Jeffrey David Cox Sr., a 61-year-old nurse and North Carolina native, takes over as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Thursday after beating three rivals in a union election Wednesday.

Cox, better known as “J. David,” succeeds John Gage, who retired after nine years leading the largest federal worker union.

“Strategically, we’re going to take this union to a much higher level,” Cox said in an interview Wednesday night after the ballots were counted in Las Vegas, where AFGE is holding its annual convention.

He won with 51 percent of the vote, beating Alex Bastini, president of AFGE Local 12, which represents Labor Department employees; Phil Glover, on the union’s Council of Prison Locals; and Paul Ferris, representing Department of Defense workers.

Bastini came in second with 24 percent of the vote; Glover third with 22 percent and Ferris last with 1 percent.

AFGE has 277,000 active members. Cox, who grew up in a “very anti-union” community and now lives in downtown Silver Spring, said his chief goal is to raise the visibility of the union at a time when federal workers are coming under fire from many Republicans.

“People need to understand the value government employees provide for this country,” he said. He served the union as secretary-treasurer, the second in command, for six years.

Cox said AFGE has endorsed President Obama for reelection and he plans to campaign actively for the Democratic ticket this fall.

He said his management style will differ from that of Gage, a charismatic but brash leader.

“I have more of a participatory-type management style,” Cox said.

“I think trying to build common ground is a much better way to go.”

In other races for AFGE’s leadership posts, Eugene Hudson, Jr. was elected secretary-treasurer to replace Cox, and Augusta Thomas was reelected vice president of women’s and fair practices.