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Arizonans abundant at U.S. Department of Homeland Security

There are no saguaros growing on the banks of the Potomac, but Washington, D.C., is starting to look a lot like Phoenix — at least at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has brought what some political insiders say is an unusually large coterie with her to DHS. The exact number of Arizonans who followed her to Washington after she resigned as governor is difficult to ascertain, but the Arizona Capitol Times has identified at least 14 people who served Napolitano in Arizona and now work for Homeland Security or the agencies it oversees.

Among those whom Napolitano brought to Washington when she joined President Obama’s Cabinet are former gubernatorial chief of staff Jan Lesher, former deputy chief of staff Noah Kroloff and Brian de Vallance, her director of federal relations.

“There are probably only a few people who really know how many people she brought over,” said Ron Bonjean, of the Washington consulting firm The Bonjean Company. “White House personnel (office) knows how many people she brought over, but it may not have been brought to a higher level of attention.”

Bonjean, who worked for former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, said he thought it was unusual for a Cabinet secretary to bring such a large contingent with her to Washington. Cabinet secretaries generally bring along a few loyalists, he said, but usually only a small handful.

“What loyalists do is they have the understanding of how the politician thinks, but they don’t have the institutional knowledge of how to run an office,” Bonjean said. “Anything over five is unusual. What it says is she’s trying to watch her back … so she’s putting these people around the agencies in order to have some control over the department.”

Others, however, don’t see anything unusual in Napolitano’s selection of fellow Arizonans. Chris Battle, a consultant with the Washington public affairs firm the Adfero Group, said the number of people Napolitano brought with her from Arizona doesn’t stand out, especially in an agency as large and fractured as Homeland Security.

Many sub-agencies of DHS, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Administration, aren’t even located in the department’s headquarters, he said, which sometimes makes communication difficult.

“It doesn’t strike me as being particularly surprising, but … compared to other Cabinet members it might be a little bit high,” said Battle, who was part of the transition team that originally helped set up DHS after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “You’ve got all the component agencies spread all over the place in Washington, D.C., and in many ways it makes it a little bit more unmanageable, and so that, I think, certainly could serve as justification for having a little bit higher number of people in place who … you have a comfort level with to help try and execute your vision.”

David Olive, of the Catalyst Group, a consulting firm that focuses heavily on Homeland Security matters, said Tom Ridge, the department’s first director, brought in about seven people from his time as governor as Pennsylvania. Like Battle, Olive pointed to the fractured nature of the department as cause for Napolitano to bring in people with whom she already has a strong working relationship.

“Given … how DHS has been perceived as being this dysfunctional organization, I think it is smart for the secretary to put people she has confidence in, in kind of key administrative positions,” Olive said.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who now runs a consulting firm in the Valley, said she only brought one Arizonan with her when she took over the Department of Transportation. After working with Robert Johnson during her time as federal highway administrator, Peters named him chief of staff. He also had been in Washington longer than she had.

Peters said, however, that she became Transportation secretary midway through George W. Bush’s presidency, and she already had been working in the department, so she was familiar and comfortable with much of the staff.

Additionally, Peters said she spoke with colleagues when she was named Transportation secretary, and they advised her to bring in people with whom she was comfortable working. And with a department as large and complex as DHS, Peters said, Napolitano was probably wise to surround herself with some familiar faces to help her hit the ground running.

“Given the relatively new nature and complexity of Homeland Security, I would assume that a secretary there would probably bring more people with her than perhaps someone else might,” Peters said. “Having someone there who knows you, knows how you work and you can depend on, is important.”

James Carafano, of the conservative Washington think-tank The Heritage Foundation, said Napolitano is entitled to staff her department with the people she wants and who she thinks are right for the job.

“That’s their privilege, because at the end of the day they’re the one that’s held accountable for their performance. I don’t really care where people come from, as long as the department gets the job done,” he said.

Carafano did, however, notice a departure from precedent under Napolitano regarding political appointments. DHS has about 200 slots for political appointees, he said, and former Secretary Michael Chertoff, Napolitano’s immediate predecessor, made an effort to leave many of them open because he believed it would leave the department less vulnerable during transitions between presidential administrations, when those appointees typically leave. But Napolitano has not taken the same approach, Carafano said.

“Napolitano has kind of reversed course on that, and that’s probably not terribly healthy. There certainly are people in positions in this department today which are political positions which weren’t political positions under Chertoff,” he said. “I think there are too many political positions in DHS, and downsizing them is the right answer.”

Political appointees at federal agencies are not generally chosen by cabinet secretaries alone. The White House, members of Congress and lobbyists often weigh in on who should fill those positions, Carafano said, with some appointees selected strictly on merit and others chosen to reward them for service to campaigns or other political favors.

“Members of Congress push names. K Street pushes names. They come from everywhere. There’s a lot of pressure to fill those jobs,” Bonjean said.

Requests for information, including the number of political appointees named by Napolitano and the number of appointees who had served under her in Arizona, were not answered by DHS as of press time.

While voicing his disapproval of Napolitano’s decision to reverse Chertoff’s policy on appointees, Carafano also said the disparity can be explained in part by the differences in the two secretaries’ backgrounds. Chertoff was a federal appeals judge, a position that does not include a large retinue of advisers. Governors like Napolitano, on the other hand, require a large number of advisers and other staff.

Napolitano’s decision to bring so many Arizonans to DHS likely will escape the notice of most people in Washington, Carafano said. Probably the only reason anyone would take note, he said, is if the department performs poorly under Napolitano, or if “people in these positions start to do stupid things.”

“But if things go right, nobody’s going to notice or care. That’s kind of the way things work,” Carafano said.

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