" committed to bipartisanship, adding that she would consider the nomination carefully.

Still, Napolitano backers appeared confident that she will win confirmation. Former senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who recommended Napolitano as U.S. attorney 25 years ago and chaired Lieberman's presidential campaign in Arizona in 2004, said that when the committee receives her background file, "I can't imagine anything in there that nobody knows."

Staff writer Carrie Johnson and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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