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New top Va. safety official inherits challenges

Virginia's new secretary of public safety has lived her life to the crackle of a police scanner.

It was always there as the child of a New York City police officer, providing background noise in the family room. And even as Marla Graff Decker worked her way up in the Virginia Attorney General's Office over the past two decades, her nights were spent responding to emergency calls as a volunteer EMS.

Decker will add another to her home — a state police radio — when she takes over as Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell's public safety secretary overseeing 14 state agencies on Jan. 16.

Marla Graff Decker (AP).

“The one thing I do want is that at the end of four years for everybody to say, 'That was a dynamite secretary of public safety,'” Decker said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. “To get to that point, it's going to be a long, hard road because we've got lots of challenges in front of us.”

Decker inherits agencies facing hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed budget cuts. Prisons have closed, the state's crime lab is falling behind as forensic examiners deal with a court ruling that requires them to be in court more, and federal stimulus money that held off deep cuts to public safety agencies soon will run out.

Decker knows budget problems will be her biggest challenge. The rest of the job likely will come naturally.

As her father put it when Decker called last month to tell him she was chosen as the secretary for public safety: “Marla, you've trained for this all your life.” Decker's father, William E. Graff, followed his father's footsteps as an NYPD officer, working his way up to a lieutenant in the 1970s. He spent part of his career as a detective working on organized crime.

Decker said she never knew whether her father would make it home, so she always tried to make sure he knew she loved him before he left for work. She remembers being 16 and having a fight with her father before he left for work only to have him swept away on assignment for a few days while she worried she would never get to apologize.

“Every time they wear that badge and that gun that is the absolute supreme sacrifice in my mind, to go out there and do what they did for precious little money and oftentimes very little in the way of thanks,” she said.

Her father's work with organized crime led to some unnerving moments at home.

Occasionally an officer would pick her up from school just to make sure she got home safely. Once she noticed a suspicious car outside her house as she got ready for school.

Decker remembers her mother saying “In her very cool, calm, collected way ... 'Let's just assume it's the good guys and let's not worry about it, but go out the back door today.'”

Turns out it was the good guys, who were watching the house because her father was “dealing with something very sensitive.” Decker also had close ties to the medical community. Her mother quit her job as a nurse when Decker was born. Decker volunteered as a candystriper through high school, and in college she helped out at a local hospital.

After graduating from the University of Richmond law school in 1983, Decker took an EMT class and started volunteering at the Tuckahoe Rescue Squad outside Richmond. Within a couple years, she was heavily involved with the squad, and since then has served as president several times, mentored others and taught classes on everything from terrorism management to writing good reports.

All the while, Decker was working her way up in the Attorney General's office.

She started as an assistant attorney general and spent years working on criminal appeals and inmate litigation. She later was promoted to section chief of special prosecutions and organized crime.

In 2005 Decker became deputy attorney general for public safety and enforcement. In that job Decker started traveling the state working on gang training and prevention, so the once-weekly all-night shift as an EMT became too much.

Decker took life membership with the squad, which means she still is involved but no longer goes out on calls.

“To me and to a lot of the other members, she's really a role model,” said Kathy Butler, president of the rescue squad. “Someone who had that high a position and that busy of a professional life but still found time to serve her community.” Decker met her husband, Chip, while working at the rescue squad. He now heads the Richmond Ambulance Authority.

McDonnell said Decker is so respected in public safety circles that many sent letters of support or called his office to suggest she get the job, something he called unprecedented.

A former prosecutor and attorney general, McDonnell says public safety is the top priority of government. Decker, he says, will be a “tremendous advocate” for that cause.

“Everyone will know that they've got a law enforcement friend in the secretary,” he said in an interview.

Decker is hesitant to say what she would like to accomplish as secretary, saying she'll work with McDonnell to further his priorities. As a 26-year government employee, Decker is confident she'll be able to get things accomplished.

“On my report cards, I wasn't necessarily the smartest, I wasn't necessarily the go-getter,” she said. “But I was always the one who could work and play well with others.”

-- The Associated Press

By Washington Post Editors  |  January 7, 2010; 12:52 PM ET
Categories:  Internal Affairs , Virginia  
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