Napolitano’s successor: Lots of names, little consensus and a divided Senate

Janet Napolitano, the only secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration, announced Friday she will resign in September to accept a position as president of the University of California system.

In a statement, Napolitano called her time leading the Department of Homeland Security “the highlight of my professional career.”

With immigration reform grinding its way through Congress, Napolitano’s impending departure leaves an important cabinet vacancy with no clear replacement. Mentions of possible successors have run the gamut from former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who had a big hand in designing the agency after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who spearheaded New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” program, to former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, who focused on security and intelligence in Congress before resigning to run the Wilson Center.

Considering Napolitano was among President Barack Obama’s favorite cabinet secretaries — he reportedly considered her as a Supreme Court nominee finalist — filling the position with an equivalent ally might be difficult.


Lieberman, for example, veered right in his later Senate years and strongly endorsed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over Obama during the 2008 election. And Kelly and Obama have clashed over their respective policing methods; Kelly has criticized Obama over the recently revealed NSA surveillance programs and bristled at the president’s attempts to establish oversight of the stop-and-frisk program.

But with a Senate quick to filibuster Obama nominees, the president may have to tap a replacement palatable to Senate Republicans. The Republicans have been so stalwart in their opposition that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to significantly reduce the minority’s filibuster ability if Republicans continue to stymie Obama nominees. Next week, seven stalled Obama nominees will face a floor vote, setting up an ultimatum of sorts.

“This is about making Washington work regardless of who’s the president,” Reid said Thursday on the Senate floor. Or ruining the Senate, according to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. “My friend the majority leader is going to be remembered as the worst leader in the Senate ever,” he said. “It makes me sad.”

The arduous confirmation process only exacerbates an already-vacant landscape at the senior levels of DHS. Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, points out there are currently at least 15 vacant leadership positions across DHS — six (now seven) of which are Senate-confirmed positions.

It’s not the number of departures that is distinct to DHS, Beckner said via email, but the slow pace at which replacements have been nominated. The State Department, for example, had plenty of vacancies after Hillary Rodham Clinton’s departure, but nominated replacements swiftly when compared with DHS.


While unsure why this might be, Beckner speculated “they’ve been waiting to replace the team at the top (secretary and deputy secretary) first and then giving this new senior leadership team input into who they want in key subordinate positions.” According to The Washington Post, Napolitano’s departure has been in the works for months.

Yet, as of now, there is no apparent successor.

Harman, the former member of Congress, told FedScoop in a statement: “No one has contacted me. I already have the plum job in Washington as the president and CEO of the Wilson Center, and am very happy here.”

Clark Ervin, the department’s former inspector general, was another name mentioned as a possible future DHS head during the 2012 election. Ervin, currently running the homeland security project at the Aspen Institute would only comment on Napolitano’s performance when contacted by FedScoop.

“Secretary Napolitano is to be commended for leading perhaps the most complex department in the cabinet through challenging times with skill and vigor,” he said.


If Obama is looking for a bipartisan pick, he might consider Thad Allen, a former Coast Guard admiral praised across the political spectrum for handling the response to multiple Hurricanes and the BP oil spill. Allen is currently an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, which declined to comment on the issue when contacted by FedScoop.

Craig Fugate is another official commended by both sides of the aisle for disaster response management. Taking over the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2009, he has been noted for turning around an agency much maligned during the George W. Bush administration.

Some additional names, which The Washington Post compiled, include:

– John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Pistole has recently clashed with congressional Republicans over a proposal to lift the airport ban on small knives. TSA eventually backed down from the plan.

– Two current DHS officials: David Heyman,  assistant secretary for policy, and Rand Beers, acting deputy secretary. And one former DHS official: Jane Holl Lute, a previous deputy secretary.


– Bill Bratton, former head of police in three major American cities: Boston, Los Angeles and New York. Just weeks ago, NBC News hired Bratton as an analyst.

– Richard Danzig, former secretary of the Navy during the Clinton administration. Danzig is currently a consultant for the government on biological terrorism and chairman of the board of directors at the Center for New American Security.

– Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management. Bruno has also served as New York’s fire commissioner, a civil court judge and a New York State Supreme Court judge.

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