Visibility no snag for chief

Staff WriterJune 17, 2003 

Utilities Commission Chairwoman Jo Anne Sanford was under pressure to tread lightly this year as she argued against a bill to restrict the state's authority to set telephone prices.

At precisely the same moment she was trying to persuade the General Assembly to add greater protections for consumers to the bill, lawmakers were considering whether to confirm Sanford for a second eight-year term.

Sanford, nominated for reappointment by Gov. Mike Easley, understood that she could become a target for lawmakers if she pushed them too far. In fact, she has been feeling a little deja vu about the whole affair, she said Monday. In 1995, when Gov. Jim Hunt nominated her for her first term, some lawmakers opposed her just as she, a lawyer with the Attorney General's Office, was expressing reservations about a telecommunications bill that year.

This year, Easley policy chief Alan Hirsch advised Sanford to lie low, according to an e-mail exchange between the two. But Sanford was unafraid in a response to Hirsch and chief Easley lobbyist Franklin Freeman: "I appreciate Alan's advice to keep my head down, but it's been a pretty visible target so far ... the telcos are unlikely to come after me re: confirmation. It would look too bad for them, and plenty of people would help be sure they got the blame."

In the end, Sanford didn't exactly get the bill she wanted, but she did get her second term -- and lawmakers said they have nothing against her. Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville, a lead sponsor of the bill, said, "Jo Anne is a regulator -- and, I might add, an effective one."

The final twist this year, perhaps, is that a leading opponent of Sanford's first appointment in 1995 -- then-Speaker Harold Brubaker -- sponsored the resolution this year to confirm her second term.

Friend of Easley

Of all the places in the world, a bus in Japan was where Gov. Easley got to know W. Britt Cobb Jr., his interim selection to run the Department of Agriculture.

Easley, known for trusting his first impressions, had never met Cobb before his Asian trade mission last November, when they were introduced in a meeting and then sat together on a bus ride. Evidently, the governor liked what Cobb had to say well enough to turn to the career agriculture bureaucrat when Meg Scott Phipps resigned earlier this month.

"He had a very progressive attitude and mind set," Easley said of Cobb. "We talked about some ideas he had about marketing and agriculture."

Before taking the temporary reins of the 1,300-employee department, Cobb, 53, specialized in marketing and trade issues. The governor said he thinks marketing is a key to improving the state's agricultural fortunes, and that's one reason he turned to Cobb to run the whole show.

"This is a guy who understands the department," Easley said. "He's got a lot of pride in the Department of Agriculture and wants our department to be the best."

Easley said he hasn't decided whether he will appoint a permanent agriculture commissioner before the end of 2004, when the job comes up for election again. For now, he's focusing on helping the General Assembly finish the budget, he said. And Cobb, who said shortly after his appointment that he will not seek election, may well stay on until voters choose a replacement, the governor said.

"He could be a star," Easley said. "We don't know. He's made it through one of y'all's press conferences, and that's more than some of us could do."

By staff writer Amy Gardner, who can be reached at 829-8902 or agardner@newsobserver.com.

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