If you’re looking for a powerful testimonial to the sorry state of both the policy and media worlds in modern North Carolina, you need look no further than the ridiculous hubbub surrounding yesterday’s sudden resignation of state Department of Transportation Secretary, Tony Tata.
The story begins with the bizarre fact that Tata was ever in the job in the first place. Not only did he come to it with almost zero experience in the field (and, indeed, hardly any experience of having lived in North Carolina), he was allowed to continue in the job and collect a full salary long after it became obvious that he was a part-time employee who devoted large blocks of his time to churning out schlocky pulp fiction and dispensing right-wing foreign policy bromides on Fox News. It’s also worth noting that this should have come as no surprise given that Tata’s term as Wake County schools superintendent followed the same pattern.
Yesterday’s sudden resignation was par for the course with Tata. Rather than announcing a plan for resignation and transition to new leadership of the massive department, he made the event all about himself by simply up and quitting in one day without, apparently, even saying good bye. Then, in his inimitable, self-promoting media hog style, Tata went on TV with multiple news hosts before the ink was dry on his resignation to talk about his novels and to contradict his statements from just last month that he had no interest in running for Congress. To make even matters even more absurd, speculation (which he hasn’t denied) has it that he’s considering a run against Republican incumbent Walter Jones, Jr. of eastern North Carolina — this despite the fact that Tata (who’s registered as unaffiliated) does not and has not ever lived in Jones’ district.
But what really served as icing on the cake of yesterday’s nonsense was the fawning behavior of the Raleigh media which was more than happy to abet Tata’s self-promotion. First, WRAL’s lead news anchor David Crabtree went to the trouble of conducting a lengthy interview with the guy — when has this ever happened before with a departing state cabinet secretary (even one who accomplished something and was truly dedicated to his or her job)? As an aside, at least Crabtree pushed Tata on the suddenness of his departure — a question Tata never really answered.
Then, this morning, Raleigh’s News & Observer devoted a large, top-of-the fold, front page story (featuring a large, flattering photo) to his resignation as well as a one-page “Focus” section detailing much of his life story!
The bottom line: It’s more than apparent that the reason Tata gets this attention has little to do with his capabilities as a public administrator or policymaker; it is a result of the perception in some circles — a perception that he is all too happy to promote — that he is a celebrity (someone who is “famous” — at least by North Carolina standards — for being “famous”). And sadly, as Donald Trump is doing such a good job of demonstrating of late, many Americans continue to find this brand of “leadership” irresistible. We have undoubtedly not seen the last of Tata or his shameless self-promotion.