Janet Napolitano, master multitasker

Homeland defense one moment, swine flu the next. She juggles the disparate needs of a cabinet conglomerate.

Hot seat: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the media at a FEMA headquarters May 4 regarding Washington's response to swine flu.

WASHINGTON - As a child, Janet Napolitano played clarinet in the Albuquerque Youth Sym­phony. She loved music and thought she might become a band director when she grew up.

In a way, she has. As President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, Ms. Napolitano’s biggest job is to get the many parts and functions of her conglomerate cabinet department to work together.

It’s not an easy task. Homeland Security’s subgroups include the Secret Service, US Customs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard. Napolitano’s day can touch on everything from border control to hurricane preparation and protection for the nation’s cyber resources.

All this in an organization that did not even have a departmentwide e-mail system until recently.

“It is very much now in the process of becoming a unitary department,” said Napolitano at a May 19 Monitor breakfast here.

Of course, unity – in an Obama­esque, can’t-we-all-work-together kind of way – has long been one of Napolitano’s political hallmarks. For her, there was no other way to survive as a Democratic official in Arizona, a state long dominated by conservative Republicans.

Her talent for compromise when necessary worked well enough for her to win three statewide elections: one for attorney general and two for governor. Her centrist record on border issues was a reason Mr. Obama picked her for one of the cabinet’s most difficult and sensitive posts.

This doesn’t mean her tenure so far has been as smooth as the White House lawn. Napolitano has angered Canadians with inartful comments linking the problems of the US southern and northern borders. The release of a DHS intelligence assessment contending that US military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan could be susceptible to recruitment by right-wing extremists caused some Republicans to call for her ouster.

“Some things in my initial days have gone very well at the department, and some things have not. And that was probably the worst thing,” said Napolitano of the intelligence assessment, at a House hearing earlier this month.

As governor, she showed political deftness in the way she dealt with Arizona’s conservative legislature, says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. Generally, she directly challenged lawmakers on big issues where she felt she was more in touch with constituent opinion – such as voluntary all-day kindergarten, which she steered into law.

“It seemed to me that the issues she went public on had wide public support,” says Dr. Merrill.

On immigration issues – crucial in a border state – Napolitano took ideas from both ends of the political spectrum. Showing a tough side, she was the first governor to call in the National Guard to beef up border patrols. She also pushed through some of the nation’s most stringent laws targeting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

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.

“I would not say we intend to build a fence from San Diego to Brownsville,” Napolitano said at a House hearing shortly after being confirmed.

Napolitano was born in New York City but raised in Albuquerque, where her father was dean of the University of New Mexico. In high school, she was voted “most likely to succeed.”

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.)

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.