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GOP donor, ex-lawmaker Art Pope elected to join UNC board

June 25, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2014, file photo, outgoing State Budget Director Art Pope smiles in Raleigh, N.C., as he talks with the press after Gov. Pat McCrory announced that Pope would be stepping down from his post. The Senate picked on Thursday, June 25, 2020, longtime conservative donor and former lawmaker Pope to the state public higher education system’s Board of Governors. The 32-15 vote electing 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. (Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2014, file photo, outgoing State Budget Director Art Pope smiles in Raleigh, N.C., as he talks with the press after Gov. Pat McCrory announced that Pope would be stepping down from his post. The Senate picked on Thursday, June 25, 2020, longtime conservative donor and former lawmaker Pope to the state public higher education system’s Board of Governors. The 32-15 vote electing 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. (Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — 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.

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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).”

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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.

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Follow Anderson at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson

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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.