Golden LEAF moves to hire Easley adviser

The Golden LEAF Foundation, which oversees more than $700 million in public funds, has chosen a top adviser to Gov. Mike Easley to be its next president.

The foundation's board on Thursday named Dan Gerlach, Easley's senior adviser for fiscal affairs, its preferred candidate to replace Valeria Lee, who is retiring after leading the foundation for eight years.

The board directed its personnel committee to make an offer to Gerlach and negotiate the details. If all goes as expected, he will take over in October.

Gerlach, 41, will inherit an organization created by the legislature to revitalize the economies of the state's struggling communities. He will bring experience with economic development and rural issues and deep connections in the political establishment.

Both Easley and Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat and one of North Carolina's most powerful politicians, pushed Golden LEAF to choose Gerlach for the president's job.

“There would be many reasons, but the one that is most prominent in my thoughts is that he is a believer in a knowledge-based economy,” Basnight said, “one that will better drive our future and opportunities for our people.”

The Golden LEAF Foundation was created in 1999 to receive half the funds due to the state from a national settlement with cigarette makers. The board, appointed by the governor, Senate president pro tem and House speaker, distributes grants for projects that are supposed to benefit once tobacco-dependent counties or those that are otherwise economically distressed.

The foundation has had a rocky past. Critics have contended that grant decisions are driven by politics, not need. Others have complained that the organization has been too passive. Legislators have threatened to take away its funds.

Lee announced her intention to retire last year, and the board received about 300 applications for her job. It winnowed the list to a handful of candidates.

In June, Easley asked Golden LEAF to delay a decision until this month. He and Basnight encouraged members to choose Gerlach, who will be out of a job when Easley's term ends in January.

Gerlach has often been the face of the Easley administration, working with lawmakers to promote the governor's agenda. He joined as an adviser in 2001 after working for the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, which advocates for working families, and as a budget analyst in the N.Y. legislature.

“This is an opportunity to serve communities that … want to share in the prosperity we want for all of North Carolina,” Gerlach said of the job. “There are few places where you have the opportunity to contribute in that way.”

Having Gerlach at the helm should help with the foundation's political future, Basnight said.

Basnight conceded that “there was a time I didn't care for Dan Gerlach at all,” but said he grew to respect Gerlach after working on legislative proposals.

“Dan is a very, very smart man. Strange. Different. There's no question about that,” Basnight said. “If you look at him, he looks a bit kooky. But inside, he's got a big heart and a great intellect.”