RALEIGH — As director of Gov.-elect Pat McCrory’s transition team, former Durham City Councilman Thomas Stith III is the new man to see in Tar Heel politics.
Hundreds of job applications are flowing into his office. Teams are assessing state government and policies. Inauguration plans are being made.
Stith, 49, spent part of this weekend closeted with McCrory, who will take office in January as North Carolina’s first Republican governor in 20 years.
Stith is overseeing a 10- to 15-member transition staff, housed in vacant offices in the Albemarle Building, which is putting together an administration in less than a two-month period. Stith stresses that the transition effort is a team effort that includes many volunteers.
It is perhaps noteworthy that McCrory chose an African-American conservative to head his transition team at a time when Republicans nationally are talking about the need to find better ways to engage African-American and Hispanic voters.
McCrory said he understands the political symbolism of his selecting Stith, but said he chose him because his background in business, in government, in politics and with the Kenan Institute gave him a well-rounded background to lead the transition team.
“He is extremely knowledgeable about what is happening in the state,” McCrory said in an interview. “He has been an effective manager in the past. And he is very smart.”
“This is a team effort,” McCrory said, “and Thomas is a team player ... I don’t want big egos around me. I want people who are workers and who are problem solvers and Thomas fit that mold really well.”
Guided by GOP’s Hawke, Pope
Stith rose in politics with the help of Jack Hawke, one of the North Carolina GOP’s old war horses.
Hawke, who was McCrory’s chief campaign strategist, befriended Stith’s father, David Stith, when both ran for Congress in 1968, when Thomas was 5 years old.
Stith counts his father, a Democrat who later became a Republican, as his political hero. His father was involved in the 1957 sit-in effort to integrate the Royal Ice Cream Co. parlor, three years before the more famous lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro. Stith’s grandfather was a civic leader and Boy Scout leader in Rocky Mount, where there is a park named after Tom Stith.
Hawke watched the young Stith grow up, got him involved in Republican Jim Martin’s 1984 gubernatorial campaign, and helped him land a job in the governor’s office.
Later Hawke brought him in as a staff member in the Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy organization based in Raleigh, and helped him when he entered Durham politics.
Stith is also close to Raleigh businessman Art Pope, a major financier of Republican and conservative causes. Both Stith and Pope served in the Martin administration. The Civitas Institute is largely financed by Pope organizations, and Pope was a major contributor to Stith’s political races.
Running as a Republican in heavily Democratic Durham is a difficult task, but Stith won election to an at-large City Council seat and held it for eight years.
Stith often played the role of conservative dissenter, questioning the way things were done, sometimes getting under his colleagues’ skin by bringing up issues without any prior warning.
“My thing was people before politics,” Stith said. “I don’t label myself.”
In 2004, Stith unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, receiving only 23 percent of the vote.
He also started a day care center, worked for CP&L and obtained an MBA.
In 2007, he challenged Democratic Mayor Bill Bell, losing despite a well-financed campaign in which he outspent Bell by nearly 4 to 1. Stith sharply criticized Bell, criticizing him for the city’s crime rate and tying him to the Duke lacrosse scandal and several city hall controversies. But Stith still lost 58 percent to 42 percent.
“I hope this sends a message,” Bell said on election night, “that Durham is not the city for that type of campaign.”
But today, most of his old Democratic adversaries have nice things to say about him.
Bell last week called Stith to congratulate him on his new job.
“I think Thomas is a good person for that job,” Bell said. “He has been involved in the political side as both an elected official and as a staff person both with Jim Martin and with the Republican Party. I think it is a good fit for him.”
“We obviously had some differences,” Bell said. “But I’m the type of person who wants to get beyond that and move on to the next issue, and that’s the way it has been in our relationship, both personally and politically.”
In 2008, Stith joined the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise in Chapel Hill, where he headed efforts to look for ways to revitalize the area east of Interstate 95.
Stith was active in McCrory’s campaign, particularly in recruiting African-Americans to his candidacy. But he said he was surprised to receive a call from McCrory asking him to serve as transition director.
Since he started work the week of the election, he has been working 16- to 18-hour days. That means less time this holiday season with his wife, Yolanda, and their three daughters.
“We have a very short time to be prepared to govern,” Stith said. “The governor has really created a sense of urgency. Our role is to be prepared to govern the state and to have the proper people and talent in the state.”
Personnel and policy
A Work for Pat website already lists more than 230 jobs – some of which are not vacant – ranging from deputy secretaries to prison wardens and dentists. Those include 57 positions in Health and Human Services, 55 in the governor’s office, 43 in Public Safety, 24 in Commerce, 15 in the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, 14 in Transportation, 10 in Administration, eight in Cultural Resources and six in Revenue.
Stith said those 230 jobs listed should be exempt from the civil-service protections of the State Personnel Act.
He said those now holding those positions will not necessarily be out of jobs in a new administration, but the McCrory administration wants to “look at the broad pool of individuals who are available who can come into the administration.”
Hawke, a veteran of the last two Republican administrations – Jim Martin (1985-93) and Jim Holshouser (1973-77) – said Stith faces a particularly difficult task because the GOP has been out of power so long.
The 20 years of Democratic administrations, Hawke said, means that it is difficult to find Republicans experienced in state government – just as when Holshouser took office.
On top of that, Hawke said, is the continuing fallout of the recession and the potential budget crisis – something neither Martin nor Holshouser had to deal with.
“Not only does he (Stith) have to … make recommendations to the governor-elect who will pick the team – taking the thousands and thousands of resumes and suggestions and organize them, and get them to the governor to make the final decisions,” Hawke said. “He will have to go into the departments and figure out what they do and where the problems are and what needs the governor-elect’s attention.
“So it’s both personnel and policy that he is handling in a couple of months – a very short period of time.’’