Politics & Government

Despite election delay, Cooper’s transition team running full steam

Roy Cooper and his wife Kristin Cooper, right, along with family relish in Cooper’s claimed victory over incumbent Governor Pat McCrory on election night.
Roy Cooper and his wife Kristin Cooper, right, along with family relish in Cooper’s claimed victory over incumbent Governor Pat McCrory on election night. rwillett@newsobserver.com

They’re working their phones and laptops at home and in offices scattered around downtown Raleigh, sifting through a wave of job applicants and planning an inauguration.

Election Day has come and gone in North Carolina and there is still no official victor in the governor’s race. But that’s just a technicality to the trio of volunteers heading the attorney general’s transition team, who have been at it since before the first votes were cast.

“I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that Roy Cooper would not be governor on Jan. 1,” Ken Eudy, one of the trio of team leaders, said in an interview Friday. “We’ve just been working on the premise that it’s going to be Cooper.”

If Cooper wins – as expected, with a margin of about 10,000 votes out of 4.7 million ballots cast – he will have just a month to prepare for inauguration ceremonies, name Cabinet members and begin filling the many appointed positions within state government.

More than 1,000 resumes have been submitted through the transition team’s website. And when you’ve been around as long as Eudy – a former political reporter turned founder of a strategic communications firm – you know a lot of people. Same with the other team leaders, Kristi Jones, Cooper’s longtime chief of staff in the justice department, and Jim W. Phillips Jr., an attorney who has known Cooper since their UNC-Chapel Hill days.

Putting people in right jobs

“What I’ve been gratified by is the people who really understand Cooper’s vision about making a North Carolina that works for everybody, saying, ‘I want to be a part of it. What can I do to help?’ ” Eudy said.

The team is combing through the onslaught of job-seekers with an eye toward where the most-qualified might best fit in order to promote Cooper’s agenda, a process Eudy compares to the NBA or NFL drafts. It’s important to keep in mind, he says, that North Carolina is a diverse state.

My guess is his biggest problem right now is there are a lot of patriots volunteering for duty and not enough jobs to fill.

Gary Pearce

“I have people from all over the state saying, ‘Don’t forget the East,’ ‘Don’t forget the West,’ ‘Don’t forget Charlotte,’ ‘Don’t forget the Triad.’ And they’re right.”

Gary Pearce, who worked on Gov. Jim Hunt’s transition teams in 1976 and 1992, likes to say transition is when you stop fighting your enemies and start fighting your friends.

“My guess is his biggest problem right now is there are a lot of patriots volunteering for duty and not enough jobs to fill,” Pearce said of Cooper.

Those looking to work for Cooper might include those who lost their jobs when McCrory took over – and when McCrory greatly expanded the number of political appointees in state government – and also federal “Obama refugees coming from Washington,” Pearce said.

Stepping stone

McCrory announced his transition team two days after the 2012 election and named his Cabinet the first week of January.

McCrory found positions for a number of people from his transition team, including Tony Almeida, his former boss at Duke Energy; John Lassiter, who served on the Charlotte City Council with McCrory; Thomas Stith, who ran the transition effort and became the governor’s chief of staff; and Art Pope, the conservative financier who became budget director. Rhonda Amoroso, a GOP activist in Wilmington, parlayed her work in the local party to a spot on McCrory’s transition team and ultimately was appointed to the State Board of Elections.

Among his other appointment powers, Cooper will restructure the state and county elections boards with majority Democratic members, as required in state law. The state board appoints county board members.

McCrory’s transition team included former Republican Govs. Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner and former GOP state chairman Jack Hawke. His picks for the transition team and later for Cabinet were studied by politicos to glean what the next four years might look like.

Some of his choices may have been predictable, but others were surprising, such as the choice of the controversial Pope or ousted Wake County schools superintendent and conservative hero Tony Tata to run the Department of Transportation.

Major campaign contributors, of course, often find employment when their candidate wins.

While there is no Cooper transition headquarters, McCrory’s transition took over several floors of the Albemarle Building in downtown Raleigh, one of the state-owned buildings that were in such disrepair that they spurred a central part of the governor’s unfinished agenda: tearing them down and replacing them with more versatile and attractive structures.

Vow to cooperate

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, said McCrory has put the word out that if he loses the election everyone in his administration should fully cooperate with the Cooper team.

McCrory faced more of a challenge when he took office four years ago because it had been 20 years since there was a Republican administration, and the GOP apparatus had to be primed. Cooper is faced with a four-year break in the Democratic pipeline, but he has been in office for most of his adult life, including 16 years as attorney general.

“He’s got a pretty deep bench,” Pearce said.

Pope “Mac” McCorkle has been a consultant to North Carolina Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, as well as governors in other states. He agrees that Cooper would have an easier time staffing up, but said it’s a daunting task for anyone.

The challenges are formidable.

Pope “Mac” McCorkle

“The challenge of a campaign is you’ve got to create a small business that has an end date,” McCorkle said. “If you succeed, then you have a bigger challenge, especially when unseating the incumbent. It’s vast. Now you have to create a big business, or organization, one that doesn’t have a terminal end date. The challenges are formidable.”

McCorkle said it’s unusual if not unprecedented for a governor to take office when there’s a supermajority in the legislature from the other party. Figuring out how to deal with the General Assembly will have to be in Cooper’s mind already, he said.

“That does make things tricky for Cooper to deal with,” McCorkle said. “Will they want to be in that administration? Does he staff up in a traditional mode or rethink what he’s doing because he’s a governor without like-minded or partisan allies controlling the Republican legislature?”

Pearce agrees.

“Part of his calculation right now is do I extend an olive branch or a fist to the legislature, or both?” Pearce said.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO