A longtime conservative donor and former lawmaker was picked Thursday to the state public higher education system’s Board of Governors by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The 32-15 vote electing Art Pope to the 24-member body tasked with overseeing the 17-campus University of North Carolina system comes as lawmakers neared the end of their legislative session.
Some Senate Democrats were furious on social media about the choice, saying it would reinforce the impression that the board is partisan. But no Democrat spoke up against the pick during Thursday night's floor vote.
Pope will serve on the board for one year starting July 1. He’ll replace former Republican state Sen. Bob Rucho, who resigned from the board in recent days.
Pope, a GOP businessman, philanthropist and donor, comes to the board having previously worked as former Gov. Pat McCrory’s state budget director. He’s also been a member of the state House and staunch ally of conservative causes.
“He has been a dedicated public servant to North Carolina,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican. “He will be a valuable asset to our UNC Board of Governors.” Pope's appointment does not require approval from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The Pope family foundation regularly gives money to right-leaning groups. Variety Stores Inc., one of his family corporations, gave to independent groups in 2010 that helped Republicans take control of the legislature for the first time in 140 years.
In a tweet Wednesday night, Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson called Pope “the most controversial pick I could imagine” and said “there is no way that this pick would improve that perception” of partisanship on the board.
While Pope said some Democrats may perceive him as a “boogeyman” because of his record contributing to conservative causes, he believes he has done “nothing that the left doesn’t do.”
“When the Democrats talk about how much money I have spent, you’ve got to look carefully at what’s called ‘weasel words,’” Pope told reporters after a committee recommended his appointment Thursday afternoon. “They’ll say that Art Pope spent X millions of dollars when really what they’re saying is groups linked to or backed by Art Pope. ... I’ve never spent close to a million dollars in a single year.”
Pope believes he has a track record of working with others that could help him as he joins the board.
“I’ve been able to work very positively with Democrats and independents my entire career,” Pope said, pointing to his time in the legislature. “I think I hopefully can smooth things down and reach out to the other side, which is the real Art Pope versus the left-wing blog character (portrayal of me).”
Amid turmoil within the board in October 2018, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings resigned from her post as UNC System president. Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Bill Roper was selected as an interim president shortly after Spellings’ resignation. He will be replaced at the start of August by Peter Hans, who leads the state’s community college system and has a lengthy history in conservative politics.