Commentary

Christensen: The ambassador and the general

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

In looking at the administration of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, consider the tale of the ambassador and the general.

Both run sprawling state agencies that have often had a way of blowing up into controversies that embarrass their governors. So far, the general’s agency has run smoothly. But every time the governor picks up the newspaper or turns on the TV, he sees more bad news coming of the ambassador’s agency.

The ambassador, of course, is Aldona Wos, McCrory’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Wos is a physician and former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, and she is married to a very successful Greensboro businessman. She and employees and families of her husband’s company gave $216,497 to McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign.

I met Wos a decade ago during Elizabeth Dole’s Senate campaign and I was impressed. She is whip-smart, high energy, engaged in her community and has a very interesting family history. This is precisely the type of person any governor would try to recruit.

But things have not gone well at DHHS. Hires have been questioned and computer systems have struggled.

So what went wrong?

There are at least three reasons: She has little experience in managing a huge government agency, she did not come to the job briefed on the hundreds of health care issues that she must now face, and she has no background in state politics, and therefore no feel for how some controversies might play with the public.

Compare her tenure to that of retired Army Brig. Gen. Tony Tata, who is transportation secretary.

In administration after administration, DOT has been the problem child of state government because a lot of people want to influence where roads go and because it also has traditionally been the home of many political patronage jobs.

But while McCrory is constantly having to defend Wos, Tata is quietly making his boss look good.

Unlike Wos, Tata brought broad management experience to his post.

Most recently he was superintendent of Wake County public schools, where he managed a system of 18,000 employees and 150,000 students. Although he was criticized for a school bus fiasco at the beginning of the 2012 school year, his ouster was probably the result of the change in the school board’s partisan makeup.

Tata also has been chief operating officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools, ran the Department of Defense’s counter-roadside bomb program, and was deputy commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division overseeing 18,000 troops in Afghanistan, Fort Drum and Fort Polk.

Tata has kept many operational people at DOT in their jobs, favoring competency over political expediency. He has hired trusted associates from Wake County schools.

The biggest trouble spot in DOT, historically, has been the Division of Motor Vehicles. Tata has named as acting head of DMV his chief deputy, Nick Tennyson, a well-regarded Republican former mayor of Durham and vice president of the Homebuilders of Durham, Orange and Chatham. Tennyson is 63, not 24.

Wos, with her limited experience in managing huge agencies, probably had little chance for success.

On the other hand, Tata could probably have thrived in any assignment that McCrory gave him.

Experience matters. That is the lesson I draw from the story of the ambassador and the general.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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