Senate committees on Wednesday recommended confirming two more of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet secretaries amid an unresolved legal dispute over whether the Senate has the authority to approve or reject his top agency leaders.
Two policy committees, and then a nominations committee, recommended James Trogdon for approval as transportation secretary and Erik Hooks as public safety secretary. The full Senate was expected to give its approval Thursday.
Previously, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Larry Hall as secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Five more Cabinet nominees are scheduled to appear before Senate committees in the coming weeks.
All of them have been subpoenaed at the request of the Democratic governor, who has sued legislative leaders over their recent interpretation of the state Constitution that his Cabinet picks can be reviewed by the Senate. Legislators point out the Senate review process is more transparent. It also is part of a pattern of shifting powers from the executive branch to the legislature.
Hall didn’t appear before a committee until he was subpoenaed.
Each of the appointees have faced generally friendly questioning, with a few pointed queries mixed in. All of the committees have asked questions soliciting answers that could bolster the Senate’s case in court, and have put the nominees on the record that they would follow the law rather than the governor if ever faced with such a conflict.
Nominations Committee Chairman Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican, said Wednesday that all of the governor’s nominations reviewed so far have been “excellent.”
Career law enforcement
Hooks is a career State Bureau of Investigation agent who has spent nine years in senior leadership positions. Asked in the Senate Judiciary Committee if he was prepared to handle a 27,000-employee agency, Hooks said his decades in law enforcement, relying on talented top officials at the Department of Public Safety that oversees the SBI, and his own life experiences convince him he is ready.
Those experiences include being a black man, he said. Hooks said he has had to caution his 23-year-old son, a college athlete, how to behave if pulled over by the police in order to avoid potentially dangerous confrontations.
“I was raised in the South,” he said. “There are still elements in the Old South, being a black man in the Old South, I still have to be cognizant of, ‘How am I perceived? How is my son perceived?’”
Hooks said it was important that law enforcement connect with communities on racial, mental health and other issues.
“There are tough conversations you need to have in minority communities and majority communities,” he said. “Let’s engage, let’s understand what the concerns are. ... We do so much right. When we do something wrong we need to step forward and take responsiblity.”
Trogdon, a familiar face at the legislature due to his long career in the state Department of Transportation, was questioned by the Senate Transportation Committee.
With his DOT experience and his background as a National Guard officer, Trogdon was handled respectfully. Several committee members were openly appreciative of his answers.
Asked about sometimes controversial toll roads, Trogdon said “We have to have every tool available to us. Tolls are one of those tools that we use to fund innovative financing. ... In my conversations with the governor he has not directed me to exclude any of those tools.”
Trogdon dodged questions about whether he thought the confirmation process was legal, saying he was trained as an engineer not a lawyer.
Asked if a gas tax is the most effective way to pay for transportation projects, Trogdon said it helped bring North Carolina into the modern age and continues to be useful. But he said that money will eventually disappear as vehicles use less gas or become fully electric. The state will have to transition away from motor-fuel tax revenue in the coming decade, he added.