Arizona governor is leading candidate for homeland security post

ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona was among the first governors to publicly support Barack Obama's candidacy. ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona was among the first governors to publicly support Barack Obama's candidacy. (ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES)
By Liz Sidoti and Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / November 21, 2008
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WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama is likely to choose Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona to be secretary of homeland security, top Obama advisers and several Democrats said yesterday as Obama's Cabinet begins to take shape.

The Obama advisers cautioned that no final decision has been made on putting Napolitano in charge of the Homeland Security Department, the massive agency created by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the advisers said she was by far the top contender.

Thus far, Obama has informally selected Washington lawyer Eric Holder as attorney general and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department. Those picks could be sidetracked by unexpected glitches in the final vetting process, officials said.

Senator Hillary Clinton seems likely to be Obama's secretary of state. She is deciding whether to take the position as America's top diplomat, her associates said.

Among other Cabinet posts: senior Democrats say there is a strong possibility that Defense Secretary Robert Gates would stay temporarily and later give way to former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, also are said to be under consideration.

Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who was Obama's national campaign finance chairman, was reported to be his leading choice for secretary of commerce, but she withdrew from consideration yesterday.

"Speculation has grown that I am a candidate for secretary of commerce," Pritzker said in a statement. "I am not. I think I can best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs, and working to strengthen our economy."

Officials say Laura D'Andrea Tyson, the former chair of White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton, is in the running for the post.

Obama appears to be assembling a team that includes a mix of longtime aides, Washington insiders, and a sprinkling of Democratic governors. Besides Napolitano, strong contenders for Cabinet posts include Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

Sebelius and Napolitano, who once was Arizona's attorney general, were among the first governors to commit to Obama's candidacy. Richardson endorsed Obama after ending his own presidential bid, angering Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

In her second term as governor, Napolitano has fought to curb illegal immigration, but she has been skeptical of the notion that building a fence along the border will solve the problem. She once said, "You build a 50-foot wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder."

Last year Arizona passed a law that requires all businesses in the state to use a federal online database 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.

As governor, she has also overseen the responses to wildfires and severe flooding and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now part of Homeland Security, the newest and third-largest department in the cabinet.

Napolitano, 50, is also no stranger to headline-making Washington scandals and controversies.

While a private attorney in Phoenix in 1991, Napolitano was part of the legal team representing Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment while both worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill's accusations jeopardized but ultimately failed to derail the Senate's confirmation of Thomas.

Napolitano's representation of Hill became an issue in 1993 when the Senate considered then-President Clinton's nomination of Napolitano for US attorney. Napolitano refused to answer questions about a private conversation with one of Hill's witnesses, Susan Hoerchner. At issue was whether Napolitano persuaded Hoerchner, Hill's corroborating witness, to change her testimony.

Some Republicans accused Napolitano of stonewalling the committee and contended it could cause a dangerous precedent if the panel confirmed a nominee without having all the information it needed. Democrats defended her, saying Napolitano wanted to be forthcoming but couldn't because of attorney-client privilege.

She was the US attorney in Phoenix when the Justice Department decided against prosecuting Arizona Senator John McCain's wife, Cindy, for the theft of prescription drugs from her medical charity.

Cindy McCain went public in 1994 about her prescription drug addiction, admitting she stole medicine from the charity several times between 1990 and 1992. The Justice Department decided against prosecuting McCain after she agreed to undergo drug treatment.

People who work with Napolitano say she has a strong temper at times, and she can be brusque and evasive with reporters, and belittling toward critics, such as Republican legislators.

"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.

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