Commentary

Christensen: Art Pope gives Gov. Pat McCrory needed muscle in Raleigh

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 9, 2013 

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Art Pope.

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Gov. Pat McCrory’s hiring of Art Pope as his budget director was a shrewd move – and not just because Pope works cheap as a $1-a-year man.

Many people find it difficult to think dispassionately about Pope because he has become such a polarizing figure – knight of the right to his admirers or a somewhat sinister Daddy-Warbucks-Dick-Cheney-string-puller to his critics.

But for McCrory, a rookie governor with little Raleigh experience, having Pope at his side during the early months of his administration has been an asset.

Consider that McCrory is spending three hours a day preparing his state budget for delivery to the legislature later this month.

With the state still trying to shake off the effects of the deep recession, Pope brings a sharp businessman’s eyes to the state budget. Pope, as head of the regional retail chain Variety Wholesalers, is accustomed to competing with retail giants such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

Pope is also knowledgeable about state government, having served in the legislature and the administration of Gov. Jim Martin, and been a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor. He’s also a longtime state policy wonk, who has bankrolled free market think tanks and conservative groups in Raleigh.

Bankroll gets attention

Pope also gives McCrory some street cred in the legislature. Although the Republican-led legislature has a vested interest in seeing the first GOP governor in North Carolina in 20 years succeed, the party also became used to running Raleigh under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

McCrory has courted the legislature, inviting members to the Executive Mansion for breakfast and playing basketball with them at William Peace University.

But there is no reason why the lawmakers should take the rookie seriously – except for Pope. Pope is a big-time Republican Party bank roller – and state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis are both politically ambitious and cannot afford to ignore Pope.

McCrory can shoot hoops with the boys on Jones Streets. But Pope can throw some elbows.

Hunt had muscle, too

There is some precedent for Pope’s role. When Democrat Jim Hunt was first elected governor in 1976, he was only 39, and had to deal with some old Democratic legislative bulls who thought they knew far more about how to run things in Raleigh.

Hunt relied on John A. Williams, a wealthy Raleigh businessman who was his budget director, to help shepherd his legislative program. Hunt was Mr. Positive. “John A.” was the muscle.

There are, of course, reasons for pause about Pope. There has never been a figure quite like him in Raleigh.

How much power is too much power? That was the question raised in The New Yorker magazine profile of Pope that ran last year with the provocative but over-the-top title: “State for Sale.”

Many will also disagree with Pope’s vision of limited government. North Carolina has traditionally been led by a progressive business community, while Pope’s political philosophy seems more libertarian in its leanings. But Pope does seem to have a healthy appreciation for the role of the state university system in the state’s economic development.

My guess is that Pope’s tenure in the McCrory administration will not be a long one and that after the legislative session is over, Pope will return to running his companies. But even so, Pope is likely to remain a major behind-the-scenes player.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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