RALEIGH — In May and June, rumors were flying around Jones and Blount streets that N.C. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata would run for Congress, and one name usually came up for his replacement: Nick Tennyson, Tata’s chief deputy and former Republican mayor of Durham.
Now, Tata has resigned and Tennyson has been named as acting Transportation secretary. Tennyson goes back a long way with Gov. Pat McCrory, with whom he co-founded the Metropolitan Coalition of Mayors with McCrory when McCrory was Charlotte’s mayor. While serving as mayor from 1997-2001, Tennyson also served on the Metropolitan Planning Organization for his region, which often tackles transportation issues.
Tennyson was executive director of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange & Chatham Counties for 18 years, including the time he was mayor. He joined the McCrory administration with another Durham politician, former city councilman Thomas Stith, who is McCrory’s chief of staff.
Edward “Ned” Curran, chairman of the state Board of Transportation, said that Tennyson would be a great choice and that the board has discussed him as a replacement in the past.
“I find him a gentleman who has a calm demeanor, a passion for transportation, has political instincts and savvy, and I think he is is thoughtful about the challenges we have and the opportunities we can grasp,” Curran said. “I look forward to working with him in his new role” as acting secretary, Curran added.
At N.C. DOT, Tennyson often served as the face of the agency on all but the highest profile issues, which is not unusual for a chief deputy position. He also served as head of the Division of Motor Vehicles for a few months. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Duke University and Master of Arts in Human Resources Management from Pepperdine University.
Dan Gurley, a longtime follower of North Carolina politics and current member of the N.C. State Ports Authority, called Tennyson the “logical choice” to succeed Tata.
“He’s been what’s effectively the chief operating officer at DOT; he’s got the background of a businessman and brings a business perspective; and he’s a former mayor, so he knows the importance of transportation and transit issues,” said Gurley. “I think we’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who could do it better than he could.”
Political insiders have also pointed out that elevating Tennyson to the permanent role would follow a pattern for McCrory. In a break with previous governors, McCrory has promoted from within the administration rather than hand out cabinet posts as plums to political backers across the state. Original cabinet members Kieran Shanahan (Public Safety), Sharon Decker (Commerce), John Skvarla (Environment and Natural Resources) have all been replaced with names from inside state government, viz. Frank Perry, John Skvarla, and Donald van der Vaart, respectively (Skvarla moved from DENR to Commerce in December 2014).
The Department of Transportation is one of the largest state agencies, with more than 14,000 employees and a budget of $3.9 billion. About 27 percent of the department’s funding comes from federal sources, with most of the remainder from the state’s motor fuels tax and DMV taxes and fees.