WASHINGTON – President Bush on Friday nominated Bernard Kerik (search), a former New York City police commissioner, as the next secretary for homeland security.
"Bernie Kerik is one of the most accomplished and effective leaders of law enforcement in America," Bush said in announcing his decision at the White House.
"In every position, he has demonstrated a deep commitment to justice, a heart for the innocent and a record of great success. I'm grateful he's agreed to bring his lifetime of security experience and skill to one of the most important positions in the American government."
Meanwhile, FOX News has learned that Asa Hutchinson (search), the current undersecretary for border and transportation at DHS, is seriously considering a run for governor in his native state of Arkansas.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kerik, who was chosen to train the Iraqi police force after Saddam Hussein's fall, will be responsible for running a collection of disparate federal agencies brought together to keep Americans safe inside the United States.
Kerik was in charge of police actions when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11.
"I know what is at stake," Kerik said. "On Sept. 11, 2001, I witnessed firsthand the very worst of humanity and the very best ... I saw hatred claim the lives of 2,400 innocent people, and I saw the bravest men and women I will ever know rescue more than 20,000 others."
Current Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) announced his resignation Tuesday. Ridge was the first secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
"He met urgent challenges with patience and purpose and because of his efforts, our country is safer," Bush said of Ridge, whom he called a "friend" of more than 20 years. "He is one of the great public servants of our generation."
Long-time Hutchinson aides told FOX News that the discussion regarding the governor's race has been going on for quite a while and has nothing to do with the fact that he was not chosen to succeed Ridge as head of the DHS.
Hutchinson and Kerik were just two of several names floated as Ridge successors.
The aides said that the border chief has had several phone conversations on whether to run for governor of Arkansas and is quite aware that if he wants to get back into campaign mode he would need to get rolling pretty quickly, since he has been in the executive branch now for the past four years. Before that Hutchinson was a member of the House, where he served as impeachment manager during the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal.
One aide suggested that Hutchinson will likely step down from his current post toward the end of the year, or early next year, in order to re-establish his presence in Arkansas.
Kerik, who called Ridge a "courageous trailblazer" in the effort to make succeed the largest reorganization of the federal government, vowed to devote "every power I possess" toward fulfilling his role as head of an agency still trying to find its way.
The New Yorker is seen as a good choice because he has overseen a large law enforcement organization and particularly understands the needs of first responders, particularly in a post-Sept. 11 world.
"He was there when the twin towers collapsed — he knew the faces of the rescuers who rushed toward danger, he attended the funerals for the officers who didn't come back," Bush said. "Bernie Kerik understands the duties that came to America on Sept. 11. The resolve he felt that morning will guide him every day on his job and every first responder defending our homeland will have a faithful ally in Bernie Kerik."
Saying there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't remember the events of Sept. 11 and the heroic efforts of those who tried to save others' lives, Kerik said: "I promise you, Mr. President, that the memory of those courageous souls ... will serve as permanent reminder of the awesome responsibility you've placed in my charge."
Kerik Has Bipartisan Support
Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees DHS, said Kerik is a "strong candidate" for the post and said her panel would conduct confirmation hearings "as expeditiously as possible."
"He knows first hand the challenges this country faces in guarding against terrorist attacks," Collins said in a written statement.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said Kerik is "the perfect choice for the job."
"There is no doubt that Bernie is a strong, no-nonsense manager who is intimately familiar with the homeland security mission," he said in a statement. "The new standing Committee on Homeland Security will work closely with him to build on the strong foundations laid by Tom Ridge to secure America against terrorism."
New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer also praised the president's choice.
"Coming from New York, Bernie Kerik knows the great needs and challenges this country faces in homeland security. He has a strong law enforcement background and I believe will do an excellent job in fighting for the resources and focus that homeland security needs and deserves in our post-9/11 world," Schumer said in a written statement.
Rep. Chris Shays, R-Ct., said Kerik's background with first responders will be key.
"I'm thrilled by it — this is a guy who I think knows what it's like to be a first responder," Shays told FOX News on Friday. "I can't imagine any member of Congress being anything but thrilled to have him come into their district to talk to first responders."
Added Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.: "Bernie Kerik understands it is our police departments and fire departments that are on the front lines of terrorism here at home."
Kerik also realized, Israel said, that lawmakers need to revise what the congressman called "ridiculous" homeland security formulas that don't give appropriate levels of funding to those areas of the country that most likely will get hit by terrorists, such as New York City.
"Since our city will always be a prime target for terrorists, having a New Yorker as secretary of homeland security, who spent so many years protecting this city and who is so knowledgeable about our strengths and vulnerabilities, will serve us well as we continue to make the case that homeland security funds and resources must be distributed by threat and by threat only," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a written statement.
To the men and women of DHS, as well as the local mayors and governors and first responders, Kerik added: "It is your skill, sacrifice and dedication that has made the lives of all Americans more secure. You have my respect, my admiration and I look forward to the opportunity to join with you in protecting the nation we all love."
Steering Through the D.C. Bureaucracy
Although Kerik is rougher around the edges than Ridge, observers said he is more than able to do the job, particularly since he has been such a close supporter of Bush, although he may need some help maneuvering through the Washington political scene and the red tape that often comes with it.
"Bernie is a very good operational person, he knows how to run the operation. What he needs to learn and what he's going to need help with is the Washington bureaucracy," former New York Police Commissioner Howard Safire told FOX News.
Safire noted that Kerik will have to take the reins of a behemoth responsible for 22 separate agencies — many of which have long-been dysfunctional, as well as some 200,000 people.
"Hopefully, the president has given Bernie a mandate to fix that. Without mandate from the president, without the ability to have a budget that you need," gaping holes can't be fixed, Safire added, "which has been a problem with the department from the beginning."
Kerik, the son of a prostitute who abandoned him as a child, started out his career as a military policeman in South Korea in the 1970s. He trained Special Forces in Fort Bragg, N.C. He took his first anti-terrorism job as a paid private security worker in Saudi Arabia.
Kerik joined the New York Police Department in 1986, first walking the beat in Times Square, which at the time was full of hustlers and hookers. He was responsible for the arrest of 60 members of the Colombian Cali cocaine cartel, and won the department's Medal of Honor for saving a fellow police officer.
He eventually was tapped to lead the city's corrections department, and was appointed commissioner in 2000. He has often been at the side of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and has done some consulting work for his ex-boss' firm Giuliani Partners. Kerik spoke at the Republican National Convention in August in New York City, praising Bush for his response to the terror threat facing the nation.
Bush on Friday called Kerik a "dedicated reformer who insists on getting results," noting that, during his term at head of New York's corrections department, he helped cut inmate violence by 90 percent and did much to reduce crime in the Big Apple.
He is "superbly qualified" to lead DHS given his hands-on experience, the president added.
"When confirmed by the Senate, Bernard Kerik will build on the historic accomplishments of Secretary Tom Ridge," Bush said.
Kerik's nomination follows the president's announcement Thursday morning that he was nominating Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (search) to be agriculture secretary. Moments after Kerik's name was revealed, U.N. Ambassador John Danforth (search) submitted his resignation, an official said. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson also announced his resignation Friday.
In October 2003, Miramax bought the rights to make Kerik's life story into a feature film. The movie will be based on Kerik's autobiography, "The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice," which came out that year.
FOX News' Jim Mills contributed to this report.