The recent abrupt departure of Tony Tata as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has left many in government and political circles in Raleigh and across the state talking. His manner of leaving – with no public notice, while repeating the cliché about spending more time with his family – does not comport with a position at this level nor how a career military person would handle himself.
But this article is not about his departure; it is about his actions and intentions while superintendent of the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) and as secretary of NCDOT. He was hired as superintendent of WCPSS in December of 2010, and, according to insiders from WCPSS, soon expressed a desire to run for office in North Carolina. According to some, this would be as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat up in 2014, then held by Democrat Kay Hagan.
Unfortunately for Tata, and any nascent election plans, he was fired from WCPSS by the new Democratic majority on the school board in September 2012. He found himself being named by newly elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory as his NCDOT Secretary. Because of the change of jobs, the timing of the 2014 election cycle, and the fact that Speaker of the NC House Thom Tillis was widely known to be running for the GOP nod, he was not in a position to compete for U.S. Senate. But he soon put himself in position to take advantage of other opportunities that might present themselves.
In what looked like preparation for a run, Tata assembled a team around him at WCPSS that, while meeting the need to help run WCPSS, could easily be converted to handling the duties of a large campaign organization. A quick look at the current Executive Leadership team of the NCDOT (minus Tata) shows that many of the people there came along with Tata from WCPSS – keeping a potential campaign team intact.
While conjecture about Tata assembling a team for a future political run is just that – conjecture – what came next has to be viewed as confirmation of the early talk of WCPSS insiders. In May 2015, the news leaked out that Tata was considering a run against 3rd District Congressman Walter Jones, a fellow Republican. News stories about the potential campaign quoted Carter Wrenn, a long time NC political operative, as an adviser to Tata. Going on behind the scenes were contacts with eastern NC operatives and media personnel by other political consultants, according to a number of people I talked with.
Tata responded to the resulting uproar and obvious concern in the administration and on June 8 put out a very tepid email to NCDOT employees. In the email he did not deny that he was considering a run but instead emphasized his work at the NCDOT:
“During that time, I have been humbled to be asked to serve the state or other organizations in different capacities, including elective office. I have dedicated my life to public service and I follow the path to where I believe I can make the greatest impact.
“ This is why I remain committed to serving the citizens of North Carolina as Transportation Secretary. While we have accomplished a great deal over the past two and half years, we have much more to do. My focus and priority is working with this team to deliver the vital infrastructure needs for the entire state.”
This was not a Shermanesque denial of any intention to run. Having your NCDOT secretary talking about running against a longtime incumbent congressman of the same party while trying to get public and political support for over $3 billion in infrastructure bonds is a distraction no governor wants.
As long as it was just talk and nothing more concrete, at least while most of the effort cruised under the radar, all appeared to be smoothed over. But that is not all that pointed to a very real ongoing effort to not only run for office, but even to possibly use public resources to help pave the way.
In 2014 and 2015 NCDOT paid Prime Policy Group $80,000 and $60,000 respectively for “lobbying expenses.” But if NCDOT only needed a lobbyist to help with the bureaucracy, why look further than the NC Office of Federal Relations?
One reason might be that in 2014 the particular lobbyist who handled the NCDOT contract was Charles Black. Black is a longtime DC insider with strong connections to the politicians interested in ousting Jones from Congress. Not only is Black a DC insider, he is a political consultant with deep ties to the Old North State, having worked on many campaigns dating back to the 1970s. In many of them he worked with Carter Wrenn, who was clearly already helping Tata explore running for Congress.
Aside from the political angle, Tata left a mixed record at NCDOT. While he can legitimately point to many accomplishments, there were also some misses. His failure to cut staff as directed by legislation caused friction with lawmakers. Another of the big misses was the total mishandling by the NCDOT Division of Motor Vehicles of its clear responsibility to implement part of the new Voter ID section of the Voter Integrity and Verification Act. This blunder, for which no one has been held responsible, resulted in legislation that essentially gutted the provision requiring a photo ID to vote.
So the question now remains, is Tata running? And for what?
Permission to reproduce this article is given if it is used in its entirety and credit is given to the Civitias Institute of North Carolina. For more information, contact Francis De Luca at 919.834.2099 or firstname.lastname@example.org.