WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's expected nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, helped investigate the biggest U.S. terrorist event prior to 9/11 — the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — and has been a national leader on immigration and border-security issues.
Two Democratic sources familiar with the selection process, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter, said Thursday that Napolitano is Obama's choice to head the sprawling 5-year-old department.
Obama's election rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly hailed Napolitano's expected nomination, saying he'd called her to congratulate her and that, "I hope she is quickly confirmed."
McCain praised Napolitano's experience. Besides her work as governor she is a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney.
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She's also considered a potential Senate challenger to McCain when her second term as governor expires in 2010, but that could change if she's confirmed to a Cabinet post.
The anticipated announcement was well received by several experts in the immigration and homeland security fields. DHS encompasses customs and immigration, disaster response, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, nuclear detection, technology and threat assessment programs.
An early backer of Obama's presidential campaign, Napolitano was considered a possible choice for attorney general, a position now expected to go to Eric Holder, a former Clinton deputy attorney general who'd be the first African-American in that job.
Obama's transition team made no announcement about Napolitano on Thursday.
Transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter did issue a statement ending speculation that Obama's campaign finance chairwoman, Chicago billionaire and Hyatt family heir Penny Pritzker, might be his Commerce secretary. Cutter said that Pritzker would remain an economic adviser to Obama but "has decided that given her family and business commitments, she is not interested in serving at this time."
Meanwhile, Obama's pick for White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., spent much of the day on Capitol Hill in closed-door meetings with the Senate Republican leadership and individual visits with House Republican leaders.
"I told them I would like to welcome their ideas, we would like to welcome their ideas on a host of fronts, be that in the area of education, health care, taxes, energy policy, national security," Emanuel said. "Give us those ideas as we are formulating what we are going to do in the Obama administration."
Napolitano first gained attention as a lawyer representing Anita Hill, who made allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Two years later, President Bill Clinton chose her to be U.S. attorney for Arizona. Her office investigated Michael Fortier of Arizona for his role in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168. Fortier pleaded guilty to failing to warn authorities of the conspiracy and testified against his friends, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
The Associated Press reported that while Napolitano was U.S. attorney, the Justice Department decided not to prosecute McCain's wife, Cindy, for prescription drug theft. However, a Napolitano spokeswoman told the AP that Napolitano had recused herself from the case because she hadn't yet been confirmed by the Senate.
Napolitano went on to serve as state attorney general before her 2002 election as governor, and was re-elected in 2006. She was the first woman to head the National Governors Association and the first governor to call for the National Guard to be deployed along the border at federal expense. She's been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, which, as favored by McCain and Obama, allows for some path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said, "Based on her record in Arizona, we believe that Governor Napolitano is well suited to balancing DHS's dual responsibilities of welcoming immigrants and enforcing our immigration laws."
David Heyman, director and senior fellow for the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank, said that Napolitano is an "excellent" choice because she embodies a good mix of political skill and law enforcement training, and is well-respected among governors, a constituency the DHS secretary deals with regularly.
Running DHS, he said, is "probably the most thankless job in Washington."
"The primary metric that people look at is, 'Is there a terrorist attack?' From day one throughout your tenure, the secretary is largely on defense from a perception point of view." The young department was "largely assembled on the fly," Heyman said, "and it's still very much a work in progress."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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