Gov. Roy Cooper named his first two Cabinet secretaries on Tuesday, setting up a potential showdown with the Republican-controlled General Assembly over his choice to lead the state’s environmental regulatory agency.
Two days after taking office, the governor announced at a news conference the appointments of environmental advocate Michael Regan to lead the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and veteran road planner James Trogdon to run the state Department of Transportation.
Under a law the legislature passed at the end of last year, signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, the state Senate can reject the governor’s Cabinet appointments.
Trogdon’s 25 years experience in transportation — including jobs at the N.C. DOT and the General Assembly — and his rank as a major general in the state National Guard have made him a familiar face at the legislature.
The choice of Regan, however, represents a pointed reversal of the McCrory administration’s approach to environmental regulation. He has not only spent seven years with the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy organization, but he was also employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
His predecessor, Donald van der Vaart, led the administration’s charge against what it considered regulatory overreach by the EPA. Republicans in the legislature generally favor fewer regulations and more opportunities for business.
Environmentalists, who repeatedly fought with the administration, immediately cheered the announcement that Regan was Cooper’s choice to steer the 1,500-employee DEQ in a new direction. The N.C. Conservation Network released a statement welcoming Regan.
“This choice is a clear signal from Gov. Cooper that his administration intends to restore a philosophy of transparency, integrity and sound science to an agency that for the past four years has been led by those who too often put the interests of polluters ahead of the people of North Carolina,” spokesman Brian Powell said.
On Tuesday, Regan said he would work to develop communication among various interest groups, and that he would attempt to build relationships with the General Assembly leadership.
Regan’s experience includes working with industry and utilities. He runs a consulting firm addressing policy, regulation, fundraising and other aspects of environment and public health.
Asked if Regan would be confirmed, Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said he would be evaluated as part of the confirmation process.
“Members of the Senate will look forward to reviewing the qualifications of Gov. Cooper’s Cabinet nominees and exercising their constitutional authority to vet them during the upcoming long session,” Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said.
She said the Senate will be adopting rules for the confirmation process next week, probably based on federal appointment oversight in Congress and the way the legislature chooses UNC Board of Governors members.
Trogdon and Regan can take office without legislative approval.
The Senate can vote to approve or disapprove Cabinet appointees. If the Senate doesn’t take any action before it adjourns, then the appointees would be removed from their positions. The legislature is scheduled to start its long session later this month, which could last six months or more.
Asked on Tuesday about a potential clash over the confirmation, Cooper said he was confident in his selection.
“I think it’s important for the governor to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions,” Cooper said. “We need people who can also bring people together and can work together. Michael Regan has shown time and again that he’s been able to bring diverse groups together.”
Trogdon will manage an agency of 11,000 employees.
Asked about his immediate plans, Trogdon said he would get up to speed on an agency that he left three years ago as chief operating officer. His goals, he said, are “the same things our citizens see every day. So, how do we address congestion, improve mobility through all modes of transportation? How do we make sure people are connected to jobs and economic opportunity? How do we make sure that freight is moving seamlessly throughout the state to support our economy?”
Trogdon is the father of News & Observer reporter Kathryn Trogdon.
Cooper said he would announce the remaining secretaries soon. He said he expects the Cabinet members to begin work in a week or so, and named eight veterans of state government to serve as “caretaker supervisors.”
Dempsey Benton, the former Raleigh city manager who also served as state Department of Health and Human Services secretary under former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, is interim DHHS secretary. Britt Cobb is interim secretary at the Department of Administration. He has held top positions at the agency, including secretary.
Other interim secretaries include George Sherrill at Commerce, Kevin Cherry at Natural and Cultural Resources, Ron Penny at Revenue and Mike Holder at Transportation. Linda Hayes, named interim Public Safety secretary, has worked in juvenile justice and Bill Ross, filling in at Environmental Quality, is a former secretary of the environmental regulatory agency.
The interim officials have begun running their departments and will continue until each agency has a permanent secretary. When the two secretaries named Tuesday will start work and what their salaries will be are still being discussed, a spokeswoman for Cooper said. Nick Tennyson, who was McCrory’s most recent transportation secretary, was paid $138,040 annually. Van der Vaart, who preceded Regan, was paid $130,935 annually.
It is unusual for a North Carolina governor to begin a term in office without having a Cabinet appointed. Asked about that on Tuesday, Cooper said obstacles have slowed down the process, including the election, post-election legal challenges, and three special sessions of the legislature that he was directly involved in.
Department of Environmental Quality secretary
A native of Goldsboro, Regan graduated from N.C. A&T University with a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science, and obtained a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University. He worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a national program manager, and the Environmental Defense Fund as southeast regional director and national director of energy efficiency, climate and energy policy. Most recently, he founded a consulting firm, M. Regan & Associates.
Department of Transportation secretary
A native of Hope Mills, Trogdon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at N.C. State University. He earned a master’s of strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. After a long career with the state DOT in engineering jobs, he became regional director of sales and business development for Atkins North America, a consulting firm. He currently works for SAS Institute as national transportation director.