Last week, Gov.-elect Pat McCrory acted like he was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and he had just landed the nations top high school basketball recruit.
McCrory said he had been lobbying Aldona Wos, a Greensboro physician and former U.S. Ambassador, to serve in his administration for much of the year. He had particularly focused on her to take the post of secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, putting her on the transition committee dealing with the department.
She can do anything she wants, McCrory said at a news conference, meaning any job in the country. And she picked this responsibility probably one of the most difficult in North Carolina.
McCrory seemed surprised at his success.
I never thought she would take this role on, McCrory said, but I wouldnt let off.
Not many DHHS secretaries started their journey to state government in Warsaw thats Poland, not the town in Duplin County.
She is proud of her Polish heritage. Her father, Paul Zenon Wos who is still alive fought in the anti-Nazi Polish underground and ended up in Flossenburg concentration camp. Israel gave him the Righteous Among the Nations designation given to non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust for smuggling 12 Jews out of the ghetto to the Hungarian and Swedish embassies.
Her grandparents were sent to German slave labor camps during World War I. After World War II, the communists took over Poland.
I remember, as a child in Poland, police coming to take my father away in the middle of the night for interrogation, said Wos, who still speaks with a slight Polish accent. You never knew if he was going to come back.
At age 6, her family moved to Long Island, leaving their fortune behind. But she has never entirely left Poland behind, and she helped educate the public about the Polish nightmare during World War II. She served two terms on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
She said her familys history with totalitarianism informs her conservative politics.
Wos (pronounced vosh) practiced internal medicine for 18 years including private practice, clinical care, corporate medicine, teaching and consulting.
McCrory cited Wos coolness under fire and her passion. She was present at the first World Trade Center when it was attacked by a truck bomb, helping treat victims. And she was heavily involved in fighting the AIDS/HIV epidemic in New York in the 1980s, McCrory said. She was also active in combating AIDS when she was U.S. Ambassador to Estonia.
She moved to Greensboro in 1997 when her husband, Louis DeJoy, started his company, New Breed Logistics, which has 7,500 employees worldwide.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole got Wos involved in Republican politics, and she soon became one of the top GOP fund raisers in the state. She was not only a major fundraiser for the likes of McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr, but has also had President George W. Bush and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in her house for events.
Her fundraising resulted in her appointment as ambassador.
If she looks like an outside of the box appointment for DHHS, McCrory intended it that way.
We had a line of applications for this job, McCrory said. But the one thing I needed was someone coming in from the outside, who wasnt directly aligned with any of the interest groups that right now are lobbying regarding the tough decisions we have to make. I really wanted someone from the outside.
Wos doesnt have any experience in running a sprawling government agency with 17,000 employees, an $18 billion budget, and one which serves one million North Carolinians. But DHHS secretaries have come to the job with various backgrounds: Robin Britt was a former congressman, Dave Bruton was a former pediatrician, Carmen Hooker Odom was a health-care industry advocate, Dempsey Benton was a former city manager, and Lanier Cansler was a former legislator, CPA and consultant.
The issues facing DHHS are complex, ranging from Medicaid to mental health. Wos views on those subjects are still a mystery, although much of the policy will be determined by McCrory and the Republican legislature.
After all, its not as though Wos lobbied for the job.
I had to beg her to take this, McCrory said.