Art Pope, Bankroller of North Carolina’s Republican Agenda, Tells All

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October 10, 2011; Source: The New Yorker | In the national press narrative concerning the source of funding behind the Republican campaign to unseat President Obama and Congressional Democrats, one repeatedly hears of the Koch brothers—David H. and Charles G. Koch, scions of the founder of Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned corporation in the U.S.—as though they are financial Rasputins controlling the entire show. The Koch brothers have given more than $100 million to politically conservative organizations such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and FreedomWorks, as well as to others associated with the Tea Party movement.

North Carolina’s homegrown version of the Koch brothers is Art Pope, chairman and CEO of the discount store chain Variety Wholesalers. In 2010, Pope was very active putting money into “independent” groups taking on Democratic candidates in North Carolina, making himself something of a regional Koch through his support of Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Some of the techniques used by Pope’s organizations were a little on the slimy side, carrying subtle racial or ethnic overtones, and large on the money side, usually spending more in “independent” political advertising than the candidates they supported or opposed. One source reported that three-fourths of the spending by independent groups like Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action in state legislative races “came from accounts linked to Pope.” In all, Pope spent $2.2 million on 22 state races.

What makes Pope of interest to NPQ Newswire readers is that his independent political operations are hardly his only political ventures. Pope’s family foundation has long been a funder of the John Locke Foundation, one of the many state-level conservative think tanks that have had significant influence over state-level public policy issues. Pope’s family philanthropy and his donations to independent 501(c)(4) organizations, according to a Democratic advisor to Governor Beverly Perdue, make “the Republican agenda in North Carolina…really Art Pope’s agenda. He sets it, he funds it, and he directs the efforts to achieve it.”

Most of these money people are relatively anonymous and press-averse, which is why many operate through secretive 501(c)(4)s. But this New Yorker profile of Pope, based on interviews with Pope himself, staff people at his various think tanks, and others, is a very revealing portrait of the motivations of a wealthy businessman who decides to capitalize an array of entities to shape one state’s political destiny. What makes Art Pope tick? It is well worth the read.—Rick Cohen

  • Tom King

    Just what about the Jane Mayer piece in the New Yorker told you what makes Art Pope tick? The article was a one-sided hit piece. You both mention the Koch brothers and don’t go anywhere near the political manipulations of liberal funders who have long dominated North Carolina politics. Art Pope’s political funding is dwarfed by his foundation’s charitable giving to education, health care and poverty programs.

    Pope, if anything, levels the playing field so that both sides of the issue get equal play. Two Democrat senate candidates, John Edwards and Erskine Bowles each spent more of their own money on their own senate campaigns than Pope has spread out over the entire state.

    If Pope is trying to buy the state as the New Yorker article claims, he needs to bring a very much larger checkbook to the table. The Democrats already own the place and credit for the soaring dropout rate, failing probation and mental health systems and a raft of corruption scandals.

    My question is are we concerned about protecting what has been a virtual monopoly on agenda-driven political donations by the left from an influx of new conservative money or do we care about issues related to funding our nonprofits?

    If the latter, the Pope Foundation deserves a pat on the back for its far greater giving to nonprofit education, indigent care, health care and food bank programs in North Carolina.

    Tom King

  • rick cohen

    Dear Tom: Thanks for your comment. I thought the observations from Pope himself and his associates were interesting and revealing. Re the liberal funders, do read my many columns where I have taken on, to the great distress of many, the multiple “independent”, opaque funders of political ads and campaigns of both conservatives and liberals (for example, just recently I wrote about Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Bill Burton’s Priorities USA, along with others, in the same article). Thanks for your observations.

  • Barbara

    After seeing the Moyers Report on PBS regarding North Carolina politics, I would like to state that If many of the people in North Carolina think that Art Pope is a good thing for North Carolina, they are very foolish and sadly mistaken.

    We will do everything we can to fight back the power and money that is “killing” our democracy all over this
    country. From Washington to North Carolina to the conservatives on the Supreme Court that “unleashed”
    Citizens United. Power and money may be winning many of the battles right now, but ultimately they will be defeated.