© 2022 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Democrats Blame Politics For NC GOP's Rejection Of Cooper's DEQ Secretary

Secretary Delli-Gatti Profile 2021_0.jpg
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
Gov. Cooper has appointed Dionne Delli-Gatti as state Clean Energy Director, after the Senate rejected her as environmental secretary.

Republicans in the state Senate on Thursday rejected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's nomination of Dionne Delli-Gatti as environmental secretary. The governor immediately appointed her to another environmental job, as Clean Energy Director. And he named Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson as interim secretary.

The 26-20 vote along party lines wasn't a surprise, coming 24 hours after a Republican-controlled Senate committee voted against recommending Delli-Gatti.

NEWTON,Paul-NC Senator.jpg
North Carolina General Assembly
Sen. Paul Newton

Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County led Republican opposition, largely because of a disagreement with Cooper over energy policy. Specifically, Newton said Delli-Gattishould be disqualified because during her confirmation testimony in April she was unable to answer questions about the governor's natural gas strategy. Newton complained about the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and cited the Department of Environmental Quality's rejection of a permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline from Virginia.

"Her DEQ denied a crucial permit or denied a certification by whatever technical name," Newton said. "That pipeline may not be built in North Carolina until, if, and when DEQ changes its mind."

Delli-Gatti had been acting secretary since Cooper appointed her in February. She is an Air Force veteran with an environmental science degree who worked previously at the Environmental Defense Fund and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. She would have been the first woman to hold the job.

Senate Democrats argued that Delli-Gatti is "eminently qualified" and noted that the state's largest utility, Duke Energy, supported her. Democratic Sen. DeAndrea Salvador of Charlotte criticized Republicans for not allowing Delli-Gatti to answer questions they brought up long after the April confirmation hearing.

North Carolina General Assembly
State Sen. DeAndrea Salvador of Charlotte.

"This isn't about what Secretary Delli-Gatti knows or doesn't," she said. "We were blindsided. This came out of nowhere, which has led me and my colleagues to believe that this decision was not made based on her answers five weeks ago, but something else entirely."

"This feels like politics pure and simple," she added.

It was the first time Republicans refused to seat a nominee since they created the approval process in 2016, after Cooper was elected.

Environmental groups expressed disappointment at the vote and said the confirmation process isn't working as Republicans said it would.

"It seems like the Senate majority is refusing to allow her to be hired because of political differences, rather than real doubt about her qualifications," said Cassie Gavin, senior director of government relations for the Sierra Club in North Carolina.

Dan Crawford of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters said: "It's just a sad state of the affairs of politics in North Carolina when an overly qualified woman who served our country in the United States Air Force is dismissed the way that she was. Their reasoning simply does not pass the smell test."

As Clean Energy Director, Delli-Gatti will continue to work on energy policy through administrative orders and legislation.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
John Nicholson, interim NCDEQ Secretary

“Dionne Delli-Gatti has the experience and qualifications to serve as Secretary of DEQ, and the legislature’s baseless political criticism of her credentials is but a smokescreen to thwart North Carolina’s transition to clean energy that she has the knowledge to help put in place. I am pleased that Dionne will continue to serve our state in the role of North Carolina Clean Energy Director as we transition to renewable energy,” Cooper said in a statement.

Interim Secretary Nicholson has been at the DEQ since 2017. He's a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. He has master’s degrees in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College and in military studies from the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

Sign up for our weekly politics newsletter

Select Your Email Format

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.