Arizona Reacts: Governor Tapped for Homeland Security Secretary

12/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dawn Teo Foster Children's Rights Coalition -

PHOENIX -- All year, rumors have swirled about the possibility of Governor Janet Napolitano leaving Arizona for a future in Washington, DC. As an early endorser of Barack Obama during the primary season, she traveled from state to state asking voters to mark their ballots for Obama. When Obama won the Democratic primary, scuttlebutt said that Napolitano was on the short list for Obama's vice presidential pick.

After Joe Biden was selected for the vice presidential nominee, speculation widened to a sundry of possible cabinet positions for Napolitano including Homeland Security, Education, Attorney General, Energy, or even Health and Human Services. After Napolitano was tapped for the Obama Transition Board, many deemed her a shoo-in for the cabinet. The role of Attorney General garnered the most speculation, but that post went to Eric Holder, the Attorney General under the Clinton administration, on Tuesday.

Late Wednesday night, though, the news broke that Obama had selected Napolitano as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, one of the largest departments of the American government. The Department of Homeland Security was created after 9/11 to ensure the peacetime security of the United States. The department has oversight of a wide range of agencies, including the following: Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs & Border Protection, Citizenship & Immigration Services, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Coast Guard.

Senator John McCain of Arizona told ABC News that Napolitano's experience warrants approval by the Senate, and he expressed a hope that she would quickly be confirmed by the Senate if appointed by Obama. Napolitano's spokesperson confirmed that McCain called Napolitano and congratulated her on being the top contender for Homeland Security. McCain may have ulterior motives for his kind words, though. Arizona Democrats have envisioned Napolitano staying in Arizona to challenge John McCain for his Senate seat in 2010 since a poll in late October showed Napolitano beating McCain by 8 points in a head-to-head matchup.

The Arizona Republican Party may also be supportive of a Napolitano cabinet role. If Napolitano leaves the governorship before completing her term, Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer would automatically become governor and would serve the remainder of Napolitano's term. Many Democrats across hoped Napolitano would stay on as governor to prevent Brewer from taking the post. Pleas for Napolitano to stay increased after Democrats failed to wrest a majority of either body of the state legislature from the Republicans on Election Day. If Napolitano leaves her post, Republicans would be in control of all three branches of government in Arizona.

Napolitano's selection as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security comes just days after some began voicing complaints that Obama needs more women on his cabinet. In fact, this job may have been offered (and possibly accepted) during the same time frame that Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News & World Report published an article on the web entitled "Obama Cabinet Needs More Women." Representatives of NOW and Emily's List have been quoted as being concerned about the number of women Obama has appointed to cabinet positions so far (looks like some people spoke too soon).

Napolitano formerly served as Arizona's first female Attorney General. Because of her impressive performance in that position, he was appointed as U.S. Attorney in Arizona, a role in which she prosecuted many immigration-related cases. As governor, she has served as the first female vice chair of the National Governors Association alongside Chairman Mike Huckabee. Another oft-missed (and controversial) line on her resume: She was Anita Hill's attorney in her sexual harassment suit against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

A popular red state governor, Napolitano was featured in Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top five governors of the United States -- a "mountaineer on the rise." While some Democrats have lamented the possible loss of Napolitano and the succession of Brewer to the governorship, others have found an unseen benefit. The state is currently suffering from a $2.5 billion budget shortfall due to falling revenues caused by the economic downturn. Whoever serves as governor through 2009 will need to make some unpopular fiscal decisions to keep the state solvent. Sticking a Republican with this duty is a silver lining for some Democrats who would prefer Napolitano's popularity not suffer from that fallout.

As a border state governor, Napolitano has had no qualms about making controversial decisions. During her first term, she set a record for the number of vetoes by any Arizona governor. Arizona Democrats fear that with Secretary of State Jan Brewer elevated to governor, little would be done to curb the conservative legislature.

Napolitano famously angered political activists on both sides of the aisle when she put the National Guard on the border while championing the rights of immigrants who had crossed the border illegally and advocating for new, revamped guest worker programs. She also sponsored efforts to crack down on employers who exploit immigrant labor as well as efforts to prosecute identity theft and document counterfeiting.

She has been a vocal supporter of the Real ID Act but pushed a measure earlier this year that barred Arizona's compliance with the Real ID program, saying, "My support of the Real ID Act is, and has always been, contingent upon adequate federal funding. Absent that, the Real ID Act becomes just another unfunded federal mandate."

After the Bush administration refused to reimburse Arizona for costs incurred by the state related to immigration, she declared a state of emergency and sent bills to the federal government asking for reimbursement of costs associated with illegal immigration, including law enforcement, incarceration, health care, and education costs. In 2005 Napolitano told U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales to either pony up or take custody of the 3,600 immigrant criminals in Arizona's state prisons. Later in the same year, she declared a state of emergency, demanding that Homeland Security provide the funds necessary to secure the Arizona-Mexico border.

Like other cabinet appointments, the Napolitano selection will not be final until after the vetting process is completed by the transition staff. The Obama administration vetting process has already been touted as perhaps the most stringent in history. Those seeking administration appointments are being asked to fill out a 63 page questionnaire whose questions all seem to be derived from the infamous whats-your-most-embarrassing-moment icebreaker game. After the internal vetting, potential nominees must be able to get the appropriate national security clearance and undergo further vetting with the FBI and a government ethics office. After all of that, the Senate confirmation would be Napolitano's final hurdle.