Noted North Carolina politician and businessman, Art Pope, is leaving his position as State Budget Director. The move comes one week after lawmakers agreed to a revised $21 billion budget.
In a press conference Wednesday, Governor Pat McCrory praised Pope for his work in shepherding the budget through negotiations.
"We couldn't have done it without Art Pope, and his cooperation with my cabinet, with my policy team, with the House and Senate leaders," McCrory said. "It wouldn't have happened without his incredible relationship building and knowledge of the state budget."
During his tenure as state budget director, Pope worked on two budgets, including the one passed by the legislature just last week.
“I think the great success that Governor McCrory has had with the state budget is funding the core services in our state government,” Pope said. “Including getting back to repairs and renovations and operations, the increased funding of education, teacher pay and at the same time having tax reform, made our taxes more simpler, more fair, easier to understand.”
Pope has long been a strong force for conservative causes in North Carolina. As a wealthy donor and former legislator, he’s influenced politics from both within and outside the government, offering his vision and financial support.
Many liberal and progressive groups have used Pope as a sort of lightning rod. He’s been widely credited as one of the people who helped usher the Republicans into power when the party gained control of the House and Senate in 2010.
He's also supported several conservative groups including Americans For Prosperity and the John Locke Foundation.
During an appearance on WUNC's The State Of Things in June, Pope defended his political spending in the context of growing contributions across the board:
You look at the most money spent on a campaign in North Carolina that was by John Edwards who spent 6 million for his US Senate campaign in 1998, and then Erskine Bowles who ran for Senate, he spent 6 million dollars. So you look for the big donors trying to influence elections, you have to look at the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party in North Carolina.
Last year, protesters with the Moral Monday movement picketed Pope’s family-owned stores to protest his support of what they consider extreme and regressive public policy.
At the news conference on Wednesday, Governor Pat McCrory dismissed Pope's critics.
“I’m convinced if his last name was that of probably more liberal people in this state…he would be praised publicly and you would read about him in much more positive ways in the newspaper,” McCrory said.
Governor McCrory praised Pope’s public service and leadership, saying that he was the voice of moderation and conservative common sense on issues.
“He did everything I asked of him during that first year,” McCrory said. “He found things that none of us in our the cabinet or in my administration would’ve found, including moneys that were transferred, and budgets that were hidden and people that did and did not exist on the payrolls.”
McCrory said he anticipated Pope's resignation at the end of the budget process. Pope reportedly wanted to leave the position earlier in the summer, but McCrory asked him to remain through the negotiations.
At one point, McCrory got teary-eyed as he explained Pope’s dedication to crafting a state budget.
But Democratic Representative Larry Hall interpreted those tears differently. The lawmaker from Durham has been a loud critic of Pope and his policies.
“No, I think they were crying because they were looking at the budget projections next year and understanding the pain that North Carolina citizens are going to feel as a result of the actions being taken on the present budget, I think those were tears of remorse,” Hall said.
Hall and other Democrats say the adjustments made to this year’s budget are not sustainable and rely on one-time funding. Pope refutes those claims by saying that the budget is balanced and that revenue is increasing.
Either way, Hall and other Democratic lawmakers commend Pope’s discipline and hard work.
“I believe that time has shown that it is not what North Carolina needs to move forward, but he has sincerely tried,” Hall said.
Meanwhile, Lee Roberts, a bank executive from Raleigh, will be stepping into Pope’s position. Roberts was most recently the Managing Director of Piedmont Community Bank Holdings, has been on the North Carolina Banking Commission since 2013, and is a graduate of Duke University.
“Art Pope’s breadth and depth in expertise and experience, both in the public sector and in the private sector, are really unparalleled,” said Roberts. “I can’t fill art pope’s shoes, but I’m honored to follow in his footsteps
Roberts is also the son of political commentator Cokie Roberts. She was NPR’s congressional correspondent for more than 10 years. Lee Roberts says he grew up with a lot of conversation about politics around the family table and that it influenced his thinking about public service.
Pope will help Roberts make the transition to his new job. Pope’s last day will be September 5.