Politics & Government

Tata takes sudden step away from helm of NCDOT

N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata chats before a Board of Transportation meeting in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015. Tata resigned Tuesday.
N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata chats before a Board of Transportation meeting in Raleigh on Feb. 5, 2015. Tata resigned Tuesday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Tuesday’s sudden resignation of state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata comes at a time when Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is trying to persuade the legislature to move forward with billions in borrowed dollars for projects across the state, while budget writers are making major policy decisions about how to raise and spend fees and taxes.

Tata has been a forceful advocate for the governor’s highways, ports and railroads improvements campaign this year. Nick Tennyson, the chief deputy secretary who followed Tata into the department in March 2013, will run the agency until a replacement is chosen.

Two key legislators said they didn’t think the abrupt change at the top would disrupt budget negotiations, and the chairman of the state Board of Transportation expressed strong support for Tennyson, a former mayor of Durham and co-founder of a statewide metropolitan mayors coalition.

Citing the stresses of his day job, the success of his side career as a writer of military action thrillers and the demands of his family, Tata resigned effective immediately Tuesday.

“I’m going to take a step back,” Tata said in an interview. “Jodi and I are going to talk about the future and what opportunities might be out there,” he said, referring to his wife.

Gov. Pat McCrory announced Tata’s resignation Tuesday morning.

“Tony Tata has been a valuable partner in our efforts to reform and modernize North Carolina’s transportation system,” McCrory said in a statement. “His dedication to the people of North Carolina is in keeping with his long career of service to his community, state and country.”

The resignation was unexpected. Tata made no mention of plans to step down during an interview late Monday afternoon with The News & Observer.

“I gave the governor my resignation last night,” Tata said. “We talked this morning again.”

Before McCrory hired him to run the state Department of Transportation in January 2013, Tata had served as Wake County schools superintendent. The Republican-led Wake County school board that took office in 2009 hired Tata as head of the 150,000-student system in December 2010.

Much of his tenure was occupied by partisan battles over whether to adopt a GOP-backed choice plan for school assignment. Partly in reaction to controversy over the board’s direction on assignment, a Democratic-majority panel won election in fall 2011.

Widespread problems with the system’s transportation system – after Tata took 50 buses off the roads – immediately preceded the board’s decision to fire him on Sept. 25, 2012. The board gave him a severance package of $253,625 – one year’s salary and other costs.

Book deal

Earlier this year, Tata published two action thriller novels, one in paperback and one as an e-book. A third is set for release in the spring. He said he recently signed a contract with his publisher, Kensington Books, for two more books in hardcover.

A retired Army brigadier general, Tata writes under the name A.J. Tata and promotes his books with frequent commentary on Fox News, CNN and other media outlets.

Registered as unaffiliated with any political party, Tata considered mounting a challenge to Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District. He dropped the idea within days after it became public in June, saying he had more work to do as McCrory’s transportation secretary.

Discussing his resignation Tuesday, he cited three DOT accomplishments: a compromise with environmentalists that will allow the long-delayed replacement of the Bonner Bridge at the Outer Banks, the launch this month of the first 10-year DOT construction schedule based on McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula, and successful beta testing for a new system that will let many North Carolinians renew their driver’s licenses online.

“So once I got all that completed, I felt that perhaps I was spread a little thin,” Tata said. “Working as hard as we’ve worked, it certainly takes a personal toll.”

Tata has worked hard to promote McCrory’s proposed $3 billion bond packages for roads and other state infrastructure needs. The governor has been pushing the legislature to put the bonds to the voters this year, but lawmakers have not shown enthusiasm for doing it this year, if at all.

Tata’s departure also comes as House and Senate leaders are debating major transportation issues in their competing budgets, including questions about how to raise and spend transportation fees and taxes.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Southport who is co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was surprised at Tata’s announcement but didn’t think it would interfere with budget negotiations.

“I understand that Nick Tennyson is the interim, and we look forward to working with Nick,” Rabon said. “If he needs any help getting up to speed, which I doubt, we’ll be happy to work with him and the administration.”

Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Stanley who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he met with Tennyson on Tuesday, and said he thinks DOT has a good relationship with legislators.

Ned Curran, chairman of the state Board of Transportation, praised Tata’s management of the department and said his military background seemed to give him the authority to take command – of a room or an entire agency. Curran said he would be missed.

“I looked at Tony Tata as someone who I thought was very talented and had multiple interests,” Curran said. “So I’m not surprised that at some point during his tenure in the governor’s first administration that he may get pulled into a different direction.”

Curran said all his colleagues on the board are confident in Tennyson’s ability to take over as secretary.

Politics possible

Tata, 55, has a daughter and a son. He lives in Cary with his third wife, Jodi. The son of a veteran Republican state legislator in Virginia, he said he might again consider running for office.

“Right now, I’m open to any good opportunities in the future,” Tata said. “My focus, though, is going to be on taking a break and certainly fulfilling the contract that Kensington has offered me. The books will be coming out every six months, which means I’ve got to write them faster.”

Tata said McCrory had not requested his resignation. He said he had been considering stepping down for some time.

“And now seems to be the right time to do it,” Tata said. “The timing for other opportunities and certainly with the authorship. This is the right time to step away and focus on the other aspects of my life. This is something I’ve been internally struggling with.”

Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527