Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, left, and Virginia Secretary of Health Bill Hazel at a news conference Wednesday in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe will keep Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s health secretary as his own, a choice that could help the new governor sell Medicaid expansion to wary Republicans but that also infuriates some abortion rights activists.

McAuliffe (D) announced Wednesday that he will reappoint William A. Hazel Jr., an orthopedic surgeon from Northern Virginia who served as secretary of health and human resources under McDonnell (R).

“I am confident that Secretary Hazel will be the best steward to help me carry my agenda forward and meet the challenges we face when it comes to health care in this commonwealth,” McAuliffe said as he announced his choice at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

As a highly regarded health-policy expert and holdover from a GOP administration, Hazel could be an asset to McAuliffe in the uphill battle that is his top priority: persuading Republican state lawmakers to expand Medicaid under the federal health-care law known as Obamacare.

“Of all the people who have held that position, probably no one is more knowledgable,” said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “He got up before a joint committee and stepped through the whole Affordable Care Act with no notes. This is a super, super bright guy. He’s Terry’s best shot at the Medicaid expansion by far.”

Nonetheless, the move angered some of the abortion rights activists who helped propel McAuliffe to victory in November over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R). Throughout his campaign, McAuliffe pressed the theme that Cuccinelli and other Republicans had waged a “war on women,” in part with legislation that imposed strict building codes on abortion clinics and a bill that, before it was amended, would have required women to obtain a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion.

Some abortion rights activists blame Hazel for standing by as those policies were considered, even if he did not publicly champion them. As rumors of his pending selection began swirling in recent weeks, RH Reality Check, an online publication focused on reproductive health, urged readers to add their names to a petition: “Tell Gov. Elect Terry McAuliffe: Don’t rehire Gov. Bob McDonnell’s secretary of Health and Human Resources.”

“Hazel represents the insidious face of an apparatchik advancing, supporting, and rubber stamping a war on women that McAuliffe promised to end,” Erin Matson, the publication’s editor at large, wrote Tuesday under the headline “Just Why Is Terry McAuliffe Thinking of Renominating Bill Hazel?”

Some McAuliffe supporters say that anger is misplaced. The nephew of prominent Northern Virginia businessman and developer Til Hazel, the secretary was considered a moderate when McDonnell appointed him four years ago, so much so that his selection was a touchy choice for a Republican who was a longtime favorite of the anti-abortion movement. Hazel was the last cabinet secretary McDonnell named — appointed just hours before his inauguration — and the only one who did not get his own news conference. McDonnell postponed the announcement several times.

“He was not responsible for that” anti-abortion legislation, Saslaw said. “In fact, when you had [governors James S.] Gilmore and [George F.] Allen, their secretaries were over there all the time whooping it up for all these abortion bills. He did not appear [before legislative committees] in support of any of those anti-abortion bills.”

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfaix) said she recommended to McAuliffe that he retain Hazel.

“He is a genuine expert on healthcare reform and has been moving Virginia to the forefront of the nation,” she said in an e-mail.

At the VCU announcement, McAuliffe and Hazel sought to reassure abortion rights activists that the governor-elect will honor his promise to defend and even expand access to the procedure. McAuliffe repeated his campaign vow to be a “brick wall” against efforts to restrict access.

“I will follow the governor’s lead,” Hazel said. “He calls the plays. . . . We [Cabinet secretaries] implement the law, and we follow the governor’s direction. And Governor McAuliffe, on Jan. 11 at about noon, will be my new boss.”

McAuliffe’s top priority is to expand Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, under the federal Affordable Care Act. The Democrat said it will provide health-care to 400,000 uninsured Virginians and create more than 30,000 jobs. House Republicans contend that Washington lacks the money to make good on its promise to pick up most of the cost, which in Virginia is estimated at $2 billion a year.

McAuliffe hopes that Hazel, with his perspective as a medical practitioner and record of seeking health-care reforms under McDonnell, will help him make the dollars-and-cents case for expansion.

Some top House Republicans said the appointment was unlikely to sway opponents even as they praised McAuliffe’s selection of someone they consider a skilled and dedicated secretary.

“I have a lot of respect for Secretary Hazel and the work he has done over the last four years, but I don’t think his appointment changes much of anything on Medicaid expansion,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

Said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: “It’s certainly fantastic news, but it doesn’t change my position on Medicaid expansion, which is reforms first.”

McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, ran as a bipartisan deal-maker, promising to appoint Republicans and Democrats to his cabinet and find consensus on tough issues. Yet given how central abortion rights were to his campaign, some women’s groups did not expect him to play the pragmatist in that arena — even on the symbolic level of hiring someone associated with, but perhaps not personally in favor of, the anti-abortion policies of the past four years.

Late Tuesday, as rumors of Hazel’s pending appointment swirled, the tone of the opposition to the appointment had cooled. Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, was “not applauding” the appointment, but she also said she felt confident that under McAuliffe, Hazel will play a different role.

“We hope that he will become more engaged and more interested in women’s health issues, in helping to promote them, advance them and protect them — especially since he has a new boss,” she said.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia Executive Director Cianti Stewart-Reid issued a statement suggesting that the group was on board with Hazel in the context of his potential to sway Republicans toward Medicaid expansion.

But she added: “We will be watching closely to make sure that Secretary Hazel works to advance the Governor’s women’s health agenda.”