Governor Janet Napolitano brings several critical qualities to the role as the chief executive of the Department of Homeland Security. First, as governor of Arizona she is a chief executive. It can’t be emphasized enough how important executive management skills are for this job. You have two herculean tasks confronting you: one is the security mission itself, but the other is the ongoing management challenges that still must be addressed in this massive merger that created DHS.

Second, as a governor of Arizona in particular, she is going to be familiar with border security matters to a degree that few other non-operations leaders would be. Arizona has seen some of the worst violence in the country related to human smuggling operations, which often also involves weapons and drugs. She’s also seen the human suffering side of this struggle, with illegal immigrants dying in the Arizona deserts as they try to make it to safety across the border into the United States.

Third, as a former U.S. Attorney, she understands law enforcement from a comprehensive perspective. A prosecutor not only understands the unique law enforcement and security aspects related to this job, but also understands the larger communications and messaging requirements. That is, as a trial lawyer a prosecutor knows that evidence alone isn’t enough; evidence must be packaged in a clear and compelling way, in a way that the average member of a jury can digest. One-time bizarre Bush choice Bernie Kerik, for example, would have been a disaster as Homeland Security Secretary for so many reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that he lacked any kind of political (small p) skills. This is a guy who – on the record – referred to his critics as “cockroaches” who didn’t have the “balls” to confront him. He would have been a bull in the world’s largest china shop — which is Washington D.C., with all of its delicate egos in the various executive agencies and on Capitol Hill and in the media. The fantasy is that we need straight-talking leaders to come in and say what’s what. Problem is that “straight-talking” depends upon the ear of the beholder. A guy like Kerik would have been chewed up and spit out before he ever made it through the confirmation process … oh, wait. The Department of Homeland Security is one big lightening rod waiting to happen, and it needs leaders who understand and are capable of articulating its mission to the broader public in an effective way.

Speaking of political skills, the fourth reason why Napolitano is a good choice is that, as a governor and political figure, she understands the need to reach out to others, to build support, to compromise when appropriate. I am reminded of the Sprint-Nextel commercial where the fire chiefs come in to Congress and solve all the country’s problems in fifteen minutes. Ah, if it were that easy, the fire and police departments of New York City might actually get along with each other once in a while, let alone run the country. As head of DHS, Napolitano will need to develop alliances with state and local government leaders, with competing federal law enforcement and national security agencies, with state and local homeland security offices, with Congress – the list goes on. Rumsfeld was a “suffer-no-fools” kind of guy who failed to build alliances; look how well that worked out for him.

We probably shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, though. If Eric Holder doesn’t make it through the vetting and confirmation process, then you could still see Napolitano moved to Justice.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More