Former state legislator Susi Hamilton became the first of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet secretaries to run into turbulence in a confirmation hearing Thursday, when a Senate committee recommended her nomination on a split vote.
The environment and natural resources committee voted 11-3, with dissenters questioning her recent firing of the director of Tryon Palace in New Bern. Her dismissal of Lee Johnson in her first weeks on the job as secretary of natural and cultural resources sparked controversy among supporters of the historic building, the site of North Carolina’s first permanent state capitol.
Johnson had been on the job for just 16 months. He was hired under former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration following a search by the historic site’s commission, private foundation and the state. The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources provides employees and programs for the attraction.
Sen. Norm Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, said he had received many emails and phone calls about the firing and he was worried about Tryon Palace losing volunteers and donations as a result.
“I’m very, very concerned about it,” he said. “It’s disturbing to me.”
Hamilton said Tryon Palace is a national treasure and that, with help from volunteers, a new director will be chosen that will “heal those wounds.”
“We don’t believe this is an issue that will continue to plague the department nor the success of Tryon Palace,” she said.
Sen. Andy Wells, a Republican from Hickory, grilled Hamilton about her business interests. A commercial real estate agent, Hamilton owns a consulting firm that handles land planning and site construction. She worked on downtown development in Wilmington, where her husband works for the city.
She resigned from the state House in January to take the job of secretary of the department.
Hamilton is one of three Cabinet nominees that the State Ethics Commission signaled as having the potential for a conflict of interest due to her previous employment, although it found no actual conflicts.
Despite Wells’ extensive questioning about Hamilton’s work in the private sector, he didn’t oppose her for the position. Republican Sens. Trudy Wade of Greensboro and Andrew Brock of Mocksville joined Sanderson in voting against her – the first votes in opposition to any of the new Democratic governor’s nominees in the committees vetting them.
Wade said she had heard some of the same concerns as Sanderson. Brock did not say why he voted “no,” but he had asked for Hamilton’s assurance that she would not hire people based on “political favors,” and made a reference to former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley’s administration.
The Senate committees reviewing Cabinet appointments are supposed to take into account only a nominee’s qualifications, conflicts of interest and commitment to following the law, according to a directive from Senate leaders.
Hamilton’s appointment will next be considered by another Senate committee and then the full Senate. She is the fifth of eight Cabinet members to go through the confirmation process. Cooper has sued to challenge the Senate’s authority to have the final say over the appointments, and has appealed a court ruling that upheld the confirmation process.