Rob Christensen

Is NCDOT leader Tony Tata looking at seat in Congress?

N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata works in his office in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015.
N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata works in his office in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015.

Tony Tata, the state transportation secretary, is seriously considering challenging Congressman Walter Jones in the GOP primary next year.

The contest would likely draw national attention, creating a contest between an Army general who is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran against one of the few Republican critics in Congress of continued U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

“He is seriously considering it,’’ Carter Wrenn, a veteran GOP strategist for Sen. Jesse Helms and others, said Monday. “He hasn’t made up his mind. I think he would be a pretty unique candidate.’’

Wrenn said Tata’s background as a combat veteran was particularly important at a time when the nation is figuring out how to deal with heightened threats from ISIS and Al Qaeda and other Middle Eastern groups.

“He has something to offer in the way of leadership that we don’t have now,’’ Wrenn said.

Wrenn said that Tata has been giving careful thought to running in the 3rd Congressional District, talking with consultants about how to set up and finance a campaign. Wrenn said he did not know if Tata would resign from his DOT post if he ran, but that was possible.

Tata could not be reached for comment.

If Tata left, it could be a setback for Gov. Pat McCrory, who was hoping that his DOT secretary would play an important role in pushing his plan for a $2.8 billion roads and building renovation bond issue on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Tata would potentially be the most high-profile challenger to Jones since Jones was elected in 1994. Jones has earned a reputation as a party maverick, criticizing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and often straying on party-line votes. He has been close to libertarians such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his father, former Congressman Ron Paul.

Not easy

But it would not be an easy race for Tata. There has been a Jones — either Walter Jr. or his father — representing Eastern North Carolina since the mid-1960s.

There has not been a congressional incumbent defeated in a North Carolina primary since 1956. But Jones was pressed in his last election, winning in the primary over a well-financed opponent, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to President George W. Bush, by a 52-45 percent margin.

Griffin fought charges that he was the Washington establishment candidate — something that Tata will certainly work to avoid.

Although Tata has only lived in North Carolina for the past five years, he has been seen as an increasingly attractive figure in GOP circles because of a resume that includes leadership in the military, education and now transportation.

The West Point graduate served as a paratrooper and was Ranger-qualified, and rose with the 10th Mountain Division, the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne. He was deputy commanding general of U.S forces in Afghanistan (2006-2009).

He was chief operating officer of the District of Columbia Schools before coming to Raleigh, where he was superintendent of Wake County public schools (2010-12.) He was ousted when the Democrats won control of the Wake County school board.

McCrory named Tata state DOT secretary in 2013, where he has been widely seen as one of McCrory’s best appointments.

In his spare time, Tata writes action novels, with the proceeds going to a wounded warrior program.

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack