After tumultuous reign, Art Pope steps down as NC budget chief

From his perch as Gov. Pat McCrory's budget director, Republican megadonor Art Pope was able to exert unusual influence in shaping North Carolina policy (Photo:

This week, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced that his budget director, GOP mega-donor and businessman Art Pope, will resign his position effective Sept. 5.

The announcement wasn't a big surprise; Pope reportedly agreed to the job for a year, and extended his tenure to 18 months to stay through this year's contentious state budget debate.

But Pope's departure is still a significant shakeup for the McCrory administration, where Pope has been a key force in shaping the agenda of the Republican leadership and driving North Carolina's rightward political shift. 

There were many fiscal and policy experts McCrory could have tapped for the budget director job, but Pope brought one critical asset to the table others didn't have: a multimillion-dollar political influence machine, which Pope had spent more than $50 million erecting over the last decade.

McCrory personally benefited from the backing of Pope's network. Pope and his close family members gave $20,000 directly to McCrory's campaign in 2012, and another $125,000 to the N.C. Republican Party, which campaigned on McCrory's behalf. Three outside political groups backed by Pope -- Americans for Prosperity, Real Jobs NC and the Republican Governors Association -- poured more than $5.4 million into ads and mailers supporting McCrory's election 2012 bid.

Once in office, Pope's network gave McCrory a vehicle and resources to aggressively move the conservative agenda, like a massive tax cut plan -- primarily benefiting corporations and wealthy individuals -- in line with with Pope's small-government ideology, even if it ended up contributing to a crippling budget shortfall.

But Pope's dominant role in McCrory's office also raised the question: Who was calling the shots? Critics like James Protzman at the liberal blog Blue NC delighted in portraying McCrory as merely a face for Art Pope's puppetshow.

At times, McCrory reinforced the image. When McCrory's office released their 2014 budget proposal in May, for example, the governor largely turned over the press conference to Pope, at one point saying, "I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to have Art kind of explain the details of that number that you just presented [about college funding] ... Art, if you don't mind? Because he can present it much better than I can."

Pope wasn't shy about flexing his political muscle when needed. As Facing South first documented, in 2013 Pope capped a 10-year crusade against North Carolina's "clean elections" reform for judges when, in his first budget proposal, he zeroed out funding for the program. Pope-funded groups rallied to the cause. And when Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan -- who had received backing from Pope -- floated a compromise to partially save judical public financing, Pope visited the General Assembly, pulled Jordan aside, and the amendment vanished. Mother Jones titled its story about the saga, "This Is What a Multimillionaire Calling in His Chits Looks Like."

These and other antics helped Pope became an easy target for critics of McCrory and the GOP leadership, a poster child for Big Money's ability to not only buy access but call the tune. Pope's role in driving North Carolina's political shift became a near-weekly theme of the Moral Monday movement. In response, the Civitas Institute -- almost entirely funded by Pope, and legally part of Pope's family foundation -- launched a database targeting Moral Monday arrestees.

While some Republicans benefited from Pope's money and power, others seethed at his singular influence in shaping the GOP agenda. As an anonymous Republican lobbyist complained to The Washington Post for a story on Pope in July:

He drives the budgetary policy goals of this administration. The governor yields to Art. His real power, his influence in state government, is really having that turf all to himself.

Pope will no longer have his perch in McCrory's office to exert power, but he likely won't need it. He'll still have his personal wealth, corporate treasury and family foundation to wield influence. Rumor has it he wants to become president of North Carolina's university system.

In the meantime, Pope will be able to resume his leadership role in his political influence machine. When he took the budget director job, he stepped off the boards and distanced himself (at least publicly) from organizations in his network. But after Sept. 5, he'll be freed up to re-enter the political fray -- just in time for the 2014 fall elections.