After Napolitano

07.12.13

The Case for Ray Kelly as Obama’s New Homeland Security Director

New York’s top cop is needed in Washington now.

Now that Janet Napolitano has resigned, who will be the new Homeland Security chief? One name jumps out: New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Kelly should have been Obama’s pick the first time around—a confidence-inspiring law-enforcement leader with federal experience, having served as under-secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence as well as Customs Commissioner during Bill Clinton’s second term. In 2011, Sen. Chuck Schumer recommended that Kelly take over the FBI, but he has so far dismissed calls for higher appointed office, saying that he is loathe to return to Washington already has the job he wants.

But that job may well be over at the end of this year, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg exits City Hall, and serving as Homeland Security Director would be a logical continuation of the work Kelly has done with the NYPD, coordinating with federal agencies to keep our city safe in the decade plus since the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Here’s why the pick makes sense for President Obama: Democrats retain residual distrust when it comes to national-security issues. True, that traditional gap has closed in part due to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but like Bill Clinton before him, Obama carries the baggage that comes from being a commander in chief who never served in the military. Ray Kelly was a Marine colonel in Vietnam before embarking on his long career in the NYPD, receiving a law degree and Kennedy School study on his way through the ranks. Kelly also played a leading role at Interpol. Moreover, he is better known nationally than Napolitano when she took the position in Obama’s first term. Unkind “Big Sis” characterizations aside, Kelly would communicate considerably more credibility than the former governor of Arizona, who always seemed like more of a political payback and diversity play in the cabinet office least suited to either.

Kelly would walk into the job ready to lead and bringing an informed perspective on the essential roles and responsibilities of the department. In the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, he would inspire confidence among citizens as well as front-line first responders. This is invaluable and something a current DHS second in command, no matter how capable, would find difficult to match.

130712-Avlon-Ray-Kelly-embed
President Barack Obama, with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly by his side, meets police officers in the NYPD Real Time Crime Center in May 2010. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Yes, there are some obvious problems with a Ray Kelly appointment as well—namely, that the Department of Justice is suing the NYPD over its controversial “stop, question and frisk” policy, which Kelly and the Bloomberg administration have argued is integral to the persistent drop in crime. Likewise, Kelly has gotten tangled up in his own surveillance scandals, perhaps most notably the tracking of some Muslim student leaders. The man is not on most civil libertarians’ Christmas-card list, but then no head of the NYPD probably ever would be. And to add some balance, Kelly criticized the administration’s NSA programs as described by Edward Snowden. But that’s the sort of independence that only adds credibility to such an integral position.

At 71, Ray Kelly is likely too old to run for mayor of New York, despite many supporters (and Republicans) fervent wishes. But he has at least one more great act in his career after securing his role in urban history as the longest-serving NYPD commissioner. Now the nation needs him more than New York.

In a glowing statement Monday, Schumer said, “There is no doubt Ray Kelly would be a great DHS Secretary,” and that “[w]hile it would be New York’s loss, Commissioner Kelly’s appointment as the head of DHS would be a great boon for the entire country.”

If Obama appoints Kelly, he’d be ensured of bipartisan if not unanimous support and a seamless transition. And amid the gray sea of uninspired second-term cabinet picks, Kelly would stand out, communicating energy and seriousness of purpose. Unlike other soporific cabinet secretaries, Homeland Security director is a position people really do care about. After all, terrorism is always one bad day away from being issue No. 1 in America.