RALEIGH — Gov-elect Pat McCrory began assembling his administration Thursday, bringing fresh faces into state government, including a former U.S. ambassador, a Pinehurst businessman and a think-tank veteran.
McCrory announced that Aldona Wos, a Greensboro physician and former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, would head the Department and Health and Human Services, one of the largest agencies in state government.
Also named was John Skvarla, the CEO of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based company that does environmental mitigation work, to be his secretary of environment and natural resources. Thomas Stith, a former Durham city councilman who has headed McCrory’s transition team, will serve as chief of staff.
“I am looking for talented individuals who can run government in the most effective way,” McCrory said in a news conference at his transition headquarters.
The announcement had state employees and interest groups doing frantic Google searches.
The three are largely unknown quantities in a state government that has been controlled by Democratic governors for 20 years. But they are familiar in Republican circles where all have been active.
Although diversity is not a popular concept among some Republicans, McCrory’s first three appointments could hardly be more diverse – a white male, a white female and a black male.
McCrory said he has directed his Cabinet to institute “a culture of customer service,” and informed them there will be “no new money” available, and that there needs to be greater collaboration between departments.
McCrory said he hopes to have all eight Cabinet secretaries appointed before he takes office Jan. 5.
Opportunities for N.C.
Wos (pronounced Vosh) will become DHHS secretary, heading a department with 17,000 employees, an $18.3 billion budget and responsibility for health programs that affect a million North Carolinians.
A native of Poland who still speaks with a slight Polish accent, Wos is a retired physician and civic leader who moved to Greensboro when her husband, Louis DeJoy, started a business there in the 1990s.
She was recruited into politics by then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole, and she soon became a powerhouse Republican fundraiser, including holding events in her Irving Park home featuring the likes of President George W. Bush and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her husband was state finance chairman for presidential candidate John McCain.
Bush named her U.S. ambassador to Estonia. She is the daughter of the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp – her father was a member of the Polish underground whom Israel later honored for smuggling 12 Jews out of the ghetto.
Wos cited the challenges regarding new health care law, Medicaid and information technology as among those facing DHHS.
“These challenges are really opportunities to bring our communities together,” she said. “We need to come together to find the best possible solutions to impact all the citizens of North Carolina.”
Adam Searing, director of the Health Care Access Coalition, an advocacy group, said there was so little known about her positions on the key issues facing health care that it was difficult to draw any conclusions.
Striking a balance
As head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Skvarla, 64, will oversee an agency with fewer than 4,000 employees and an ever-shrinking budget. He has a long track record as an entrepreneur, having started several businesses. Since 2008, Skvarla has made $27,200 in campaign contributions to Republicans, including McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis.
“We must strike a balance between our state’s economic development and its environment, and the environment will be protected,” Skvarla said. “More importantly, the integration of a strong environmental policy with a strong customer service and business development philosophy are not mutually exclusive.”
What Skvarla does not have is an extensive environmental background – until he joined Restoration Systems in 2005. The firm restores damaged waterways, and has pioneered in North Carolina the niche of “mitigation banking” – collecting credits for improving one site that can be used to offset development elsewhere.
As a result, the state’s environmental groups were cautious Thursday in reacting to his selection.
“We don’t really have information about what his personal commitment to North Carolina’s air and water are,” said Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club’s state president. “We look forward to getting to know him, and hope for a positive working relationship.”
But Derb Carter, longtime director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he was familiar with Skvarla through Restoration Systems.
“John has built a successful green business in North Carolina, and he understands how job creation and protecting the environment go hand in hand,” Carter said.
Skvarla’s company, Restoration Systems, is politically well-connected. It has won $4 million in contracts from the state for four projects since 2009.
Co-founder George Howard was appointed earlier this year to the state’s new board that will monitor fracking, and he was also appointed a trustee of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The other founder, John Preyer, and Howard worked together on former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth’s staff.
McCrory, in introducing Skvarla, said, “To have both the environmental and science and legal background, and the business background, is someone we very much need in the leadership of DENR.”
Stith, 49, oversaw a transition staff of 20 people, helping find people to serve in the administration, and identify issues that McCrory will have to face.
“He has done an excellent job in providing a blueprint in putting together a team for my administration,” McCrory said.
Stith is the first African-American to serve as a chief of staff of a North Carolina governor, which McCrory indirectly alluded to by noting that Stith’s late father, David, had participated in the 1957 sit-in effort to integrate the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham.
In brief remarks, Stith had difficulty controlling his emotions when he noted that the Stith family had come to North Carolina as slaves to a plantation in Tarboro.