RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper named Thursday a business recruiter under a past Democratic governor as his commerce secretary, who will return as North Carolina’s economic brand has taken a hit nationally following passage of a state law limiting LGBT rights.
In another Cabinet announcement, Cooper also tapped a former biotech executive to lead the agency that oversees government operations and buildings.
The Republican-approved law known as House Bill 2 drew criticism by national groups, leading to cancellations in North Carolina of major sporting events and business expansion plans after its passage last March.
Cooper made opposition to HB2, which excluded gender identity and sexual orientation from antidiscrimination rules and directed which public restrooms transgender people could use, a key campaign platform plank in his l campaign against GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the law. McCrory downplayed the economic effects and his administration pointed out that the losses were very small compared to the overall state economy.
Tony Copeland, Cooper’s choice to lead the Commerce Department, also arrives as the new governor decides how or whether to use a private economic development arm birthed by Republicans to attract companies to relocate to North Carolina or to expand.
While North Carolina’s economy improved during McCrory’s term, with unemployment falling to 5 percent, pockets of the state are still feeling the sting from the Great Recession, particularly in rural areas.
“We want middle-class and working-class people to be able to have more money in their pockets, without question,” Copeland said at an Executive Mansion news conference in which Cooper introduced him and new Department of Administration Secretary Machelle Sanders. “It’s going to require a lot of energy, a lot of spirit … to return us to the model of economic development that we had around the country and the world.”
Copeland, an assistant commerce secretary under then-Gov. Mike Easley, previously was a top leader at Raleigh-based telecommunications company called BTI. He most recently worked at a Raleigh law firm. Sanders has been in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for two decades, working for Biogen in Research Triangle Park until January 2016.
The Administration Department oversees many of internal business affairs within state government, including purchase and contracting, the state’s motor fleet and government buildings and property. Sanders and Copeland, both eastern North Carolina natives, were to be sworn in later Thursday, according to Cooper.
Cooper has now named five secretaries. A new state law says these and six other Cabinet-level positions yet to be announced are subject to Senate confirmation. Cooper sued this week to challenge that requirement.
Cooper also has sued over other laws Republicans approved last month that check his powers and started an effort last week to expand Medicaid even though a state law is supposed to prevent him from doing that unilaterally.
The new governor said he would ask Copeland to assess the effectiveness of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a nonprofit corporation under contract with the state to perform state’s economic recruiting. McCrory and the Republican legislature approved a new structure that led to the partnership’s creation. The Commerce Department still carries out incentive grants and other duties.
The partnership has a five-year contract with the department but the governor can cancel the agreement.
“We’re going to look at it free of partisan politics,” Cooper said. “What we want to do is assess what’s working, what’s not and then get to work.”
Cooper sounded pleased to hear House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger — re-elected to their positions in a one-day session Wednesday — that they hoped to find consensus with Cooper in a number of areas. Cooper pointed to teacher pay, criminal justice reform and addressing opioid abuse.
“We’ve got a lot that we can agree on so yes, they will fine a willing partner in me,” Cooper said. An effort last month between the same leaders and Cooper to repeal HB2 fell apart, but the idea could be revisited in 2017.