Tuesday, April 14, 2009 | Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is set to announce the appointment Wednesday of former San Diego U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin to a newly-created position overseeing the efforts to combat drug-related violence, as well as immigration matters along the southwest border.

Sources previously said Bersin, former San Diego city schools chief, was being considered to lead Customs and Border Protection. This new job was created by President Barack Obama as matters related to Mexico — in particular the escalating cartel violence and its spillover into the United States — became an urgent priority for his administration.

Napolitano is scheduled to make the announcement in El Paso, Texas, during her second border trip in as many weeks. Obama travels to Mexico this week to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Topping the agenda will be detailed discussions about the cartel violence and what to do about it.

Bersin will travel extensively in his new job, regularly meeting with U.S. and Mexican officials. He will commute between Washington, D.C., and San Diego, where his wife, Superior Court Judge Lisa Foster, will remain, friends said.

Bersin, 62, one of San Diego’s most prominent, accomplished and controversial figures, is currently the chair of the executive committee of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Supporters of Bersin say his previous law enforcement experience, fluency in Spanish and knowledge of Mexican issues make him perfect for the post. His detractors say his dictatorial style makes him a bad choice for any leadership position.

This is the second time Bersin has been tapped for a “Border Czar” position. A Clinton Administration favorite, Bersin was given the role of Southwest Border Representative in 1995 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno while he also served as U.S. attorney in San Diego.

However, his influence in that post was limited because he was largely a coordinator of his counterparts along the southwest border, and did not have to power to implement across-the-board policies. In his new position, Bersin will have the authority to create, influence and implement policy decisions.

“Bersin is a perfect choice for this position because he not only understands and appreciates all the nuances of U.S. law enforcement and border issues,” said friend and colleague Charles La Bella. “He also appreciates the same nuances of Mexican law enforcement and Mexican border issues.

“That’s one of his biggest advantages because he’s a student of Mexico,” said La Bella, who was Bersin’s top assistant during his tenure as U.S. attorney and helped him coordinate efforts along the border. “He has spent an enormous amount of time in Mexico and understands its history and culture and brings a real depth of understanding to the border and the handling of border-related issues.”

Bersin is a fluent Spanish speaker who learned the language in classes and through immersion programs living with Spanish-speaking families, La Bella said.

During his law enforcement career, Bersin has accompanied Border Patrol agents on stakeouts in jeeps and on horseback. He has visited detention centers. “He understands the process from the ground up,” La Bella said.

Yet Bersin has a management style that has earned him many critics along the way, particularly during his tenure as chief of San Diego city schools. In an open letter to Napolitano published April 1 by the online East County Magazine, retired Marvin Elementary School principal Ernie McCray urged the Homeland Security secretary not to select Bersin for Customs chief.

“As a native of Tucson, a ‘Sonoran’ to my very core, I shiver at the thought that this man would have anything to do with the Arizona border. I don’t know who else is on your list but there has to be somebody available who will be tough on terrorists, who will serve the American public with vigilance, integrity and professionalism without going about it like the Godfather.”

Bersin was at the helm of San Diego City Schools from 1998 to 2005. His reforms were embraced by some who respected his CEO-style leadership and non-traditional approach, but resisted by members of the teachers union who, along with a few school board members, reviled him. He was credited with raising test scores but criticized for creating low morale among teachers.

Bersin became Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education secretary in 2005 after voluntarily leaving the city schools post a year before the end of his contract, just as the teachers unions launched a campaign urging the board to oust him

Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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