Jeffrey David Cox Sr., who became president of the American Federation of Government Employees on Thursday, 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.

Cox, a North Carolina native better known as “J. David,” is a 61-year-old nurse who for the past six years served the union as secretary-treasurer, the second in command. He succeeds John Gage, who retired after nine years as leader of the largest federal employee union.

“People need to understand the value government employees provide for this country,” Cox said in an interview Wednesday night after ballots were counted in Las Vegas, where the AFGE is holding its annual convention.

AFGE has endorsed President Obama for reelection, and Cox said he plans to campaign for the Democratic ticket in the fall. “Strategically, we’re going to take this union to a much higher level,” said Cox, who added that he grew up in a “very anti-union” community.

Cox, of Silver Spring, won 51 percent of the vote in the union election, defeating Alex Bastini, president of AFGE Local 12, which represents Labor Department employees; Phil Glover, a member of the union’s Council of Prison Locals; and Paul Ferris, who represents Department of Defense workers. Bastini received 24 percent of the vote; Glover, 22 percent; and Ferris, 1 percent.

Cox said his management style will differ from that of Gage, who is known as 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 AFGE leadership elections, Eugene Hudson Jr. was elected secretary-treasurer, replacing Cox; and Augusta Thomas was reelected vice president of women’s and fair practices.

AFGE has 277,000 active members.