Michael Regan developed a love of the environment as a child. He grew up in Goldsboro, but spent a lot of time on a family farm down east in Bladen County.
"Hunting and fishing and bonding with my father and grandfather," Regan said.
The visits to the family farm taught Regan to hunt small game like quail, rabbit, and squirrel, as well as the importance of neighbors in a farming community. He also struggled with childhood symptoms of asthma.
"During these high ozone days or really hot days I would experience shortness of breath and so I was really curious about the sort of interconnectivity to the natural environment and our changing climate and pollution," he said.
Regan outgrew the symptoms but he never lost his love of the environment. He earned a degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina A&T State University. But it's the master's in public administration with a concentration in federal policy and politics from George Washington University that might serve him best as he navigates the treacherous waters in the state capital.
Now, if all goes as scheduled, Regan will face a Senate committee soon as part of a formal confirmation process. In January, Gov. Roy Cooper nominated Regan to head the Department of Environmental Quality. In December, the Republican-led General Assembly adopted a law requiring cabinet picks to be confirmed by the state Senate. The prospect of confirmation – not to mention the need to work with a legislature that features Republican super-majoriities in each chamber – does not seem to faze Regan.
"I believe if you're sitting across the table and having a robust conversation, nine times out of 10 there's the possibility that you can come to a middle ground solution that may or may not win the argument of the day for you personally but will be the best solution for the public," he said.
Preston Howard thinks Regan is saying all the right things. Howard is the long-time president of the N.C. Manufacturers Alliance. He also served for 25 years as an air and water quality regulator at the state agency that is now the Department of Environmental Quality (formerly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources).
Shortly after Cooper picked him to head DEQ, Regan invited Howard to join him for an introductory roundtable discussion. Howard said those outreach efforts dispelled a lot of initial misgivings he and his constituents had about Regan’s nomination.
After all, Regan worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for eight years and then, perhaps even more worrisome for members of the regulated community, Regan worked on climate and clean energy issues at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"I mean, there's an expected apprehension about an appointment to that slot who comes from primarily a federal regulatory and environmental group background," he said.
Howard added that while members of the regulated community fared well under the previous administration of Republican Governor Pat McCrory, he knows other stakeholders did not.
Mary Mclean Asbill is a senior attorney and lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the stakeholders stuck on the outside looking in during the McCrory administration. "And now we have access to all that data and all that expertise and all that good scientific knowledge at the agency where we’ve really all been shut out for four years," she said.
Sitting in a hall of the legislative building on Jones Street, just a block away from DEQ, Asbill says Secretary Regan's pledge of transparency was well received across the board.
"We're hearing it from legislators and legislative staff that they now have open lines of communication with this agency that’s charged with protecting our air and water," he said.
Among the most important stakeholders are lawmakers. They hold the purse strings and appropriate the funds DEQ and other agencies need to operate. That's why Regan wasted no time in reaching out to arrange a meeting with the very senators who will consider his confirmation—even as the governor fights the confirmation process in court.
Senator Andy Wells noted: "Not all of the appointees have done that."
Wells is a second-term state senator representing Alexander and Catawba counties. He is also co-chair of the Senate’s Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee, the first hurdle in Regan's confirmation process.
"So this ensures that we have a face to face, at least get to know you, find out something about each other while we go through this process," he said.
The confirmation process, while new and unprecedented in North Carolina, will consist of committee meetings followed by a full senate vote on approval.
Regan is likely to face tough questions about his professional background and intentions. For now, he seems intent on bridging divisions, not widening them.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Regan grew up around hog farms.