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Janet Napolitano steps down at DHS: Who will replace her?

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Hyungwon Kang/Reuters/file

(Read caption) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is resigning to assume the presidency of the University of California system of higher education.

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is resigning to assume the presidency of the University of California system of higher education.

Secretary Napolitano, named to the job when President Obama first assumed office, has guided DHS through challenging times marked by debates over border security and immigration, airport security policies that critics say were too intrusive, and scrutiny of the federal response to natural disasters.

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In a statement Friday, Mr. Obama praised Napolitano for “outstanding work on behalf of the American people over the last four years.”

“She’s worked around the clock to respond to natural disasters, from the Joplin tornado to Hurricane Sandy, helping Americans recover and rebuild,” he said. “Since day one, Janet has led my administration’s effort to secure our borders, deploying a historic number of resources, while also taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values.”

Many Republicans in Congress disagree.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama said in a statement that her tenure "was defined by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law."

Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called her departure “a substantial addition to the growing list of unfilled key leadership positions within the Department.”

“The many agencies housed within DHS are only as effective as their leadership, and it is crucial that the Administration appoints someone who does not underestimate the threats against us, and who is committed to enforcing the law and creating a unified Department,” Representative McCaul said in a statement. “Ten years after the creation of the Department, it is critical that its mission isn’t undermined by politics or political correctness. The border is not secure, and the threat of terrorism is not diminishing.”

Sen. John McCain (R), from Napolitano's home state of Arizona, was gentler in his response.

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"We have had our share of disagreements during her time as Secretary, but I have never doubted her integrity, work ethic or commitment to our nation's security," he said in a statement.

Two current DHS agency heads who maintain particularly good relations with congressional oversight agencies are seen as possible contenders to succeed Napolitano, The Washington Post reports:

“W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], previously worked for two Republican governors in Florida as the state’s emergency management director. Fugate is well liked by the White House and has been credited by governors of both parties for revamping the once-troubled federal agency in the years since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“John S. Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration and a former deputy director of the FBI, has built good relations with Congress despite objections over recent proposed changes to screening procedures at airports.”

Napolitano’s career includes several significant firsts: first woman to be reelected governor of Arizona, first woman to head DHS, and first woman to become president of the University of California in the system’s 145-year history.

Forbes ranks her as the world's eighth most powerful woman. In her position as head of DHS, Forbes points out, Napolitano has run the third-largest federal department, overseeing a budget of $48 billion, a staff of 240,000, and 22 agencies, including FEMA, US Customs and Border Protection, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and cybersecurity operations.

"Secretary Napolitano has advanced the work of her predecessors and made DHS into a stronger, more focused and more effective agency,” says David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which is based at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Her greatest achievements, in my view, have been tougher enforcement of the southern border and targeting internal immigration enforcement on illegal immigrants who pose the greatest threat, and away from innocent young people who were brought here by their parents,” said Professor Schanzer in a statement. “Secretary Napolitano, together with FEMA chief R. David Paulson, has led effective federal responses to large-scale natural disasters like super-storm Sandy.”

As head of the University of California – the top tier of the state’s system of public colleges and universities – Napolitano will oversee 10 campuses (including UC Berkeley and UCLA) with more than 220,000 students, more than 170,000 faculty and staff, and a budget of about $24 billion.