Skip to main content

Making a Nation Safe

Janet Napolitano (Law ’83) brings “no-nonsense” reputation to new role

Janet Napolitano AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

President-elect Barack Obama outlined a daunting set of challenges for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (Law ’83) when he tapped her to become the nation’s next homeland security chief. With the gruesome terrorist attacks in Mumbai still fresh in the news, Obama called on Napolitano to protect the United States from similar attacks and secure the nation’s borders, all while reforming a huge bureaucracy.

With about 216,000 employees, the Department of Homeland Security is an umbrella for numerous key government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Janet assumes this critical role having learned the lessons—some of them painful—of the last several years, from 9/11 to Katrina,” Obama said at a Dec. 1 news conference in Chicago. “She understands as well as anyone the danger of an unsecure border. And she will be a leader who can reform a sprawling department while safeguarding our homeland.”

She has a tremendous intellect and possesses the leadership and sound judgment needed to make the difficult decisions that this job presents. Janet is an excellent choice for secretary of homeland security, and I look forward to working with her as she prepares for this awesome responsibility. —Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security under the Bush administration

Dealing with big challenges is nothing new for Napolitano, 51, a breast cancer survivor and mountain climber who has hiked the Himalayas and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Once a federal prosecutor and attorney general for Arizona, Napolitano comes with more than two decades of experience in the courts, law enforcement and government. Along the way, she has shattered more than one glass ceiling.

Napolitano was the first woman to serve as Arizona’s U.S. attorney and attorney general, and the first woman to lead the National Governors Association. With her confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Napolitano became the country’s first female secretary of homeland security.

Appearing at the news conference on Dec. 1, Napolitano acknowledged the security challenges ahead.

“The team you have assembled faces the challenge of protecting our homeland through constant vigilance and relentless work to prevent terrorist attacks,” Napolitano told Obama. “It also will plan carefully and thoroughly so that our domestic response to all hazards is fast, sound, levelheaded and effective. Americans deserve no less.”

Napolitano first drew national attention as a lawyer in 1991, when she represented Anita Hill in a sexual harassment case against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to serve as U.S. attorney for Arizona. In that job, she helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

She was elected governor in 2002. Three years later, Time magazine named Napolitano one of America’s five best governors, calling her a “no-nonsense, pro-business centrist.”

Kent Alexander (Law ’83), a classmate of Napolitano’s at UVA and former U.S. attorney for Georgia’s northern district, is a longtime admirer.

“She is scary smart. But at the same time she has a really nice sense of humor,” Alexander says. “She is really good with people and perceptive. I have no doubt she will do a great job. I feel safer thinking about her being there.”

Richard Bonnie (Law ’69), UVA law professor, recalls Napolitano’s days as a student. “She was especially interested in criminal law as a student, so it was no surprise that she became a prosecutor and attorney general before becoming governor,” Bonnie says.

One of Napolitano’s top jobs will be addressing illegal immigration. Having served as governor of a border state, she brings firsthand experience to the job.

Napolitano has drawn criticism for vetoing anti-illegal immigration legislation she said was too harsh and ineffective, and for being skeptical about building a wall along the border. She often says, “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”

In a speech at the National Press Club last year, Napolitano perhaps signaled what she will do in her new role. She outlined several measures to improve the nation’s immigration system: a “temporary worker program with no amnesty,” penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, and increased federal funding for electronic border sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles.

“We can restore our respect for the rule of law and our rich immigrant heritage while preparing our economy and workforce for a changing world,” she said in her speech. “For the sake of our nation, we must. For the sake of our nation, we will.”