Bit by bit, North Carolina got its first look at Gov. Roy Cooper beyond the campaign trail this past week, his first in office.
He has long been viewed as a cautious politician, in part because of what some saw as his reluctance to run for governor and his own acknowledgment that he takes time to make decisions. In that vein, he has begun his term by naming just three Cabinet secretaries out of 10.
But other moves have signaled a possibly more aggressive stance. He began by suing a Republican-controlled legislature that has tried to diminish his powers, and indicated more lawsuits may follow. He has vowed to defy the General Assembly by fighting to repeal HB2 and trying to expand Medicaid coverage. He has chosen a career environmentalist to change the course of the state’s environmental regulatory agency.
“That’s always been his reputation – cautious,” Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist and former aide to Gov. Jim Hunt, said Saturday. “But he came out swinging before he was even sworn in.”
On Saturday morning Cooper held a weather briefing and then delivered his inaugural address on television, after the threat of a major snowstorm canceled or scaled back most of his celebratory events.
“Has a governor ever had more attention focused on him than he does this weekend?” Pearce said.
First impressions are important, Pearce said.
One measure of a new governor’s priorities is the set of choices made for his Cabinet and key staff. Cooper has seven more Cabinet secretaries to name – although he has appointed interim leaders – so much remains unknown.
But those selected so far reflect a combination of close associates while he was attorney general and insiders who know how state government works.
The most controversial of his choices so far was his selection of a state government outsider.
Michael Regan is his choice to run the state Department of Environmental Quality, replacing Donald van der Vaart, who was the McCrory administration’s point man on opposing what conservatives saw as regulatory overreach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Regan used to work at the EPA and went on to become a regional leader with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Those environmental credentials were welcomed by activists but seen by others as a warning sign. The conservative advocacy group Carolina Partnership for Reform quickly put out a news release calling Regan a “radical” who will harm the state’s agricultural interests.
“With a DEQ secretary carrying a record of advocating more regulations on farmers and landowners and a governor who caters to Raleigh and Charlotte, rural North Carolinians better hang on to their wallets,” the organization said in its release.
Carolina Partnership for Reform is run by Robert Harris, a longtime conservative researcher who has worked for state and national candidates and groups, including North Carolina’s Republican Senate caucus.
The Environmental Defense Fund often works with industry and utilities on mutually agreeable solutions, which Regan touts on his resume, although it has taken legal action to block projects.
“Michael Regan is exceptionally well-qualified for this position, with a strong background in federal and state environmental protection and energy policy,” Sierra Club director Molly Diggins said in an email. “His appointment will be a breath of fresh air after the anti-science tenor of the past four years.”
Back over SBI
Erik Hooks is Cooper’s choice to run the state Department of Public Safety. He is a longtime State Bureau of Investigation agent who worked his way up to assistant director, where he handled internal affairs among other duties.
In 2014, Republican legislators moved the SBI from the attorney general’s control and put it under the governor’s supervision at the Department of Public Safety. In the process Hooks was reassigned to oversee the inspections and compliance division.
Now that Cooper is the governor, he resumes oversight of the SBI and has placed Hooks in a supervisory position over the law enforcement agency.
The General Assembly created an additional layer of independence when it gave the SBI director an eight-year term, meant to insulate the position from pressure by a governor.
Cooper has said Hooks’ appointment addresses his goal of improving relations between law enforcement and minority communities, as Hooks is African-American.
James Trogdon is the pick for secretary of the Department of Transportation. Trogdon, a retired Army National Guard major general, spent more than 25 years working in the DOT.
He is well-known and respected by members of both parties in the General Assembly, where he also worked on transportation issues for a time. In 2012, Trogdon stood up to the Democratic Perdue administration by refusing to go along with an attempt to re-prioritize two major projects that were not ready for state funding.
However, he has been a supporter of toll roads, and that has been a toxic subject in Mecklenburg County, where public opposition to toll lanes there contributed to McCrory’s re-election loss.
The governor’s Cabinet appointments take on a tone of uncertainty this year, as legislation the GOP General Assembly and McCrory enacted in an unscheduled special session late last year requires Senate confirmation for Cabinet members. That is among the provisions Cooper could sue over, even though the constitution provides for Senate advice and consent.
The Senate is expected to adopt rules this week setting out how the confirmation process will work.
“Since we have never had a confirmation vote on a gubernatorial Cabinet appointment by the state Senate, I think we are entering uncharted waters in terms of dynamics between the two branches of state government,” said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College. “But the governor, much like the president, is always going to appoint individuals who he is comfortable with and believes will carry out the chief executive’s philosophy and policy initiatives.”
Pearce says there is a lot of uncertainty about how the issue will affect Cooper’s relationship with the General Assembly.
“He’s having to deal with a dramatically changed situation because of this Senate confirmation, whatever that becomes and whatever that means,” Pearce said.
The governor will have to decide whether individual nominees are going to be difficult to get confirmed and whether each fight is worth it. Finding nominees willing to go through the process is also a factor, he said.
“Based on what I’ve seen from (Senate leader Phil) Berger, (conservative group) Civitas and those affiliated blogs, they’re going to fight everybody on everything,” he said. “There is some sentiment the Senate Republican caucus might just reject them all.”
Berger has said the Senate will exercise its authority to “advise and consent.”
Yet Cooper does has some leverage in that the interim department heads he has put in place can remain there indefinitely.
“He can say in the end ‘I’m going to pick who runs these agencies. If you want to pick a fight over some of my nominations, I’m happy to do that,’ ” Pearce said.
Cooper also has a deep bench of Democrats, who until McCrory was elected, controlled the legislature and governor’s office for 20 years. Cooper has chosen Kristi Jones, a longtime aide to the attorney general, as chief of staff and William McKinney, another justice department aide, to be his legal counsel. Most of the interim officials are familiar names with considerable experience in state government.
That’s not necessarily a positive, said Republican strategist Chris Sinclair.
“The message Gov. Cooper is sending with his Cabinet picks and top advisers and members of the administration is: ‘The band is getting back together.’ ” Sinclair said in an email Saturday.
He said although Cooper’s picks are experienced, they haven’t had to work with a veto-proof General Assembly, and so that will be a challenge.
“The jury is still out on the overall message but it appears that the new governor is turning to the old hands of days gone by,” Sinclair said. “But the state is a different world and demands different and new leadership. Cooper would be wise to find folks who bring a fresh – business oriented – approach to state government.”