With Election Day approaching, the parlor game of who might get ‘the big jobs’ of the new President’s Cabinet is underway. As a longstanding Washington tradition (thankfully only celebrated every four years), there are lots of names being floated around to fill these big chairs. There has already been coverage by Politico, CQ as well as other media outlets on some of the prospective names but none of these positions has as much personal and professional interest for me as who will selected as the next Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Every job in the Cabinet is tough and often thankless but none of them has a bigger challenge (or bull’s-eye on their chest) than DHS Secretary. In this post, it is ‘your job’ to secure the borders and coastline as well as all of the planes, trains and cargo moving around the country (and world); curtail illegal immigration; keep information flowing to state, local and tribal governments; provide direction on critical infrastructure protection; offer leadership, communications and management in various emergencies; and a whole lot more. In short, the DHS Secretary is the one person charged to make sure we have ‘good days’ but has to always be ready to act on the ‘bad ones’ too.

If that job description was not hard enough, whatever this person does in this position will be second-guessed, mocked and sneered at. They will also be given competing and confusing directions and find themselves unappreciated, unacknowledged and over-extended. But enough about Congressional ‘oversight.’

There are also the media, state, local and tribal government interests, the private sector, NGOs, late-night comics and citizenry that will be piling on as well.

With all of these factors in mind, who has the qualifications to be successful in this job? More importantly, who in their right mind would take it?

We’ve only got two models to reference for the job – Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. Both secretaries are very different in their respective personalities, backgrounds and approaches. Both experienced challenges in office far beyond their control and took the hits along the way. They also had their successes which unfortunately will never get heralded the way they should.

In looking at the tenure of these two distinguished public servants it allowed me to do some looking of my own of people that I think should be on the short list for the ‘toughest job in America.’

What follows is a list of several people who would do a great job as DHS Secretary. In the spirit of ‘bipartisanship’ that both Presidential candidates are talking about in the make-up of their prospective Cabinets, I have listed these persons without reference to them being prospective Obama picks or McCain picks.

In my mind, homeland security is not a Republican job or a Democrat job. It is an American job, and I believe that Ridge and Chertoff have conducted themselves in just that manner. I’m more than hopeful that their 2009 successor will do the same.

The list is not ranked in any particular order. I also know that many of these names will never get any type of consideration for a variety of reasons. In offering them up in this format, I believe they offer a President-Elect and his personnel team models to consider when making their choice. I also am not campaigning for any of these persons to get this job, nor has anyone of them or their surrogates encouraged me to include them. These names are simply my two cents on a number of distinguished Americans who I believe have the background and skills to succeed in the toughest job in America.

William Bratton – Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)

  • It’s tough to be police chief in any jurisdiction but big city police chiefs have it toughest of all. That’s what makes Chief Bratton so impressive. He’s been police chief in the biggest cities in America – Boston, New York City and Los Angeles – and has been successful in each one of them. As one of innovators to apply community policing techniques to urban environments; creating CompStat (the internationally acclaimed model used by police departments to measure success); and developing new public safety and communications strategies to better connect citizens with law enforcement, Chief Bratton is known around the world as one of its top cops. His track record and honors prove it too. Can you name any other cop recognized by Playboy magazine as “America’s Smartest Cop?”

Ray Kelly – Commissioner, New York City Police Department (NYPD)

  • Commissioner Kelly leads one of the largest ‘armies and intelligence networks in the world. While there are many who may not see the NYPD as an army or intelligence network (they are), New York City has by far one of the most expansive, best trained and well-networked law enforcement agencies in the world. Taking over the NYPD in the months following 9/11, Kelly inherited the responsibilities of safeguarding the number one terrorist target in the world. The retired USMC Col previously served as NYPD Commissioner in the early 1990s and as Commissioner of the US Customs Service and Under Secretary at the Treasury Dept supervising the US Secret Service, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) [which now all belongs to DHS] during the Clinton Administration. Since DHS’ creation, the Commissioner has not been shy about pointing to DHS and others the need for improving information sharing needs and how resources need to be allocated to places facing the greatest threats and vulnerabilities. It just so happens that New York City is always at the top of his list.

Thomas Menino, Mayor of Boston, MA

  • If big city police chiefs have it tough, the mayors may have it even tougher From public safety, taxes, transportation, garbage collection, etc., they have responsibility over all city operations. Homeland security is one issue many of them never imagined having to contend with, but 9/11 changed that forever. In his fourth term as Boston’s Mayor, Tom Menino has been one of the most practical and articulate leaders on homeland security. Leading a large city that has its share of targets, as well as all-hazard environments, Mayor Menino has helped make Boston a model for other cities to emulate. From a planning perspective, his stewardship of the first political convention after 9/11 (the July 2004 Democratic Party Convention), along with that of NYC’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the August 2004 Republican National Convention), laid the groundwork by which every political convention host city (2008’s Denver & Minneapolis Conventions) has and will follow.

