WASHINGTON – Janet Napolitano, who as President Barack Obama’s homeland security secretary has one of the broadest and most challenging portfolios of any Cabinet member, announced Friday that she is stepping down to become president of the University of California system.
Napolitano has been a central figure in the debates over immigration and counter-terrorism policies while also managing the government’s response to tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Her resignation comes at a critical time for the Obama administration, as Congress debates a controversial bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Napolitano’s departure has been in the works for several months, and she plans to leave her post in early September, two administration officials said.
A former governor of Arizona and a Democrat once seen as a potential candidate for national office, Napolitano, 55, will exit the political stage to run one of the country’s largest public university systems.
In a statement released Friday morning, she said that serving in the Obama administration to help protect Americans from harm “has been the highlight of my professional career.”
“We have worked together to minimize threats of all kinds to the American public,” she added.
In addition to being on the front lines in the politically charged immigration debate, Napolitano helped lead the responses to deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Northeast last year, as well as the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the H1N1 virus.
Some of her actions have come under scrutiny. Critics faulted her for playing a role in toughening airport security procedures, including through the introduction of radiation-emitting full-body scanners. More recently, she was questioned by Congress on whether DHS agencies missed clues about the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.
An early political backer of Obama’s who was sworn in as homeland security secretary in 2009 on the first day of his administration, Napolitano was among a handful of Cabinet officials to remain in their posts as his second term began.
She had given no public sign that she would leave, although she was seen as a possible successor to Attorney General Eric Holder should he depart.
Administration officials said Napolitano, who had extensive law enforcement experience in Arizona, did not hide her desire to be attorney general and grew discouraged about her prospects as Holder stayed well into Obama’s second term.
Administration officials declined to speculate immediately on a possible replacement, but they stressed that the position itself is a difficult one to fill.
DHS, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, is sprawling and complex, with 240,000 employees spread across 22 government agencies. It oversees issues ranging from the weather to natural disasters to airport and border security to drug interdiction to protection of the president.
Both Obama and President George W. Bush tapped governors — who manage sprawling bureaucracies in their own states and must develop expertise across a range of issues — to head the department.
In seeking a replacement, Obama may try to avoid a contentious confirmation battle with the Senate at a time when he is pushing a controversial immigration bill and stuck in the middle of a privacy-invasion scandal.
Two DHS agency heads who maintain particularly good relations with congressional oversight agencies are seen as possible contenders: W. Craig Fugate, the current FEMA administrator, and John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration and a former deputy director of the FBI.