Art Pope, the budget director who became the focus of weekly protests at North Carolina’s capitol, is stepping down, Governor Pat McCrory said in a statement.
Pope, a 58-year-old businessman who formed a series of free-market organizations in the state and helped fund a Republican takeover of the legislature in 2010, became budget director in 2013. He was vilified during the demonstrations known as Moral Mondays for the administration’s decisions to cut taxes and spending on higher education and other programs. He will be returning to running his family’s retail business, Variety Wholesalers Inc.
“Art Pope has been an invaluable public servant for the people of North Carolina,” McCrory said in the statement, crediting Pope with two balanced budgets and the state’s 2013 tax overhaul that lowered income, corporate and estate taxes.
“His knowledge and leadership helped produce historic tax reform while producing two balanced budgets that put North Carolina back on the road to prosperity,” he said.
He will be replaced by Lee Roberts, a Raleigh banker. McCrory appointed Roberts to the North Carolina Banking Commission in 2013.
Pope was a magnet for controversy, largely for his role in helping Republicans take over the legislature and then the governor’s office in what had been the last Democrat-controlled state in the U.S. South.
Before becoming budget director, he poured millions into advancing his political views through advocacy groups. Between 2001 and 2010, Pope, his family and their foundation supplied $35 million to six Pope-created organizations that advanced limited government, free markets and lower taxes, among other issues, according to Democracy North Carolina, a Durham-based group that monitors political fundraising.
He, his family and company also donated $2.8 million in the same decade to Republican state candidates and groups that ran advertising favoring them.
More than $550,000 of the advertising money came in 2010, when Republicans took control of both houses of the state legislature. Pope also backed McCrory, who in 2013 became the first Republican governor in more than 100 years to also have a legislature led by his party.
His appointment as budget director dashed hopes that McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, would govern as a moderate Republican.
The “Moral Monday” protests began last year as demonstrators marched on the statehouse grounds over Republican policies. The legislature and McCrory cut unemployment benefits, rejected expanding the Medicaid health insurance program under the Affordable Care Act, lowered taxes and education spending, passed new restrictions on abortion, and changed voting laws to reduce early voting and same-day registration and require voters to show identification at the polls.
Hundreds were arrested during the demonstrations, where protesters sometimes carried posters depicting Pope with horns on his head.
The protests were less about Pope’s job as budget director than his role in creating the Republican majority through his campaign giving and support of new legislative districts that favored his party, said Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch and a Pope critic.
“It was because he funded the campaigns and drew the legislative districts that made all of it possible,” he said. “We also had two years of very damaging budgets in North Carolina. He helped build that.”
Ryan Tronovich, a spokesman for McCrory, said Pope’s resignation is not a surprise and that he had always said he would not serve for McCrory’s entire term. After weeks of fighting, the state legislature approved the state’s budget on Saturday.
Fitzsimon said he’ll be watching what Pope does next.
“I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that he is leaving in time to raise money for the 2014 elections,” he said.
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