Lee Baca – Sheriff County of Los Angeles, California

  • Sheriff Baca leads the largest Sheriff’s Department in the US providing law enforcement to over 4 million people on a daily basis. Given the geographic areas he serves (Los Angeles, Orange County, etc.) as well as the specific interests his department serves (regional transit systems, tourist areas, higher education facilities, unincorporated communities, etc.), Sheriff Baca has had a full plate in managing a very tough beat. He has also helped build one of the most impressive information sharing networks in the US – the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (LA-RTTAC). With an area prone to a number of natural hazards/events, millions of people, lots of overburdened infrastructures, even tighter budgets and ever-present threat streams, he has been able to succeed in multiple ways and keep his force of 18,000 people at the ready.

Joseph Bruno, Commissioner, Office of Emergency Management, New York City, NY

  • Anyone who has ever been to NYC knows that everything is on a bigger scale. The same is true of the city’s emergency management. While it may be the smallest sibling in the NYC public safety family (when compared to its older brothers the NYPD and FDNY), the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) under Commissioner Joe Bruno has proven to be one of the city’s and nation’s best advocates for planning, emergency coordination, information sharing and more. The challenges of operating in an environment where sharp elbows, ‘turf preservation,’ tough politics and tougher personalities are part of the daily routine have not stopped Bruno or his staff from making a tremendous difference. Like his FDNY and NYPD leadership counterparts, Bruno knows it is not a question of ‘if’ NYC is hit by terrorists or some other event (blackout, pandemic flu, etc.) but rather ‘when.’ He is not waiting for ‘when’ to plan – he’s been doing it non-stop since taking over OEM in 2004. As a former Commissioner of the FDNY, Civil Court Judge and New York Supreme Court Justice, he has been able to survive and succeed on the biggest stage the world has to offer. Along the way, he has built new information sharing networks and preparedness practices that speak to every citizen in the multitude of languages that make NYC the ultimate melting pot.

Mitt Romney, former Governor, Commonwealth of Massachusetts; former President & CEO, Salt Lake City Olympics Organizing Committee

  • Dismissing Mitt Romney as a potential DHS Secretary given his lack of success on the Presidential campaign trail ignores an impressive track record of both public and private sector accomplishment. From rescuing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from financial and management ruin; operating the first worldwide event following the 9/11 attacks and US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan; running a state government where he was politically outnumbered; and running a successful business, Romney has been able to deliver in some of the most formidable environments. After DHS was created, he was one of the most proactive governors in engaging the new Department in the formation of its strategies, programs and policies with state governments. Given that every type of emergency event occurs in a state and not Washington DC as some might think, Romney was proactive in trying to define the mechanisms that would work best for states in working with DHS. As a one-time member of DHS’ Homeland Security Advisory Council, then-Gov. Romney was one of the people DHS Secs. Ridge and Sec. Chertoff could turn to for constructive advice without playing to overt shrill partisanship that then-Mayor of Baltimore, and current Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is often apt to do.

Joe Lieberman – US Senator, Chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee

  • In many ways, Sen. Lieberman is the father of DHS, having been one of the primary drivers for its creation. The four-term US Senator from Connecticut has been a forceful voice on multiple international and national security matters and is not shy on what he thinks will work and what won’t. The former Democrat, now Independent, has worked closely with his counterpart, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to help shape DHS and its mission. Their almost unprecedented partnership (and civility) in providing oversight of DHS is in stark comparison to that of the US House on a number of matters. As a result, the voices that Lieberman (and Collins) offer on DHS matters are probably better heard (and more respected) than those offered by their US House of Representatives counterparts.

