Janet Napolitano, master multitasker
Homeland defense one moment, swine flu the next. She juggles the disparate needs of a cabinet conglomerate.
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At the same time, as governor she said that fences alone are not an effective border policy. She has stuck to that stance at DHS, to the irritation of some hawks on immigration.Skip to next paragraph
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After law school at the University of Virginia, she moved to Phoenix to clerk for a federal appeals court judge. Later, in private law practice in Arizona, she received a crash education in Washington controversy. The firm she worked for helped represent Anita Hill, who testified at the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that Mr. Thomas had sexually harassed her in the 1980s, when both worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Her big break came in 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed her US attorney for Arizona. From there, she stepped into elective politics, first being elected state attorney general and then governor in 2002. She was reelected in 2006 – the first woman to win two terms as Arizona’s chief executive. Her popularity was high; a Mason-Dixon poll from August showed 66 percent of Arizonans approved of her performance.
“Janet is pretty much what you see,” says Merrill. “She was never seen as a media personality [as governor]. She was always ... well prepared.”
Napolitano now spends about one-third of her time on terrorism-related issues. Other priorities, she says, are border security, immigration enforcement, preparing for natural disasters, and unifying the department.
This spring’s outbreak of H1N1-A (swine flu) highlighted a lesser-known DHS duty – pandemic preparation. Napolitano became a fixture on cable news, briefing reporters alongside health officials.
Despite the inherent ambiguities in the roles of federal bureaucracies, the effort to alert the nation about the flu went fairly well, says one expert.
“There was decent coordination. Everyone seemed to have talked to each other,” says Gerald Epstein, a senior fellow in the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Looking forward, a lot of flu-related issues remain for DHS and others to work on, says Napolitano.
“Is the private sector prepared for a high rate of absenteeism? Are states and local governments prepared for a high rate of absenteeism? What do you do with hourly workers who are absolutely dependent on an hourly wage?” she asks.
On immigration, DHS is expanding an effort begun in the Bush administration that aims to check the immigration status of all people held in local jails. Known as Secure Communities, it attempts to push database technology and training out where it can do the most good, according to Napolitano. “The immigration issue is so large you have to create priorities,” she says.
One thing that might not change anytime soon is the National Threat Advisory – the much-lampooned color-coded method of alerting Americans of possible terrorism dangers.
“I have not spent a lot of time looking at the color code at this point,” said Napolitano at the Monitor breakfast.
Napolitano enjoys opera, and she generally reads two books – one fiction, the other nonfiction – at a time. In Arizona she also occasionally coached women’s basketball teams. (“To victory, make sure you add that,” she said at the Monitor breakfast.)