Who is Art Pope?
Art Pope is a conservative billionaire who acted as a central figure in the right-wing takeover of North Carolina in the 2010 elections. The head of Variety Wholesalers and the $150 million Pope Family Foundation, Pope orchestrated a well-funded political operation that sustained after the 2010 election cycle, transforming into think-tanks that influenced politics to move North Carolina “closer to the conservative vision he has long imagined.” He was “instrumental” in funding political groups that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads against Democrats and instilling a conservative supermajority. Independent analysis of tax records and disclosures show that Pope spent over $2 million in the 2010 and 2012 cycles each.
Specifically, his mission was to make North Carolina politics more hospitable to big-business through state budgets that prioritized regressive tax code, environmental deregulation, and school privatization. He was able to actualize this vision in 2013, when newly-elected Governor Pat McCrory, whose campaign Pope heavily funded, named Art Pope as his state budget director. 2013 was also the year of the landmark conservative tax reform, which has been central to the dominance of big-business interests in the legislature. The legislation replaced a multi-bracket income tax with a lower flat tax, cut corporate taxes, and broadened sales tax. Notably, the Trump administration modeled its current tax plan after the North Carolina overhaul.
David Lewis, who was then the Chairman of the House Finance committee where the major reform originated, received tens of thousands of dollars from the Pope Family. McCrory praised Pope’s involvement in the state budget, noting “We couldn’t have done it without Art Pope…it wouldn’t have happened without his incredible relationship building and knowledge of the state budget.”
Pope is both a donor and critic of UNC-Chapel Hill, his alma mater. He has given UNC Chapel Hill millions of dollars and also funneled millions into think tanks that lambast the university as a haven for liberal political correctness. As McCrory’s state budget director, he was responsible for the university’s future.
The BOG/Pope Connection
Almost one third of the UNC Board of Governors is connected to Pope. The BOG contains four former state legislators (two from the House and two from the Senate) who were in the North Carolina General Assembly while Pope was state budget director: Robert Rucho, Rob Bryan, Leo Daughtry, and Thom Goolsby.
Moreover, two of the Pope-funded groups Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action that helped conservatives take over the legislature have connections to current BOG members that have deep conservative ties. According to an email from a longtime GOP consultant, David Powers helped with Real Jobs NC, a group that backed Republican candidates early in the 2010s and helped McCrory in his reelection bid. Powers, who has “extensive experience” in national Republican politics, was involved in the fundraising for Real Jobs NC during his tenure on the BOG. Board Member Steven Long, who was central to pushing the litigation ban at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, is also a former board member at Civitas Institute.
However, the board member that perhaps most embodies these connections is Tom Fetzer. Fetzer’s 2017 appointment to the BOG was widely seen as a GOP strategy to “tilt” the board in a more conservative direction. Fetzer, who was elected NCGOP chairman in 2009, learned how to be a political operative from late U.S. Sen Jesse Helms. Helms, a noted segregationist whose tactics planted the seed for present-day efforts to foreclose voting rights, is a notorious forefather of the present-day conservative movement. Fetzer was chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party in 2010 when Republicans won both the North Carolina House and Senate. This victory would not have been possible without $1.7 from Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Fetzer himself said the win would not have been possible without the “powerful element” of outside groups, noting “I felt this building for a long time.” Fetzer learned his trade under the purview of someone who enabled another generation of politicians to stand for bigotry and trade on fear.
In 2015 a conservative BOG installed former Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings after forcing out Tom Ross. Spellings previously served on the Board of Directors for the Apollo Group, which lists the University of Phoenix as its “Flagship Institution.” The Spelling Commission was “one of the first proponents of performance-based funding in higher education.” McCrory’s performance-based rhetoric (echoed by members of a conservative BOG) matched Pope’s vision for higher education. In 2015, for example, McCrory wanted to change state funding formulas so that funding was given based on how many graduates got jobs.
David Powers, the chairperson of the Committee on University Governance, called Margaret Spellings a “that ‘game-changer’ that we all dream of.” He also once suggested during tuition and fee proposals that the Board look at a system of tuition that would be set according to the major and market conditions. Powers said, “I know you can’t operate the university entirely like a business,” but noted that charging a higher rate for some degrees was almost a “teaching moment” for business students.
Understanding Art Pope’s influence is critical to understanding how the UNC Board of Governors is a critical instrument of yielding conservative power.