Thad Allen, Commandant, US Coast Guard (USCG)

  • If you asked most Americans what military services we have in this country, most would easily respond, “Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines” overlooking our smallest and one of the oldest military branches. That forgetfulness changed following Hurricane Katrina. Out of all of the failures and debacles that occurred, the men and women of the US Coast Guard came into the full view of an angry and frustrated nation as they executed their respective operations with sweeping success. Leading the way through Katrina’s aftermath was then USCG Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Thad Allen. As a result, Allen was quickly tapped by DHS Sec. Chertoff to replace then-FEMA Administrator, Mike Brown to be the Principal Federal Official overseeing the enormous response efforts underway on the Gulf Coast. Allen’s demeanor and leadership brought about a tremendous sea change to everything associated with Katrina and for many on the Gulf Coast and the nation; he became one of the few heroes of a very painful chapter of American history. While Allen may have nationally distinguished himself during Katrina, his leadership style of making tough choices and course corrections were obvious again when he had to make some painful and public choices with the USCG’s embattled Deepwater Program. He got the facts, identified remedying steps, put them in place and had the courage to publicly face the program’s harshest critics (Congress, the media, GAO, etc.). When he calls upon his vast network of people, they are always ready, willing and able to make things happen. It was something I got to witness firsthand during my own DHS deployment during Katrina. The Commandant is a game changer for any situation in which he is involved.

Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida

  • There can be no doubt about the tremendous ‘Bush fatigue’ that the nation has but if you are looking at performance records on executive leadership in emergency management, Jeb Bush’s name has to be on a list of candidates for the top DHS job. Probably more than any of his other state executive counterparts, the former Florida Governor did more to elevate emergency management’ on a state-executive level than any other. Every disaster that occurred during his term in office, whether it was the huge wildfires ravaging the Everglades and surrounding areas; hurricanes; blackouts or other emergencies, he was involved front and center and made sure things happened. It certainly helps your executive performance when you have people as good as Craig Fugate, Florida’s Director of Emergency Management on your team (who would make an exceptional FEMA Administrator) and get as much operational experience as Florida does year round, but former Gov. Bush put himself out front and center in what can only be called an always hostile environment. He is a leadership model for state executives facing heavy fire, in contrast to former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco who showed how not to perform as she did during Katrina.

Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi

  • While he has long been known as one of the most successful Washington operators (political party leader, media savvy, powerful lobbyist, etc.) Gov. Barbour’s most distinguished days are born from national tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. As Governor of the state that was ‘Ground Zero’ to Katrina’s wrath (and laid waste to any area nearly the size of Great Britain), Barbour showed what the word ‘leadership’ meant during some of our country’s most humiliating days. While the political follies and soap opera drama between the leaders in Baton Rouge and New Orleans unfolded, Barbour and his team went to work with regional leaders, elected officials and other public and private sector interests to begin rebuilding the Magnolia State. His mantra was simple – the recovery would be led by people from Mississippi, with Mississippi products and services, with inputs from the citizens and businesses of Mississippi that would create new Mississippi jobs. His understanding of how to make government agencies and networks work (and how to put them to use) allowed the response and recovery operations to begin much faster than they did in Louisiana. The results speak for themselves as Mississippi’s recovery from Katrina (while still a daunting process) is moving forward at an impressive pace.

Janet Napolitano, Governor of Arizona

  • As a border state governor, Janet Napolitano probably understands the costs, impacts and complexity of immigration and security better than most elected or appointed officials. The former US Attorney and former State Attorney General was one of the first elected leaders to call for the deployment of the National Guard to improve border security. She has also worked to build effective networks amongst Arizona’s state, local and tribal governments. Assembling such diverse interests is an always delicate task, but she has shown the necessary skills to bring multiple parties together to get the job done. It’s just one of the reasons she been recognized by Time Magazine as one of America’s Top Governors.

Frances “Fran” Fragos Townsend, former Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, The White House

  • While there are many that would quickly discount Fran Townsend because of her years of service to the current Bush White House, there is a lot that she offers to the future of homeland security given her significant involvement with its past foundations. A former Assistant US Attorney and US Justice Department official with significant experience with national and international security, FISA, organized crime prosecutions, FISA, surveillance and more, Ms. Townsend’s resume is one of the most impressive ones anyone could ever peruse. Labeling her as some political hack that can survive (and be elevated) in different Administrations (Clinton to Bush) would be vastly underestimating her skills and ability to perform and succeed in the most challenging environments. Besides, how many people do you know who have met face to face with Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadhafi in a tent outside of Tripoli to talk about resuming diplomatic relations with the US and the rest of the world? She has and has the story to prove it.

Henry Cuellar, US Representative, State of Texas, 28th District

  • He may only be completing his second term in the US House of Representatives, but Rep. Henry Cuellar has put together an impressive record on homeland security issues. As Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness & Response, he has offered a civil, centrist and proactive voice on some of the most contentious homeland issues (interoperability, grants, emergency management processes, etc.). As a result, he gets high marks from both sides of the political aisle as well as the range of public and private sector members. That is not the only distinguishing factor about him. As the most ‘degreed’ Member of the US House (he has five advanced degrees and third degree black belt in Karate), he has shown his ability to listen to multiple and diverse interests and hear them out before putting forward effective strategies to address what are very complex interests. His July 2008 keynote remarks at a Homeland Defense Journal program on the future of homeland security and DHS showed the depth of his understanding and the strategic approaches he sees necessary for the success of the incoming Administration. There are not many House Members who have demonstrated such insight or leadership.

