RALEIGH — Conservative businessman, philanthropist and political donor Art Pope said Wednesday he will step down next month as state budget director, a position he made more prominent with his influence in Republican circles.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who hired Pope as his administration began in January 2013, announced Pope’s departure. He also named his replacement, Lee Roberts, who also has an extensive history in banking and politics.
Pope said he initially agreed to serve as director for one year, but decided to stay on through this year’s legislative session — in particular the completion of second-year adjustments to the state budget bill through mid-2015. The General Assembly last week approved the measure, which McCrory has said he will sign soon. The governor credited Pope with helping negotiate the budget.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve the state of North Carolina, and that’s what I do consider it — a public service,” Pope told McCrory at an Executive Mansion news conference. He plans to return full-time to leading his family’s discount retail chains.
McCrory said Pope, 58, provided critical fiscal and legal advice during his first months in his Republican administration — the first in Raleigh in 20 years. Pope served in the mid-1980s on the team of the previous GOP governor in Jim Martin.
Pope has “been the voice of moderation and conservative common sense on issues,” including last year’s tax overhaul law, McCrory said. “His fiscal acumen, his legal knowledge and his inside knowledge of state government was invaluable to me and our team.”
McCrory’s voice cracked with emotion when he recalled how Pope worked on his budget proposal this spring while at the same time caring for his dying mother.
Pope, who also previously served in the General Assembly, accepted a $1 annual salary for the position, which draws up the governor’s proposed budget and carries out the final $21 billion spending plan once the legislature enacts it.
The director is generally considered a low-profile position, but Pope raised its profile because of his lengthy political involvement in North Carolina.
The Pope family foundation gives millions annually to the John Locke Foundation, Civitas Institute and other right-leaning groups. Variety Stores Inc., one of his family corporations, also gave to independent groups in 2010 that targeted General Assembly incumbents with advertisements. The Republicans went on that year to control the legislature for the first time in 140 years.
His leadership roles with conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity made him a target. Some liberal-leaning groups rallied outside Pope’s government office last December and announced the picketing of Roses, Maxway and other stores owned by the Pope family business to protest Republican policies.
“There was always this question about who was running the show” within McCrory’s administration, said Chris Kromm with the Institute for Southern Studies, and it also made Pope “a really easy target and a lightning rod for criticism.”
Pope dismissed accusations about disproportionate influence of McCrory.
“Most of the criticism came from the well-funded, organized left, not from (legislators) I actually work with, both Republicans and Democrats,” Pope said.
Senate Republicans turned up the heat recently, threatening him with a subpoena unless he showed up for a budget committee to defend the administration’s Medicaid numbers. But on Wednesday, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis showered him with praise.
Roberts, the son of political commentator Cokie Roberts, moved to Raleigh eight years ago and was appointed last year to the North Carolina Banking Commission by McCrory. He was recently an executive with VantageSouth Bancshares, which this year was acquired by Yadkin Financial Corp.
Roberts, 45, also is the grandson of two former U.S. House members. Records show he’s a registered unaffiliated voter who in 2012 made campaign donations to McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Roberts never had substantial time working in government until now.
“The budget is one of the most important areas in state government in terms of defining the governor’s priorities and implementing his vision,” said Roberts. “So anybody who supports the governor, it’s a pretty attractive post.”