RALEIGH — Gov.-elect Pat McCrory finalized his Cabinet Thursday, naming Wake County’s ousted schools leader Tony Tata to head the Department of Transportation – another surprising pick for his administration.
Tata, 53, served less than two years as superintendent in Wake County before a new Democratic board fired him in September after a debacle involving bus schedules at the start of the school year and problems with his leadership style.
McCrory cited Tata’s experience managing the budget for the school system, the largest in the state, as part of the reason for appointing him to one of the most visible agencies in state government. He also touted Tata’s 28-year military experience, saying the retired U.S. Army brigadier general implemented transportation and infrastructure operations on the battlefield.
“If he can do it in Afghanistan, then he can do it here,” the incoming Republican governor said.
In addition to Tata, McCrory named Sharon Decker, a Rutherfordton businesswoman, as his commerce secretary and former Republican state Rep. Bill Daughtridge to lead the Department of Administration, completing his Cabinet two days before he takes the oath. Neal Alexander, a retired vice president of human resources, will serve as director of the state personnel office.
Decker and Alexander spent much of their careers at Duke Energy, where McCrory worked for nearly 30 years.
“This is going to be a fantastic team,” the governor-elect said, adding that he would give his Cabinet officials “a lot of independence.”
Tata is not the first eye-opening pick for McCrory. His team includes Art Pope, a Republican financier who is considered a boogeyman by Democrats after he helped engineer the GOP takeover of the state legislature; Kieran Shanahan, a major Republican donor and lawyer involved in two legal complaints against the N.C. Democratic Party; and Susan Kluttz, a former Salisbury mayor and Democrat whose appointment was cheered by the members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
McCrory emphasized that his team is bipartisan with half registered Republicans and half Democrats or independents. “My No. 1 requirement is finding talented individuals to join our team, who can run government in the most effective way possible regardless of political affiliation,” he said.
But Gerrick Brenner, an activist who runs a liberal political group that monitored the Wake County school board and opposed McCrory’s bid, took issue with the selection of Tata to oversee the department with an annual budget of $4.5 billion and responsibility for the nation’s second largest state highway system, after that of Texas.
“He’s picked a political loyalist and not a transportation administrator,” said Brenner. “It contradicts so much of what he talked about on the campaign trail. ... He’s finding a new set of cronies.”
Tata came to Raleigh after serving as chief operating officer in the Washington, D.C., school system. He won praise from supporters for gains in academic scores, but his school transportation plan outraged parents. He recommended removing 27 buses from the road to save money, and his staff later pulled 25 more, moves that left children standing on street corners for hours.
In September, Tata was fired without cause and received $253,625 in severance pay. Democratic board members, who complained that he created a culture of fear in the school system, said their relationship had deteriorated too much to work effectively. But Republicans, who hired him in December 2010 when they held the majority, argued that his ouster was purely political.
“It’s an outstanding pick,” said Republican Chris Malone, a former Wake school board member elected to the state legislature in November. “Putting together something operational like this is the forte of any military leader.”
Board members Keith Sutton and Jim Martin declined to comment on Tata’s tenure; other Democratic board members did not return calls seeking comment.
But parent Sherri Bolton, whose four children attend Wake schools, laughed out loud at Tata being named to a transportation post. The Apex mother was among those parents whose children dealt with unreliable bus service the first month of school.
“Hopefully he’ll be more successful there running a state agency than at the local level,” she said. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
Tata has declined numerous requests to discuss his firing. McCrory’s staffers shuffled Tata away from reporters Thursday and declined to make him available for an interview.
Chris Walker, a McCrory spokesman, said the transition team considered Tata’s overall background, not just his terms as superintendent, and considered his firing “political.” He declined to comment on whether the team thinks Tata should keep his taxpayer-funded severance when he begins his state government job. As secretary of transportation, he’ll receive a salary of $121,807.
Fix the DMV
McCrory charged Tata with developing a 25-year plan for where the state should invest in transportation and reorganizing the agency, major tenets of his campaign.
“I’ve also asked him to fix (the Division of Motor Vehicles),” McCrory said, mentioning an agency he often derided in the campaign. “In a week,” he added without elaboration.
His expectations for his new commerce secretary are likewise steep. He wants her to develop a new brand for the state and lure companies to bring jobs to a state with an unemployment rate consistently above the national average.
Decker served 17 years with Duke, working her way through the ranks to become the youngest and first woman vice president in the utility’s history. In 1998, she served as chairwoman of the Charlotte Chamber and moved to rural Rutherfordton the next year to lead a textile company division. In 2004, she created a religious nonprofit called The Tapestry Group.
Living in Rutherford County, where the unemployment rate is 12.7 percent, focuses her for the job ahead.
“I’m very motivated. It’s my neighbors that are without work. It’s my family without work,” she said in an interview Thursday. “It is about creating good jobs, sustainable jobs.”
Daughtridge brings experience in state government circles after serving for six years in the House and spending two years as a senior policy adviser to Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis.
He ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer as the GOP nominee in 2008 and now serves on the UNC Board of Governors, a post he will resign to take his new job coordinating the administrative functions of state government.
McCrory tasked Daughtridge with leading an ongoing effort to consolidate the state health agencies offices, identifying state assets to sell and reorganizing his agency. “You might work yourself out of a job,” McCrory said.
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff, researcher Teresa Leonard and Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed to this report.