- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thirty years ago, Janet Napolitano stood before her college classmates a confident young woman with no idea the valedictory speech she was about to deliver would one day symbolize her career in public service.

The speech reprised the social justice and civil rights theme of a paper she’d written her final year before Santa Clara University graduates selected her as their first female valedictorian.

“Most valedictory speeches are not memorable, but she found a way to capture what it is to be an engaged citizen and a public intellectual,” said Janet Flammang, current chairwoman of Santa Clara’s political science department.

“She was calling on her 22-year-old colleagues to understand the rules, and when things aren’t working, you have an obligation to change them,” Ms. Flammang recalled of her star student. “Every single leadership quality that she has shown today, she showed as an undergrad.”

Now, as Homeland Security secretary for President Obama, Ms. Napolitano’s own colleagues view her as valedictorian of the Cabinet.

Ms. Napolitano, 51, comes to the job with executive and legal experience, qualities supporters say make her the perfect fit to take on a massive agency that oversees emergencies, immigration and multilevel bureaucracy.

“She is one of the absolute stars of this Cabinet,” Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina told The Washington Times.

Mr. Messina sat in on Mr. Obama’s interview last fall with Ms. Napolitano as a potential DHS secretary and was impressed with her record. She was elected twice as governor and had also served as Arizona attorney general and a U.S. attorney in the state.

Mr. Messina said she hasn’t disappointed him when taking on the nation’s youngest department: “She really dives into the mechanics of this, which is exactly what you want at Homeland Security.”

Interviews with people who know Ms. Napolitano revealed another common thread — she’s viewed as having a strong work ethic, always prepared and as understanding of complex issues but able to communicate them simply. Her friends called her focused, fair and funny, and noted she often sports one of two pairs of cowboy boots. They used words like tough, astute and pragmatic, and each one labeled her “down to earth.”

“She has a wicked sense of humor,” said Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development.

“She’s no nonsense … but uses humor as a way to puncture the self-seriousness we all can get into in this line of work,” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine agreed.

Mr. Messina cited the recent flooding in North Dakota as an example of Ms. Napolitano being “an organizational dynamo” — he spoke with her five times a day, including a few midnight and early morning calls. “She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Mr. Messina said she embodies the president’s goals of focusing on transparency, efficiency and productivity.

“The woman is a born administrator who knows how to get stuff done,” he said. “You come out of a meeting with her and say, ‘Wow, the president made a great choice.’”

Mr. Kaine told The Times governors were thrilled when she was chosen because she has handled multiagency bureaucracies, natural disasters and tough immigration issues as Arizona’s chief executive.

“It gave us a lot of comfort and confidence,” said Mr. Kaine, a close friend of Mr. Obama’s who is now also chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

She and Mr. Kaine were key players during the campaign, regularly talking to top Obama staffers about strategy.

One of Mr. Obama’s first primary endorsements by a high-profile female lawmaker came from Ms. Napolitano, who publicly backed him shortly after his defeat by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire.

The Arizona governor became one of his most reliable surrogates. Opening a rally for the Democrat in January 2008, Ms. Napolitano beamed and declared the crowd was a “part of history.”

“By being here today, you are representing with your presence that doing the same old, same old is no longer good enough,” she said.

Since getting to know her better Mr. Donovan has been impressed with her passion and ability to connect with people. He noted the “enormous” challenges she faces with the massive department.

“She is not somebody who has a shallow commitment to public service,” he told The Times. Ms. Napolitano’s legal career put her front and center for prominent cases — she represented Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and led the terrorism investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing as U.S. attorney.

“You could tell the second she got off the elevator she was going to be a force,” said Peter Baird, a senior partner at the Phoenix law firm Lewis & Roca where Ms. Napolitano worked until she became U.S. attorney. “She’s remarkably bright, not just in an academic sense but in a human judgment sense.”

At the firm, Ms. Napolitano sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service while representing political refugees and Mr. Baird recalled she “cut her teeth” on the case, which they eventually won.

“I find it fascinating that now she is charge of INS because at one time she was a real thorn in their side,” he said.

Even though she was on her way to being one of the best lawyers in Phoenix, Mr. Baird wasn’t surprised she ended up in politics.

She won a tight race in her first bid for governor but was re-elected in a landslide and left office with a high approval rating.

Given Ms. Napolitano’s background and frequent presence on the campaign trail, she was an early favorite for an administration post, with her portfolio also making her a possible choice for attorney general.

Because a Republican would be taking her place in Arizona, friends said it was a tough decision.

“I know that she wrestled with the choice … but this is an all-hands-on-deck time for the country,” Mr. Kaine said.

Through a spokesman, Ms. Napolitano offered her priorities and approach to engage state, local, tribal and private sector partners because she believes “the federal government can’t do this alone.” She also aims to use science and technology to achieve her goals. FEMA, for example, uses Twitter regularly, and she appears in YouTube videos.

Her top priority is counter-terrorism, closely followed by securing the Southern border and helping Mexico in its fight against the cartels, reforming immigration, improving disaster preparation and recovery and unifying the 200,000-employee, multiagency DHS.

Santa Clara professor Eric Hanson remembers Ms. Napolitano as a top student always able to balance competing interests.

“She was good at contacting people from all different backgrounds even back then, so I’m not surprised she can talk to a border patrolman on one hand and a policy wonk on the other.”

In high school, she was part of a literary club that published a yearly book of poetry and creative writing. She also was yearbook editor and a member of the symphonic band, winning several awards for her music. In addition to the valedictorian honor in college, Ms. Napolitano also was selected for a Truman Scholarship, the domestic equivalent to the Rhodes.

Ms. Napolitano, a breast cancer survivor, is a basketball enthusiast known for hiking and climbing.

As a testament to her easygoing nature, the secretary said she’s used to the fact that most people, including the president, mispronounce her name. (It’s Na-pol-i-TAN-oh, but most say Na-pol-i-TAH-no.)

In most cases unprompted, several people interviewed for this story mentioned Ms. Napolitano as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, a prospect her spokesman said she laughed off.

The Santa Clara professors marveled at students’ reactions to a recent talk Ms. Napolitano gave at her alma mater about immigration.

“All of my students asked why this woman wasn’t in Washington,” Mr. Hanson said, comments Ms. Flammang echoed.

“Janet’s presentation was so clear and so concise and so evenly balanced, every single one of my students came up to me and said, ‘Why isn’t this woman president,’” she said.

Mr. Baird said he could see Ms. Napolitano running for president one day, but also offered an early endorsement for her one day becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Asked about his colleague having any 2016 ambitions, Mr. Donovan laughed: “I’m not going to make an endorsement today. But look, I haven’t seen anything she can’t do.”

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