It's a high-wire act that Gov.-elect Pat McCrory is attempting. He's the reasonable Republican who used to be the mayor of Charlotte. He's Art Pope's tea party toy, fronting for a right-wing Republican regime. Can he possibly balance the two roles?
The answer is that whatever he used to be, McCrory will do Pope's bidding or he will be irrelevant to state government for the length of his (one) term as governor. Either way, McCrory's in a tough spot. Because Pope, the Raleigh potentate newly installed as McCrory's budget and policy chief, can push him off the wire any time he wants.
But give this much to McCrory: He looked at ease, as a man on a wire must, as he played his parts Thursday in a press event to introduce new appointees, including Pope.
The reasonable McCrory stepped forward when he was asked about school safety in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican with his finger on the trigger-happy pulse of his party, was among the many GOP'ers already talking about arming teachers. (Standard practice teaching to include sessions at the target range?)
McCrory said he'd rather entrust the job to "people with public safety credentials"—sworn officers in the schools, in other words—"over the alternatives that are being discussed." He tasked Kieran Shanahan, his appointee as secretary of public safety, with quickly recommending how to better safeguard schools.
Shanahan, a pugnacious former Raleigh city councillor and prosecutor, is reasonably suited to the job, notwithstanding the unfortunate motto of the Shanahan Law Group: "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight."
Reasonable McCrory then introduced his new secretary of cultural resources, former Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz. "My mom was an artist!" McCrory exclaimed, and with his trademark grin, he was engaging us about the importance of the arts and how they "soften" an otherwise hard, even ugly public infrastructure.
Kluttz, as a mayor, was the visionary behind that city's decision to lease art for outdoor public spaces, McCrory said. He, as mayor, made public art an integral part of the mass transit system he championed in Charlotte.
At this point, it was natural to glance at the Art featured in the McCrory administration. But Art Pope, waiting to be introduced as the new deputy budget director, was gazing straight ahead, betraying no alarm at hearing that he'd backed a guy for governor who might waste taxpayer dollars on public transit or art.
Still, you could almost hear Pope thinking: Not on my watch, you won't.
Don't be misled by Pope's title. He is deputy director only because the state constitution gives the governor the additional title of budget director.
In truth, I don't recall who Bev Perdue's budget director is—or was. It's not a position that, by itself, packs a lot of punch. But in Pope's hands, it's a license to kill any state spending he doesn't like. The state budget is a policy blueprint—no, it's THE policy blueprint for an administration. And Pope isn't just any director. He's the man who made McCrory governor, and the man who can unmake him.
If you doubt this, bone up on Pope from the many INDY Week stories about him, including the series, written with the Institute for Southern Studies, titled "Absolute power: An examination of Art Pope's dominance," which ran in March 2011.
Or read NC Policy Watch analyst Rob Schofield's scathing opinion of putting Pope in the budget job. It's as if President Romney made the Koch brothers his counselors, Schofield wrote: "Pope is the leader of one of the nation's most extreme, right-wing Tea Party groups, Americans for Prosperity," Schofield said. "You can't place such a man in charge of your most important legislation (i.e., the state budget) and pretend to be a moderate."
Actually, the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, created AFP, which gave the tea party life. ("It's alive!") But multimillionaire Pope, wielding a family fortune generated by hundreds of dime stores located in poor communities, was not far behind in the AFP hierarchy, serving as a director of the AFP foundation along with David Koch.
In North Carolina, Pope's poured an estimated $40 million of his company's and his family foundation's resources over the past decade into a network of conservative organizations, including AFP-NC, the John Locke Foundation and the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, in addition to such Republican campaign committees as Real Jobs NC.
These groups have produced a right-wing creed for the Republicans, who, don't forget, control both houses of the General Assembly by veto-proof margins. Follow it, and you're a soldier in the Pope empire. Doubt it, and you're a "RINO"—a Republican in Name Only—who'll be attacked in the next GOP primary, and probably unseated, by a Pope loyalist.
McCrory knew the rules in 2008 when he ran for governor and lost to Bev Perdue. There was no particular reason to think he'd be the Republican nominee again in 2012, or that the formerly moderate mayor would sail to the nomination unopposed. But when the tea party revolt hit its stride in 2009, McCrory sprinted to the front, singing its praises and persuading Pope that he would do—and no other right-wing candidate need apply.
So what is the Pope agenda? It isn't mass transit. As a legislator in the early '90s, McCrory recalled, Pope voted to allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg to vote on the 1/2-cent sales tax that supports its transit system. But the John Locke Foundation tried its damndest to get that tax repealed in 2007, losing a referendum by a 70-30 margin.
Pope's groups are for cutting taxes on personal and corporate income—progressive taxes—while hiking the sales tax that hits the poor the hardest. They distrust public education, preferring quasi-private charter schools, and they think too many people aspire to a college education. Trade schools strike them as better for the masses.
State spending, already chopped to ribbons in the recession—the current state budget is 11 percent less than in 2007–8, despite population growth—will be sacrificed on the altar of governmental minimalism. Already at a 40-year low as a percentage of the state economy, it will go lower still, with education and Medicaid, which provides health care services to low-income people, taking the biggest hits.
Alumni of the Pope groups are fanning out to positions in the McCrory administration to see that it's done. Thomas Stith, an ex-Civitas staffer and former Durham mayoral candidate, will be McCrory's chief of staff. He'll report to the governor. The governor will report to the boss, Art Pope.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Marching orders."