Janet Napolitano , former secretary of homeland security, began work this week as head of the University of California system. But far away from that ivory tower, back at her old office in Washington, there hangs an increasingly urgent help-wanted sign.

No nomination for a new Department of Homeland Security chief is immediately forthcoming. Talk is that the White House folks got turned down by their top two picks to fill the job.

(That could be because, as we’ve pointed out, the DHS position is one of the hardest and yet least appreciated Cabinet gigs. Or maybe they didn’t ask nicely.)

Seems it’s a tough challenge to find the right candidate. Those tracking the search say the White House would love to fill the job with a minority or a woman, in the hopes of boosting diversity in the Cabinet. Making the pool even smaller, the conventional wisdom is that anyone who would take the assignment wouldn’t have political aspirations. “It’s a high-risk job,” said one observer. “If something happens on your watch, you’re done.”

And Napolitano’s chair isn’t the only one empty. With Rand Beers as the acting secretary, Rafael Borras has become acting deputy secretary, meaning the department’s top two posts are without confirmed occupants.

Compounding the vacancies is the trouble that Alejandro Mayorkas, the White House’s pick to be deputy secretary, has run into on Capitol Hill. His nomination appears stalled, with senators concerned about an inspector general’s investigation of his actions as commissioner of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

A bipartisan group of former security officials wrote a letter last week praising Mayorkas.

“Director Mayorkas’ strong leadership, extensive experience, and strong commitment to law enforcement and national security clearly demonstrate that he has the skills to effectively lead the Department of Homeland Security,” they wrote.

Signing the letter were Jayson Ahern, former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Robert Bonner, former CBP commissioner; Anthony Chapa, former assistant Secret Service director; John Hensley, former assistant customs commissioner for enforcement and investigations; Ronald Iden, former assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office; and Kenneth Wainstein, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.

It’s not clear whether their praise will impress the Hill — or when the empty posts might be filled.

Of pandas and ostriches
The Washington media’s ravenous interest in the state of the National Zoo’s panda cam has apparently ruffled some fur.

An e-mail Tuesday from a zoo official warns volunteers that if they find themselves confronted by journalists trying to report on how the zoo is handling the government shutdown, they should react much the way one might when interacting with an escaped animal: Don’t make any sudden moves, don’t speak, and back away slowly.

“We heard today that many volunteers were approached by media asking for comments about the potential government shut down,” the e-mail read. “In some cases the reporters did not identify themselves up front.”

(Bad reporters! No treats for you!)

The missive continued, warning folks that whatever they might do, they should not feed the hungry beasts. “Our policy is that media interactions are channeled through our Public Affairs office, but if you are in the middle of a conversation with a Zoo visitor who reveals himself or herself to be a reporter, please remember that only Smithsonian Institution-designated staff should represent the Zoo,” it read.

“If this happens to you, stop the conversation, walk away and notify your program supervisor or the NZP Public Affairs office.”

We reached the sender of the e-mail by phone. Alas, she said she couldn’t comment. We’d have to go through the zoo’s public affairs office, she said.

We’re off to munch on some bamboo.

End of the road for Binz

Just how embattled was Ron Binz , the Colorado utility regulator who was President Obama’s pick to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission?

Pretty bad — he withdrew his name Tuesday, reading the writing on the wall and admitting that his confirmation was a no-go.

“It appears that my nomination will not be reported favorably by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,” Binz said in a statement.

We noted last week that the White House was already on the hunt for a replacement, since energy trade groups and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had lined up against Binz.

In a statement, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), lamented the move. “I continue to believe Mr. Binz was well-qualified to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and it is unfortunate that he was forced to withdraw,” Wyden said in a statement. “The next nominee should be judged on his or her merits, and not on organized PR campaigns, either for or against.”

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.