Rob Christensen

Tata is now turning out fictional tough guys – Christensen

Then-N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata before a Board of Transportation meeting in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015.
Then-N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata before a Board of Transportation meeting in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

There are some very scary things happening in the Port of Wilmington – a group of Iranian terrorists have snuck into southeastern North Carolina and are planning to wreak havoc on the country.

Fortunately, there is Jake Mahegan, a former special forces soldier and all-around tough hombre, to dispatch the bad guys while the U.S government is frozen in inaction and/or political correctness.

Mahegan is the product of the imagination of thriller writer A.J. Tata, who is better known as Tony Tata – retired Army general, former Wake County schools superintendent and former N.C. transportation secretary.

I caught up with Tata last week at Raleigh’s Caffe Luna restaurant, where he was preparing for a reception for his latest book, “Besieged.”

Tata now resides in Wilmington in a house overlooking the Cape Fear River, where he churns out his thrillers – most of them set in North Carolina. He has just submitted the manuscript for his eighth book to his publisher. He donates some of his profits to veterans charities.

When he is not writing, he has a hand in a couple of business interests including a real estate company, and he is a frequent contributor as a military and foreign policy expert on the cable news networks, particularly Fox and CNN. Last Monday, for example, Tata was in New York where he made two appearances on Fox and two appearances on CNN talking about Russia, President Donald Trump’s planned military buildup, and the U.S. raid in Yemen.

Tata, who served as a deputy commander in Afghanistan, knows many of the key players on the national scene. He speaks highly, for example, of his former Army colleagues, H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, as well as Michael Flynn, who McMaster replaced after Flynn reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials.

Tata, a Republican, likes some of what he sees coming out of the new administration – a proposed substantial increase in military spending, a foreign policy more focused such threats as the Islamic State group, and more attention to displaced Middle Eastern refugees flooding into the West and whether they are being properly vetted.

“What I believe I am seeing is a more coherent foreign policy that will address the violence we are seeing in the Middle East and then in second order, address the migration issue,” Tata said.

His book, “Besieged,” although a thriller rather than a partisan piece of work, does take a few shots at the Obama administration for signing the Iran nuclear agreement and for normalizing relations with Cuba – both of which figure in the plot.

The son of Virginia public school teachers, Tata knew from about age 12 that he wanted to write. He said he was a heavy reader, graduating from the Hardy Boys adventure books to Stephen King thrillers.

He remembers telling his father, a football coach and Virginia state legislator, that he wanted to be a fiction writer when he grew up. His father’s response was, “You better be a good one, because they don’t make a lot of money.” So Tata pursued a military career, attending West Point.

His books are of the Tom-Clancy-military-techno-thriller genre. Among the writers he admires are John Sandford, author of a detective series based in Minnesota; Lee Child, who wrote the Jack Reacher series; and Brad Thor.

“My reader is the reader who likes spy thrillers, who likes vigilante justice, who likes heroes who stand up truth to power, and stand up for what is right, for what Joe Six Pack believes is right,” Tata said.

If you didn’t know anything about Tata’s background, you could surmise it from reading “Besieged.” There are lots of details about the military and weapons, a little about schools, some about the N.C. Ports, which he once managed as DOT secretary, and even a little about surfing, one of Tata’s pastimes.

After retiring from the Army, Tata was hired as a top administrator for the Washington, D.C., school system before being hired as Wake County schools superintendent by a new Republican school board majority, serving from 2010 to 2012 before being pushed out when the Democrats retook control.

Of all the things I have done in my life, serving as superintendent of Wake County schools is probably the most rewarding and satisfying experience I have had.

Tony Tata

After Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was elected, Tata was DOT secretary, a post he held until 2015.

“Of all the things I have done in my life, serving as superintendent of Wake County schools is probably the most rewarding and satisfying experience I have had – and I have loved everything I have done,” Tata said.

“I had two parents who were schoolteachers and being able to connect with 150,000 students, 300,000 parents, 170 schools, 18,000 employees…,” Tata said, his voice trailing off.

He noted such programs as the Leadership Academies, Vernon Malone technical high school, 15 STEM academies, the school system’s rapid growth and the use of Title 1 federal funding to put extra math and English teachers in schools serving low-income children.

“When I think about it,” Tata said, “I just get so excited about the impact all those people – students, teachers, pupils, administrators and parents – had on me. And how enriched my life is from my interaction with them. I look fondly on those days, regardless of the political turmoil at the top.”

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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