Dionne Delli-Gatti waited outside the gallery entrance of the Senate Chamber Thursday afternoon to learn whether she would still have a job by the end of the day.
She carried a keychain that her 8-year-old son had given her earlier this year after Gov. Roy Cooper nominated her to lead the NC Department of Environmental Quality, one of the state’s most complex agencies.
The keychain read “No. 1 Secretary.”
But her position as the first woman to lead the department was in doubt. On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee had voted down her nomination, a move without modern precedent. Since 2016, when Republican legislators passed a law requiring the Senate to confirm the governor’s nominees, the chamber has done so for 16 consecutive cabinet-level positions — until now.
At both that committee hearing and during Thursday’s Senate floor debate, Republican Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards led the charge against her nomination. They claimed Delli-Gatti was “disqualified” because she “couldn’t articulate the governor’s energy policy” and wasn’t familiar with the details of the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline project.
To Democratic lawmakers, that felt like a stretch.
“I urge you to reject this disingenuous process and stand up for what is right,” said Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Mecklenburg County Democrat during the full Senate debate. “Ousting a qualified woman from a position she already holds — something else is going on. It doesn’t add up.”
Why Delli-Gatti attracted the ire of the Republican leadership is unknown. Her initial confirmation hearing happened on April 27, and there were no followup meetings. Senate Democrats have said publicly they were blindsided by the news that Delli-Gatti’s confirmation was in doubt.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Energy Committee, with Newton again running the show, received testimony from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the American Petroleum Institute about what they view as North Carolina’s need for more natural gas pipelines. Transco is the main provider but if a cyberattack or other disaster should shut down that line, it could create an energy emergency in North Carolina, they testified.
Oddly, Delli-Gatti “wasn’t invited to participate” in that hearing, as Sen. Michael Garrett, a Guilford County Democrat pointed out during the Senate debate.
“When you vote today you are voting to fire a female veteran and the first woman to lead this department and by all standards is eminently qualified,” Garrett said.
And the reason Delli-Gatti didn’t “articulate the governor’s energy position,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Buncombe County Democrat, is because Cooper has not articulated it himself.
“If the governor has not expressed a position on natural gas, is it fair to expect her to know what that position is, given that it doesn’t exist?” Mayfield said.
Over the last day, Democrats have engaged in amateur sleuthing to flush out who had tanked the governor’s choice. Shortly after Wednesday’s committee vote recommending against her confirmation, Duke Energy released a statement supporting Delli-Gatti. By evening, Dominion Energy had done the same.
Legislative sources told Policy Watch that the NC Chamber of Commerce, Smithfield Foods and the NC Pork Council were not responsible for the confirmation derailment.
That left few options: Either another powerful natural gas company put its invisible finger on the scale or Sen. Newton and several of his colleagues had gone rogue, as one source told Policy Watch, “to send a message.”
Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for EquiTrans Midstream, a major partner in the MVP Southgate project, told Policy Watch that the company did not oppose the nomination. “They were shocked,” Kostrzewa said of her clients. (She also represents Smithfield Foods; the company did not oppose the nomination, either, she said.) Read more