Starving the Beast: Art Pope, Pat McCrory, and the N.C. budget

Why the multimillionaire ultra-conservative was a curious choice for budget writer
Hal Goodtree, (via Flickr)
Pat McCrory campaigns in Cary in July.

As Charlotte’s mayor for 14 years, Pat McCrory was what’s become a rarity in American politics: a moderate Republican. Sure, he was in the Chamber’s corner almost without fail, and he frowned on property tax increases — the City Council had to override his budget veto a few years back to pass a tax rate hike for the first time in a decade — but he wasn’t a slave to Norquistian hatred of taxing and spending regardless of circumstance. McCrory worked in good faith with Democrats. He hacked off the John Locke Foundation crowd over the LYNX line, which those Defenders of Liberty abhorred because light rail apparently is the first step down the slippery slope to Stalinism. (The Park and Ride Archipelago!)

So you had to wonder how much of McCrory’s relative moderation as mayor would survive the trip to the governor’s mansion, which officially began Saturday. One of the more alarming aspects of Governor Pat’s appointment of Art Pope as his main budget writer — a move that, for good reason, threw North Carolina Democrats into a collective conniption — is the governor’s insistence that “I got the best qualified person for the job.” He did?

“I need someone,” McCrory said when he made the announcement last month, “who knows numbers, who understands the public sector, who understands the private sector, and can also work with the legislature in developing a budget.” That’s strange. What’s apparent from Jane Mayer’s October 2011 New Yorker profile of Pope — a long piece that’s been referred to but, oddly, not examined much in coverage of the appointment — is that Pope “understands” the public sector as at best an annoyance, the private sector as supreme, and “working with the legislature” an exercise in pure power politics:

According to the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, Pope was a “rising star” in the General Assembly. But [former Republican Rep. Richard] Morgan told me that Pope was continually frustrated. “His attitude was, ‘My way, or everyone else is wrong,’” Morgan said. Martin Nesbitt, now the Democratic leader in the State Senate, recalls serving with Pope in the North Carolina House of Representatives: “Pope didn’t like the legislature, because people wouldn’t listen to him when he talked.” …

When Pope didn’t get his way, Morgan claims in his memoir, he tried to pull rank among the Republicans by citing his family’s money. Morgan writes that, at one point, Pope showed up in his office and “rapped a list down” on his desk with “every candidate and group he and his family had given money to.” Morgan told me, “I think it was his effort to say, ‘You owe me this.’ It happened more than once.”

As deputy state budget director, Pope will craft budget proposals for, among other things, the UNC system. You’d think a robust collection of four-year colleges and universities would be a priority in a state and for a governor championing higher ed as a necessity for North Carolina’s workforce. You’d think:

Pope’s network has campaigned to slash education budgets, which is a controversial move. George Leef, the director of research at the Center for Higher Education Policy, has described the funding of higher education as “a boondoggle” that robs taxpayers, and Shaw has demanded that the legislature “starve the beast” …

The issue of academic control surfaced again in September, when the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy [another Pope-funded organization] offered to help fund a Western-philosophy course that [UNC Chapel Hill] had included in budget cuts. At the same time, the center publicly ridiculed other courses, such as one on the culture of the Beat Generation. Some faculty members objected to an outside political organization trying to hold sway over which courses survived. “It’s sad and blatant,” Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, who has been critical of Pope, says. “This is an organization that succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase its leverage and influence over course content.”

Of course. How many call center employees do you think read Kerouac in the break room?

Most of the coverage of Pope’s appointment has described him, gingerly, as a “controversial” figure whose foundations have bankrolled numerous conservative legislative candidates, enabled by the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that did away with restrictions on corporate campaign spending. He’s surely that. But he’s much more, an apparent true believer who wields influence by check — then uses it to the hilt. “He’s an ideologue, a zealot,” longtime N.C. Democratic strategist Mac McCorkle told Mayer.

Pope himself told the Observer’s Jim Morrill, for a story published Saturday, that North Carolinians need not worry about his seizing undue power as a cabinet member; his agenda, he said, is “a 100 percent McCrory agenda.” That’s what worries me.