Jim Langevin, US Representative, State of Rhode Island, 2nd District

  • No one in the US Congress understands the threats and vulnerabilities associated with cyber security better than Rep. Jim Langevin. As one of, if not the, greatest threats and vulnerabilities our nation faces, we need someone with Rep. Langevin’s expertise to address cyber security. He has been not just vocal on cyber security; he has been the marshalling force within the US Congress to get ‘moving’ on this issue. His command of the issue as well as recognition that government can not solve this problem alone has been impressive to watch. He has extended the collaborative and proactive approach he has had with cyber to other homeland areas as well. His leadership, comments and support of research in strategic homeland areas and emerging technology deployments (radiation monitoring at ports and other critical infrastructure points) are indicative of his leadership approach in these areas. So are the remarks that he offered at the same July 2008 Homeland Defense Journal program where Rep. Cuellar spoke.

Dan Lungren, US Representative, State of California, 3rd District

  • When you are from California, you have to deal with everything in homeland security and it would seem that Rep. Lungren’s career reflects that fact. From illegal immigration, emergency communications and response, national and international security matters, critical infrastructure protection, public safety and so much more, Rep. Lungren has played an active role on all of these issues as a Member of Congress as well as the California’s State Treasurer and Attorney General and as an university educator and radio talk-show host. He has been able to succeed in some of the most challenging environments along the way too. While he has encountered election defeats at varying points in his career, he has not let that stop him from being a force promoting effective strategies to ensure safe and successful commerce and security.

Jane Harman, US Representative, State of California, 36th District

  • While she may not chair the House Intelligence Committee (thanks to some petty maneuvering by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), there can be no doubt that when Rep. Harman speaks on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence matters, people listen. One of House’s most formidable (and knowledgeable) Members on intelligence and security matters, Rep. Harman has not been shy in challenging the Bush Administration, DHS or her own Congressional colleagues about what they are getting right and what they are getting wrong on these issues. Her name is often mentioned as a potential nominee for the top job at the recently established Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but that overlooks all of her leadership in pushing for improved information sharing networks for federal, state, local, tribal and private sector members. Using her current post on the House Homeland Security Committee as Chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, she has regularly challenged DHS leaders and intelligence officials regardless of their stature or accomplishments to do more to connect and communicate with people in the field who can prevent, adjust and respond to threats as they appear.

‘Wild Card’ Selection

  • The ‘Wild Card’ is the person who may not be as publicly known or recognizable as some of the persons that I have already mentioned in this posting. Sec. Chertoff, while a known quantity in many legal circles, was not well-known beyond them. His selection after the failed nomination of Bernie Kerik was a surprise to many in Washington and around the country, but in the end, it ended up being a great pick for the Department. The Wild Card is in every deck of an Administration’s personnel vetting process and that may hold true again when a new President is elected on November 4th. The challenge for the Wild Card, particularly if they are a not widely known individual, is conveying the command, capacity and character to withstand the incredible scrutiny and demand the DHS position holds. More well-known persons don’t carry that type of burden as pundits, the media and other colleagues can look over their more public accomplishments. As lesser known persons, they have the challenge of conveying the wisdom of the President who has selected them to serve; the character to work with a Congress that will scrutinize them relentlessly; the fortitude to handle the crush of media and numerous interests; and the confidence and ability to lead the vast Department and the larger homeland security community on not just on the ‘good days’ but the ‘bad ones’ they will most certainly face.

Regardless of whatever skill set and background a prospective nominee brings, the position of DHS Secretary is undoubtedly one of the hardest jobs on the planet. With the right supporting cast (much of which is in place at DHS and elsewhere around the US), it can be done. There will still be leadership failures, stumbles and missteps along the way. Secretaries Ridge and Chertoff experienced that but they have also demonstrated their own leadership skills that have enabled DHS’ maturing and successes and done so with a great deal of integrity and honor in the process. That’s a hallmark of any successful Cabinet Secretary.

As to the future DHS leadership, I’m looking forward to where the Wild Card or one of the other folks I mentioned will take us in 2009 and beyond. They’ve got my support and that of a lot of other folks I know too. They’re going to need it. Failure is not an option.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More