Arizona Governor Napolitano Contender For Homeland Security Chief

Arizona governor Napolitano contender for Homeland Security chief

Sheldon Alberts, Washington Correspondent
Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, November 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a centrist Democrat who has pursued stronger economic ties with Canada, emerged Thursday as a leading contender to become president-elect Barack Obama's first secretary of Homeland Security.

The potential selection of Ms. Napolitano, 50, to head the massive agency places issues of illegal immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border near the top of Mr. Obama's security agenda.

But the idea that Ms. Napolitano might take over at the agency was also being welcomed by Canadian businesses and government. Since her election as Arizona governor in 2002, she has taken a keen interest in strengthening her state's ties with Canada, joining western premiers and governors in a climate change pact and promoting a trade corridor running from Western Canada south to Mexico.

Ms. Napolitano travelled to Ottawa last year for talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on border security and trade — a first-ever visit for an Arizona governor — that highlighted her interest in expanding the $3-billion in bilateral trade between her state and Canada.

Last year, she backed plans for Ottawa-based Mitel Network's expansion in Arizona.

“She's a real friend of Canada, very favourable toward Canada,” said Glenn Williamson, founder and director of the Canada Arizona Business Council.

“She really gets the concept of trade with Canada.”

Ms. Napolitano has been rumoured for a top post within the Obama administration since the Nov. 4 election, and is the only governor on his presidential transition team. Although she served as a U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, Ms. Napolitano became close to Mr. Obama after endorsing him prior to Arizona's Democratic primary last February.

As with other potential cabinet picks, Ms. Napolitano's role remained shrouded in intrigue despite leaks about her status as an Obama favourite. Aides to Mr. Obama refused to comment on speculation about Ms. Napolitano, and it's believed she may also be a contender for an administration job other than Homeland Security.

She has also shown interest in challenging failed Republican presidential candidate John McCain in his Arizona Senate re-election bid in 2010. Stoking the rumours about Ms. Napolitano, Mr. McCain's office released a statement saying the Arizona senator had called the governor to offer congratulations.

Ms. Napolitano's experience “warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate and I hope she is quickly confirmed,” Mr. McCain said.

Ms. Napolitano rose to national prominence as a lawyer for Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Her representation of Ms. Hill during the Senate judiciary committee's confirmation hearings for Thomas sparked the ire of conservatives, who she has frequently courted during her political career. Ms. Napolitano has since downplayed her role as “a four-day representation in a 10-year career (as an attorney).”

She was working as a U.S. attorney in Arizona when the Justice Department opted not to prosecute Cindy McCain, the wife of McCain, for taking prescription drugs from one of her charities.

Ms. Napolitano became a rising Democratic star by winning an election in staunchly Republican Arizona and taking a middle road on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. She opposed the construction of a border wall, supported the deployment of the National Guard along the border, backs guest-worker programs and favours prosecution of companies employing undocumented workers.

“I really resist lots of labels, because labels assume a whole package of characteristics and stereotypes,” Ms. Napolitano told the American Prospect earlier this year.

If nominated and confirmed as Homeland Security chief, one of her first challenges along the Canada-U.S. border will be implementing the final phase of the contentious Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. By June 2009, the U.S. intends to require passports or other approved security documents for all travellers crossing into the U.S. from Canada.

As governor, Ms. Napolitano has promoted the use of enhanced driver's licences as alternative to passports — an idea lauded by Harper and in place in B.C. and being instituted in Ontario.

She has also won fans in Canada for backing academic research between Canada, Mexico and Arizona on border security technology that doesn't hamper cross-border trade.

While Obama aides did nothing to tamp down speculation about Ms. Napolitano, they were downplaying reports that another longtime loyalist — Penny Pritzker, who served as the president-elect's campaign finance chairwoman — would be tapped for the job of commerce secretary in the new administration. Ms. Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times she is not a candidate for the job.

The sudden proliferation of leaks about who Obama is considering for key cabinet jobs has frustrated his senior aides, who pride themselves on tight control of information.

While Mr. Obama has not yet confirmed any of his cabinet choices, several potential picks have already been made public, including Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, former senator Tom Daschle as health secretary, and lawyer Eric Holder, poised to be picked as the first African-American attorney general.


More On This Story:

Obama to pick Holder as Attorney General

Obama picks Daschle as health secretary: official

Sheldon Alberts: Washington convulsed by all things Obama

Related Topics:

U.S. Politics
Canada Arizona Business Council
Barack Obama
Janet Napolitano