Art Pope to step down as North Carolina budget director

08/06/2014 2:28 PM

08/07/2014 11:43 AM

North Carolina Budget Director Art Pope, a prominent conservative donor with broad influence and loud critics, is leaving the top post in Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

The Republican governor announced the move Wednesday at the Executive Mansion and named Lee Roberts, a Raleigh bank executive and campaign donor with limited state government experience, to the position.

McCrory said Roberts, a member of the N.C. Banking Commission who is the son of journalist and political analyst Cokie Roberts and grandson of the late Democratic Rep. Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, brings extensive financial management skills and “a neat perspective, and a new outside perspective, to this office.”

Pope’s departure came as no surprise. He took the job at the start of McCrory’s tenure in 2013 with the understanding that he would serve one year but the governor asked him to stay for another budget cycle.

McCrory credited Pope for his outsized role in the administration, describing how he offered legal guidance to his chief attorney, lobbied lawmakers and helped craft policy decisions in addition to his role guiding the state’s spending.

“He has been a hands-on budget director and he’s been an important voice and important mentor to this governor,” McCrory said, calling Pope “a voice of moderation and conservative common sense.”

McCrory said he expects to sign the state’s new $21 billion spending plan this week, making room for Pope to step down. Pope, whose resignation is effective Sept. 5, said he will return to his chief executive role at Variety Wholesalers, which owns a number of retail chain stores. His family foundation also is a prominent contributor to nonprofit organizations.

“It’s time for me to get back to my family and my family business,” he said in an interview.

It’s unclear whether Pope will resume his leadership role at Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, or at the state-based think tanks and political groups he relinquished when he took the budget director job. He said he has not yet made decisions about his future role or financial contributions.

Even before Pope joined the McCrory administration, he was a polarizing figure in North Carolina politics as the founder or financier for a network of conservative organizations.

Pope, his family and his company donated about $1.5 million in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to campaign finance reports compiled by the Institute for Southern Studies, to help elect Republicans and give the party complete control of the lawmaking process for the first time in more than a century.

Once he joined the administration, Pope’s network of affiliated political groups supported much of McCrory’s agenda and provided political muscle when it came to negotiating with lawmakers or swaying public opinion.

But his presence also provided McCrory critics with an easy target and raised questions about the influence of political money.

“It created this unsavory image of a wizard behind the curtain pulling the levers of influence,” said Chris Kromm, the executive director at the Institute for Southern Studies, a group critical of the Republican agenda. “Some of that was imagined but some of that was real.”

Supporters and detractors

House Democratic leader Larry Hall said Pope had “an undue influence” with state lawmakers and his presence at the legislature shifted votes. “I don’t know if he was the shadow governor or if he overshadowed the governor, but I do think he had more influence in what happened in the legislature and you could see it in the votes,” he said.

Pope, a former four-term state lawmaker, enjoyed a good relationship with the House and drew praise from Speaker Thom Tillis.

“I want to personally thank Art for his public service and years of dedication to the state of North Carolina,” Tillis said in a statement. “I appreciate his leadership working closely with the General Assembly to improve the state’s economy, create balanced budgets and promote jobs in our state.”

His relationship with the Senate proved more difficult and the chamber’s leaders threatened to subpoena him earlier this year to testify about the administration’s budget numbers. Still, Senate leader Phil Berger offered praise in a statement.

“My Senate colleagues and I are grateful that Art Pope continued his service to North Carolina by agreeing to serve as budget director – one of the most difficult and thankless jobs in state government – for a salary of only one dollar,” Berger said. “Thanks to his countless volunteer hours, our state is moving in a far more fiscally sound and sustainable direction.”

In announcing his resignation, McCrory rejected the “caricature” of Pope among critics of Republicans and praised Pope for his dedication to state government.

The governor choked up when he recounted how Pope delivered the administration’s budget proposal in May and then stayed up late at his ailing mother’s bedside before she died later that day.

“That is a true human being and public servant,” McCrory said.

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