RALEIGH — Gov.-elect Pat McCrory expanded his cabinet selections by three on Thursday, and named a trio of key staffers that includes controversial political financier Art Pope.
Pope whose network of organizations promotes a limited-government agenda will be the new governors top budget-writer. A multimillionaire, he will take a leave from his retail chain store business, as well as from his family foundation and all public and nonprofit boards he serves on in order to take the job without pay.
McCrory, in a news conference at his transition offices in Raleigh, also named Kieran Shanahan, a prominent Raleigh attorney and former federal prosecutor, to be the new secretary of the Department of Public Safety. Susan Kluttz, a former longtime mayor of Salisbury and current city council member there, will be secretary of the state Department of Cultural Resources.
Former legislator Lyons Gray of Winston-Salem was tapped to be the secretary of the Department of Revenue. Charlotte lawyer Bob Stephens will be McCrorys chief legal counsel and Chris Walker, who has been the spokesman for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and for U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, will be his communications director.
It was the selection of Pope that sparked the most reaction. Liberal groups and campaign finance watchdogs have been highly critical of the wealthy opinion-shaper in recent years for spending millions of dollars to push conservative candidates and causes. He was the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker magazine last year that portrayed him as a power-broker out to buy off the state of North Carolina.
Soon after McCrory announced the choice Thursday, the state Democratic Party issued a statement calling him a puppet-master for extreme right-wing causes.
It appears that a full-scale Pay-to-Play system has taken hold of the executive branch, party spokesman Clay Pittman said in the statement, where special interests, high-dollar donors and the leaders of the right wing will have control over the Governors Mansion.
A numbers guy
But Popes involvement in state government goes back much farther than his manifestation in more recent years as a major financial player, and is rooted in an affinity for finances. More than anything, Pope typifies the recent ascendency of conservatives in North Carolina, which next month will control the executive branch as well as both chambers of the legislature.
Pope, 56, was born into family wealth made from Variety Wholesalers, a retail chain that now includes Roses and Maxwell stores. Over the years his family foundation has made substantial philanthropic donations, which now amount to about $10 million each year.
A Duke law grad, he became special counsel to Republican Gov. Jim Martin in 1985, and three years later was elected to the state House of Representatives. He won the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 1992 but lost in the general election. He returned to the legislature from 1999 to 2002.
Over those years he put together a network of organizations to promote conservative politics as a way of countering what he saw as a dominant Democratic machine that controlled North Carolinas government and think tanks.
While in the legislature, Pope had a reputation as a numbers nerd someone who could dive into the line items and grasp the big picture. Rep. Jerry Dockham, a Republican representing Davidson County, was a colleague in the General Assembly.
Art was one of the sharpest guys when it comes to numbers and putting a plan together that Ive ever encountered, Dockham said. He was always on top of everything, and could tell you almost to the penny what a program or initiative would cost.
Best qualified person
After Thursdays announcement, Pope resigned from his position as one of three directors of the national Americans for Prosperity, and from the boards of the Civitas Institute and its political nonprofit Civitas Action in North Carolina, all of which he helped found.
Those organizations, along with the John Locke Foundation and the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, are the components of the Pope political machine. Through them, he has taken positions that may or may not coincide with the direction McCrory wants to take the state: opposing financial incentives to attract companies, opposing the state lottery, supporting a constitutional amendment to limit growth in state spending.
Pope outlined his game plan at McCrorys news conference.
He said there are challenges in the state budget that have persisted for three decades: how to pay for increasing enrollment in schools and improve the quality of education, how to deal with burgeoning health and human services costs without protecting core needs such as courts and public safety, how to pay for needed building renovations and keep a rainy-day fund.
Pope was one of the original sponsors of the states rainy-day fund, which was established in 1991. He said Thursday it must be rebuilt to 5 percent of the general fund before another hurricane real or fiscal strikes.
McCrory brushed aside a question about selecting someone who has become such a political lightning rod. I got the best qualified person for the job, McCrory said, adding there was more rhetoric than facts behind the criticism of Pope.
I need someone who knows numbers, who understands the public sector, who understands the private sector, and can also work with the legislature in developing a budget, McCrory said.
School safety a priority
Not as controversial but nevertheless surprising was the choice of Shanahan to run the newly consolidated Department of Public Safety. Taking a look at whether that consolidation is working or not is one of Shanahans first tasks.
But McCrory said Shanahans immediate job will be to review school safety across the state in light of the Connecticut school massacre and other mass shootings in recent years.
I want him to do an immediate evaluation of school safety in our state, he said. This must be a top priority of Public Safety, because ensuring that our children are safe is a priority for all of us.
Gray, McCrorys choice to head the Department of Revenue, is a former, six-term state legislator and former chief financial officer with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He was a senior advisor to UNC system president Tom Ross.
Stephens, McCrorys chief legal counsel, has been a practicing attorney for about 40 years and is a lifelong resident of Charlotte, and is a longtime friend of the governor-elect.
McCrory has yet to choose secretaries of commerce, transportation and administration.