N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata has made a nice living from his status as a retired brigadier general. When Tata retired in 2009 after 28 years in the U.S. Army, his former rank and training at The Broad Academy gave him entry into the Washington, D.C. school district. There, he would use his military acumen to improve the schools logistics as chief of operations under then-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. That lasted 20 months.
Then, despite little experience in education, Tata was hired as superintendent of Wake County schools, North Carolina’s largest school district, because a conservative-led school board liked his potential for gung-ho, nontraditional leadership. That didn’t end well. Tata gained a reputation for bullying staff members and couldn’t get the buses to run on time. He was dismissed by a new, progressive board after less than two years and left with approximately $250,000 in severance pay.
Soon after, he landed his current post. Upon announcing Tata’s appointment, Gov. Pat McCrory said that despite Tata’s lack of experience with state transportation issues, he had run complex operations as a general. “If he can do it in Afghanistan under fire, surely he can do it in North Carolina,” McCrory said.
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Now Tata is working his one-star again. In addition to running a major state department with a $4 billion budget and some 12,000 employees, he has found time to be a regular guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and to write military thrillers on the side. On Fox, Tata regularly criticizes the Obama administration’s policies regarding the Middle East. Last Friday, he noted that Iran and Hezbollah have been taken off the list of terror threats in the national security report. The move is part of the administration’s effort to encourage Iran’s help in fighting ISIS, but Tata declared it foolish and dangerous.
“I don’t know what pie-in-the-sky world we’re living in right now, but this is ridiculous,” he told Hannity. “This is an oppressive regime that wants to destroy Israel and the United States.”
Why Hannity is turning to Tata for wisdom on the Middle East is baffling. Tata has no special insight into the region. Beyond that, the public learned all it needed to know about Tata’s judgment of military leadership when he publicly declared that Sarah Palin would be a better commander-in-chief than Barack Obama.
Biting the hand that feeds
And a larger question than why Hannity would seek Tata’s opinion is why Tata would choose to give it. For a former general, this seems a basic strategic mistake. More than a quarter of North Carolina’s transportation funding comes from the federal government. A state transportation secretary who makes it a practice to go on TV and blast the president for, among other things, endangering the nation probably is not improving his state’s chances of receiving discretionary federal funding.
Adie Tomer, an associate fellow at Brookings Institution who studies infrastructure funding, said most federal transportation funding is automatic and beyond politics. But there are grants worth many millions of dollars for which states compete. A good relationship with the current administration can help. North Carolina enjoys an edge with former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx serving as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, but that edge may be dulled by Tata’s abrasiveness.
“It’s a political town,” Tomer said of Washington, even in agencies that are not directly political. He added that Tata’s criticism of the administration seems contrary to North Carolina’s requests for funding. “I just don’t see what there is to gain from it, especially because (being a general) is not his current job,” Tomer said. “Is that looking out for the best interests of North Carolina? It doesn’t sound like it.”
Apparently Tata sees his livelihood as being both a secretary of transportation and a retired general. He’s North Carolina’s own Secretary General.
No doubt it’s a dual role Sarah Palin would salute.