Christensen: The GOP struggles on UNC presidency choice

Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the US Chamber of Commerce June 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the US Chamber of Commerce June 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP/Getty Images

The chatter from the beginning was that the University of North Carolina Board of Governors hoped to land a Republican of national stature to be the university’s new president – someone like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

They didn’t land Condi, but they did attract another major figure from the Bush Administration, Margaret Spellings, who was first the president’s chief domestic adviser and then his education secretary. Spellings met with the UNC Board last week.

You’d think the Republicans would be slapping each other on the back. Having orchestrated the retirement of UNC President Tom Ross, a former Davidson College president installed by a former Democratic-controlled board, they brought in a much bigger name to replace him. A final announcement is expected Friday.

But Republicans are not doing anything the easy way these days.

Instead of breaking out the champagne over the Spellings candidacy, the GOP formed a circular firing squad.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it should. Think about the mess in the U.S. House, where the GOP can’t seem to find anybody ideologically pure enough to be Speaker.

Ideological purity does not seem to be at the heart of the Spellings dust-up, although as one of the architects of Bush’s major education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, she helped mid-wife a policy that has drawn fire from both the left and the right.

There are multiple political cross-currents in the UNC presidency saga, mainly involving political power.

The Republican legislative leadership is bent out of shape, because they wanted a North Carolinian to be the next president – and no I don’t mean Raleigh businessman Art Pope. The legislature passed a bill requiring the UNC Board of Governors to submit a list of three candidates, in an apparent effort to make sure they could influence the final selection.

(There is precedence for the legislature to weigh in. The Democratic legislative leadership played a major role in selecting Charlotte investment banker Erskine Bowles as president.)

When word surfaced that Spellings was the top choice, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore sent a letter to the legislature reminding them of the law.

But Gov. Pat McCrory has yet to sign the law and has indicated he is in no hurry to do so before the Oct. 30 deadline. McCrory is no fan of the new law, and met with Spellings last week when she was in town. This has further strained relations between McCrory and the legislative leadership.

The UNC board, which was appointed by the legislature, says it will follow the guidelines – regardless of whether McCrory signs the law. It is not clear whether it is offering three real options or whether it is offering Spellings and two guys named Mo in order to comply.

There is also unhappiness with the brusque way that John Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer, has handled the search process. Of course, Republicans are always saying that you should run government more like a business, but when somebody actually does, all you hear are complaints about how undemocratic it is.

The furor over the Spellings choice seems mainly about power – lawmakers wanted someone they knew and thought they could influence. And it is true that UNC could certainly use some friends on Jones Street, even as the legislature was kinder this past session to the university system by including $1 billion in proposed capital projects.

But they may also be worried that Spellings, having spent years dealing routinely with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and congressional leaders, would not be deferential enough toward the big boys on Jones Street.

There is also some concern that an outsider would face a long learning curve. The last outsider to serve as president, Molly Broad, struggled to fit into the state’s political culture.

But there is a big difference between Broad and Spellings. Broad was a professional educator who was a product of the sheltered groves of academia. Spellings came up through the rough and tumble of Texas politics with the Bush organization. She’s buddies with Rove.

Dealing with conservative cowboys is old hat for Spellings. Maybe that is what the legislature is worried about.

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