Gov. Cooper builds a strong Cabinet

Regan, Cooper, Trogdon
Regan, Cooper, Trogdon cliddy@newsobserver.com

Gov. Roy Cooper may have concerns that the Republican-run state Senate will exercise its new authority to reject his Cabinet appointments out of partisan muscle-flexing, but it’s going to be tough in the case of three appointments now announced.

Michael Regan, who is to be Cooper’s secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, has worked with the Environmental Defense Fund and with the Environmental Protection Agency on air quality in the Clinton and Bush administrations. He knows how government works, and has a strong background in being an advocate for sound energy policy. He has, Cooper said, “the diplomacy to understand that working together is the way to get things done.” It’s an outstanding choice. But Regan will get blowback from Republicans, ironically because his background in environmental protection is so strong.

Under former Gov. Pat McCrory, after all, agency heads seemed to be picked mainly because they favored downsizing and reducing the very regulation they were assigned to supervise. Cooper clearly is opting for strength in experience and in commitment to a given agency’s mission.

Cooper’s pick to head the Department of Transportation is Jim Trogdon, an engineer and retired major general who was chief operating officer for the DOT until he retired from that post in 2013. It would be amazing if this appointment drew so much as a whimper from Republicans, though it will. Trogdon’s qualifications are undeniable. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knows the department better, and who has a higher level of respect from within the department itself. Trogdon is plain-spoken, a straight-shooter, but knows his business and will be supportive of his governor. He currently is national transportation director for SAS Institute.

DOT is a large, complex agency facing a variety of challenges in balancing the supervision of the state’s highway network — maintenance and construction — with relatively new oversight and planning for mass transit options around the state’s cities.

In picking a new secretary for the Department of Public Safety, the governor has gone into the ranks of the State Bureau of Investigation to choose special agent Erik Hooks, a former assistant SBI director. This agency was somewhat troubled under Gov. McCrory, who in dealing with his Cabinet sometimes seemed not to understand the missions of the agencies or to know what was going on internally.

But Cooper, who as attorney general once supervised the SBI (it’s now obviously under Public Safety), has done well here for reasons of experience and background. And Cooper acknowledged he was mindful of the need for law enforcement to better connect with and demonstrate credibility with minority communities. Hooks is African-American.

“He has,” Cooper said, “an understanding of people in our community.”

Thus far, at least, Gov. Cooper has shown his own experience as a leading legislator and attorney general (16 years) in making Cabinet choices. Those positions need leadership capability, savvy about dealing with government agencies (the secretaries’ own and others), and a strong loyalty to the administration in which they’ll work.

Sadly, this is an area in which McCrory’s inexperience was most in evidence. His Cabinet appointments seemed to be people he didn’t know very well, whose qualifications were long on politics and short on administrative capability.

We must now hope Republican lawmakers, who are requiring the governor’s appointees to be approved by the state Senate, will concur with Cooper, and quickly. Turning the process, when such good people are involved, into some sort of political free-for-all will be a disservice to the public.

Government needs professional managers who can outline objectives and design ways to achieve them. And government needs people who believe in the professional mission they’re assigned to protect, not people who are out to follow some ideological mantra about downsizing or the worst, “running government like a business.”

No. Government is a service mission, and it belongs to the people, who expect it to work for them. Gov. Cooper’s team thus far — and there’s reason to believe he will continue to choose well — will build confidence in the public and thus confidence in government itself.