When Pat McCrory takes the oath of office January 5th, he won’t just become Governor of North Carolina; he will assume the role of the highest ranking official, at least in title and public housing privileges, of the new Pope Administration that is taking over in Raleigh next year.
McCrory formally acknowledged that this week by naming Art Pope State Budget Director, turning the reins of state appropriations over to a polarizing political figure who has spent more than $40 million in the last ten years pushing his far-right agenda on North Carolina and financing politicians who will carry it out.
Technically, Pope was named Deputy Budget Director because as Pope pointed out at the press conference announcing his appointment, the constitution names the governor as the director of the state budget. But Pope is definitely in charge.
There were early signs during this transition period that McCrory was catering to the Pope wing of the Republican Party, most notably his appointment of Thomas Stith as Chief of Staff.
Stith is a former vice-president of the Pope Civitas Institute, a shrill right-wing advocacy group funded almost entirely by Pope’s family foundation. Civitas also has an explicitly political arm that runs attack ads against Democratic candidates during election season.
Pope himself was named as one of the leaders of McCrory’s transition team and had reportedly been interviewing people under consideration for key appointments in the administration.
But this week’s appointment of Pope to develop and oversee the state budget is startling and raises all sorts of questions. Pope not only bankrolls the Civitas Institute, he pays for the vast majority of operations of the John Locke Foundation too and is one of four national directors of the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity.
Those organizations are now de facto staff of the McCrory Administration. They have already established close ties to the legislative leadership. The chief of staff for House Speaker Thom Tillis was a former top staffer at Civitas.
An absurd report this week from Civitas calling for a radical dismantling of the few progressive elements of the state tax code bizarrely included footnotes that referred to a secret meeting with legislative leaders.
Civitas, Locke, and Americans for Prosperity have called for abolishing Smart Start, dismantling public schools with vouchers and slashing health care services to low-income families and people with disabilities.
Theirs is a radical, right-wing agenda championed by Pope himself, who McCrory has now put in charge of the state budget.
Then there are the politics of the appointment. Pope and his company have directly financed attack ads against Democratic candidates and worked in primaries to defeat Republicans who stray from the rigid far-right party line.
That will make it for tough for Republicans in the General Assembly to disagree too vigorously with the new budget director.
The appointment casts a long right-wing shadow over the McCrory Administration and raises questions about who will really hold the power in the governor’s office. There’s no moderate voice of any stature close to Pope’s in any key role.
That brings us to McCrory’s judgment.
Maybe he doesn’t quite get how powerful and polarizing Pope is in Raleigh. McCrory seemed almost surprised that reporters asked a question about the appointment.
Maybe Pope demanded the job and McCrory couldn’t muster the political courage to refuse. Or maybe McCrory believes in Pope’s agenda, that we can slash and burn our way to prosperity and that we need to dismantle public education and sharply reduce the support we provide our neighbors who are struggling.
The big question after McCrory handily defeated Democrat Walter Dalton in November was which McCrory the voters had elected, the moderately conservative Charlotte mayor who supported tax increases for mass transit and other public investments or the candidate who spent the last four years on the far-right, speaking at out at Americans for Prosperity rallies.
That question was answered Thursday with a flourish. Welcome to the Pope/McCrory Administration.