By Jennifer Epstein
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced her resignation Friday after more than four years in the job, saying she has been chosen to lead the University of California system.
Her departure comes in the midst of the debate over reforming the country's immigration system, though she will stay on the job -- which she called "the highlight of my professional career" -- through early September, an administration official said. There was no immediate frontrunner to replace her, though several names quickly emerged Friday.
"For more than four years, I have had the privilege of serving President Obama and his administration," Napolitano said in a written statement, adding that she was ready to move on "to play a role in educating our nation's next generation of leaders" as president of the UC system.
In a separate statement, President Barack Obama thanked Napolitano for working with him on "some of the toughest challenges facing our country," including the responses to the Joplin tornado and to Hurricane Sandy.
Napolitano also played a key role in strengthening border security, the president said, "deploying a historic number of resources, while also taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values."
"The American people are safer and more secure, thanks to Janet's leadership in protecting our homeland against terrorist attacks," he added.
Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, Napolitano was the Democratic governor of Arizona and the state's attorney general. Her name had been floated as a potential replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder, or as a possible Supreme Court justice.
But Napolitano's departure didn't happen because she was told she was out of the running for attorney general, a former administration official said. Rather, she decided to take "very good bird in the hand versus one in the bush" by taking the University of California job, the former official said.
Potential candidates to lead Homeland Security might be cast from a similar mold as Napolitano and Tom Ridge, George W. Bush's first DHS secretary: governors with background in law enforcement.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick would be one option, though he's seen as eyeing the attorney general job. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley could also be a strong candidate, even as he also weighs a bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and several others recommended Ray Kelly, New York City's police commissioner, for the job. Kelly's mix of military, law enforcement and counterterrorism experience would make him a good pick, King said, as would his "ab[ility] to fight bureaucratic battles."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that he has called White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to recommend Kelly for the job. New York's "loss," he said, would be the "nation's gain."
But the former administration official said Friday it was doubtful that Kelly would be in the running, given that he would likely "exacerbate" the tensions that exist between DHS, the Justice Department and the FBI.
King said that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. "Maybe they do need someone who can stand up I think it's important to have someone who is strong and independent."
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) reached across the aisle to suggest Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) for the post.
"I really think she is a thoughtful voice and would be a real quality addition," Connolly said of Collins, the former top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "You want to make sure that your cabinet has some voices from the other party."
Another potential candidate is Thad Allen, who retired from his post as commandant of the Coast Guard in 2010. He helped lead the responses to both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The confirmation process for an eventual nominee could result in more tension over immigration, as critics rehash some of the department's stumbles under Napolitano.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) described Napolitano's tenure Friday as "defined by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law." Her successor "must restore the rule of law, as well as the morale of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers which has plummeted under her tenure," he said.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said that while he and Napolitano have disagreed on border security issues, "I respect and thank her for her service." But, he warned, her departure opens up yet another vacancy at the department, where more than a dozen senior posts sit open.
Napolitano's decision to move to academia came after being approached by a recruiter for the University of California and after much deliberation, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday. A source close to Napolitano told the paper that she didn't feel as though she was being pushed out of the administration, but rather that she needed to seize a "unique opportunity" to lead the university system.
In a statement released by the system, Napolitano said she recognizes that she is "a nontraditional candidate" for the job, but will acclimate herself by reaching outJanet Napolitano to Leave Department of Homeland Security for University Role to faculty, students, administrators, the state's political leaders and others with a stake in the university.
Napolitano isn't the first member of the Obama cabinet to depart for higher education this year: Acting Commerce Secretary Becky Blank left the administration this spring to head the University of Wisconsin.