Politics & Government

Scrutiny on shakeups in McCrory’s team

Wednesday’s announcement that the head of North Carolina’s health and human services agency will resign comes just a week after the top official at the state’s transportation department left office.

With the latest departures, six of Gov. Pat McCrory’s eight original Cabinet positions have changed personalities. He has also lost a budget director, an education adviser and several senior communications staffers.

Cabinet positions – in North Carolina and across the nation – are generally considered to be relatively short stints of three years or so. A big exception was in the administration of former Gov. Mike Easley, whose Cabinet members stayed together well into his second term, earning a moniker, the Iron Cabinet.

The demands of a high-profile job with thousands of employees at less than private sector wages is a big reason for burnout – and short tenures. Some are asked to leave.

Aldona Wos, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, announced she would go in the next two weeks to return home to her family in Greensboro. Last week, the governor announced that transportation Secretary Tony Tata was leaving – that day and without the fanfare surrounding Wos’ announcement. Tata said he wanted to continue writing military action thrillers.

“These same high-profile positions usually lead to pretty quick burnout for those who hold those positions,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said Wednesday. “With the controversies and challenges that Health and Human Services has had over the past two years, it’s not surprising to hear about Wos’ departure.”

The departures fed into state Democrats’ campaign to block McCrory’s re-election next year, and add to bad publicity the governor has received this summer.

“Secretary Wos is the second Cabinet secretary to jump ship on Gov. McCrory in the last week, offering just the latest sign that the governor is in real trouble,” said Ford Porter, the North Carolina Democratic Party’s spokesman.

But Andy Taylor, an N.C. State University political science professor, said he takes Wos at her word.

“She’s taken a lot of flak from critics for running DHHS early on in her tenure,” Taylor said. “Now maybe she feels she’s leaving the position having accomplished something tangible and leaving the department in good condition for a successor.”

He said the departures don’t signal chaos in the administration.

“We’re getting deep into the second half of a gubernatorial term,” he said. “Obviously, that doesn’t help the administration, but I don’t think it indicates any kind of political vulnerability or weakness on his part.”

Bitzer said it makes sense politically for high-profile changes to happen this year rather than in 2016 as the election draws near.

Their points were underlined by Dallas Woodhouse, founder and president of Carolina Rising, a nonprofit free-market advocacy group that supports McCrory.

“Around this time, between the end of mid-term and going into the last years, it’s always understood that people start to get a little tired. It’s grueling. If they’re thinking about not hanging on, then it’s time to jump,” he said.

Woodhouse is one who thinks Wos is leaving on a high note, with a surplus in a Medicaid program whose costs have been unpredictable. He sees that as vindication for the governor.

“McCrory is very loyal to his people,” Woodhouse said. “He believes in them. Wos took over a department that was in shambles that had flummoxed a lot of people. She had a rough spot or two and he didn’t give up on her. At the end of the day he was proven to be right on that.”

State Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine who serves on a health committee, noted there has also been substantial turnover in DHHS while Wos was in charge, including the departure of the Medicaid director.

“Hopefully we are getting to a position where we can have someone take a leadership role in the department long-term,” Hise said.

Departures in the McCrory Cabinet

Kieran Shanahan, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, resigned July 2013. Replaced by Frank Perry.

Sharon Decker, secretary of the Department of Commerce, resigned December 2014.

John Skvarla, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, moved to Commerce to replace Decker. Succeeded by Donald van der Vaart in January 2015.

Tony Tata, secretary of the Department of Transportation, resigned July 2015. Replacement pending.

Aldona Wos, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned August 2015. Replaced by Richard Brajer.

Lyons Gray, secretary of Revenue, nominated by the governor for the Utilities Commission and is awaiting confirmation.