Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Independent Weekly and is republished by permission. Illustration by V.C. Rogers.
Last November, the Republican tidal wave that washed Democrats out of North Carolina’s legislative leadership for the first time in more than a century caught many off guard—but perhaps no one was as baffled as state Sen. John Snow.
A quiet Democrat from the mountains, Snow made few enemies and largely avoided controversy during his three terms in office. Indeed, he was approvingly rated by the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, as one of the Legislature’s most right-leaning Democrats. His opponent, dentist Jim Davis, was a newcomer to state politics, and Snow felt good about his chances of being re-elected.
Then the money started pouring in. First the state GOP, smelling an upset, helped Davis amass a $534,000 campaign war chest—a lot of money for the small 50th Senate district, but Snow and the Democrats still thought they could keep pace.
But Snow was blindsided by a flurry of blistering attack ads and mailers that began popping up across the district, all coming from two little-known groups: Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. By Election Day, the two organizations had unleashed $265,000 worth of ads benefiting Snow’s Republican opponent, according to state campaign finance records.
Snow couldn’t keep up. And in the end, the flood of outside money may well have tipped the race: Snow ended up losing by just 161 votes.
Snow wasn’t the only one. In 2010, three outside operations—Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity—spent $2 million attacking Democrats in some two dozen state legislative races.
The groups all had at least two things in common: Each was generously backed by Raleigh retail millionaire and Republican benefactor Art Pope.
And second, they were enormously successful: Of the 22 races in which the Pope-backed groups focused the bulk of their money, Republicans triumphed in 18—a remarkable 82 percent win rate.
Pope’s money was so decisive in the 2010 elections that Democrats have taken to calling North Carolina’s new GOP leadership “bought and paid for” by Pope; one lawmaker toyed with introducing a bill to rename the Legislature the “Art Pope General Assembly Building.”
As for Pope, he seems conflicted about his power to influence state elections. “If [money] helped them win, especially in a close election, then wonderful,” he told WRAL-TV about his spending on behalf of Republicans. “But that doesn’t mean I spent millions of dollars to buy the North Carolina Legislature.”
Building an empire
Karl Rove. Grover Norquist. The Koch brothers. Today, many of the key operatives and money men behind the conservative movement are almost household names.
Billionaires Charles and David Koch made headlines last year when it was revealed that many of the escalating attacks against Democrats and President Obama could be traced back to the Kansas energy tycoons, who for 30 years have poured tens of millions of dollars into a right-wing network so powerful it has a name in political circles: The Kochtopus.
By contrast, Art Pope has received far less media scrutiny, even as he grows as a leading figure in state and national conservative politics. Indeed, Pope is one of the most trusted members of the Koch’s elite circle: He has been a regular invitee to the Koch’s secretive, semiannual gathering of the major right-wing donors and activists, which met this past January at a luxurious California resort to network, talk strategy and glean wisdom from Glenn Beck and other conservative luminaries.
Pope’s fortune is smaller than that of the Koch brothers, but Pope has been a valuable junior partner in many key Koch operations. For example, while the Kochs get most of the credit—and infamy—for launching Americans for Prosperity, Pope has been instrumental to its rise as a leading attack group against Democrats. Pope is one of the group’s four national directors, and Pope’s family foundation is one of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s biggest backers.
Like the Koch brothers, Art Pope’s wealth comes from an inherited family business. It was Art Pope’s father, John Pope, who took a small five-and-dime store in Angier, N.C., and in 1957 transformed it into Variety Wholesalers, a chain of discount shops which now boasts more than 400 stores across the South, including Maxway and Roses franchises.
John Pope Sr., who led the Variety chain until his death in 2006, had a simple formula: buy floundering stores and chains, preferably those in bankruptcy (both Maxway and Roses were acquired after Chapter 11 filings); slash labor costs and forgo renovations (“The stores are always falling apart,” a Maxway customer in Raleigh complained); and don’t be afraid to close up shop if the profits are too small.
Now under Art Pope’s leadership, the chain is opening new stores even in today’s cutthroat discount retail market, in part because it has a clear market niche and customer base. (Because Variety Wholesalers is a privately held company, precise figures about its economic performance are not publicly available.)
As The International Directory of Company Histories, published by the Gale Group, recently noted in a glowing company profile, Variety likes to run stores in midsize towns with “at least 25 percent African-American population within five miles, and a median household income of less than $40,000.”
These black and working-class shoppers would likely be surprised to learn that their dollars have helped finance a right-wing network that has changed North Carolina politics and has growing national ambitions.
The Pope echo chamber
Art Pope’s conservative network doesn’t yet have a moniker like the “Kochtopus,” but maybe it should, given its well-organized operation and high level of political influence.
Like the Kochs, the Pope family—through the John William Pope Foundation, which Art Pope chairs and leads—has been funneling millions of dollars to a network of conservative research, media and legal centers for 15 years. Their aim isn’t just to see conservatives win, but to shift public opinion and the entire political debate toward a pro-business, anti-government agenda.
Publicly, the Pope Foundation, which claims $148 million in assets, according to the latest tax returns, downplays its support for right-wing causes. The latest grants list on its website only mentions money given to the Boy Scouts, N.C. Symphony and similarly innocuous nonprofits, and omits the ideological grantees. Last fall, Art Pope told The News & Observer that grants to politically conservative groups are a mere “fraction” of the foundation’s dollars, pointing to its charitable support of programs like hospice care.
In reality, about two-thirds of the Pope Foundation’s money in recent years has flowed to groups whose core mission is to promote a conservative agenda, according to an analysis of its tax records by the Institute for Southern Studies. In 2010, the share earmarked for right-wing causes climbed to more than 70 percent.
In North Carolina alone, the Pope Foundation has spent more than $30 million since 1994 to launch and sustain a network of groups that make up the backbone of the state’s conservative movement.
The investment has paid off handsomely. Each week, Pope’s groups unleash a torrent of press releases, studies, blog posts, polls, tweets, events and other missives bashing their favorite targets (taxes, labor unions, environmentalists, the “Democratic culture of corruption”) and promoting their common interests. The message is then amplified in the state media, which routinely quotes Pope personnel and provides them with generous TV, radio and newspaper coverage—an echo chamber that can quickly make the Pope network’s viewpoint appear to be both common wisdom and political consensus.
But if Pope’s leadership and backing has been elemental to the success of these organizations, it has also made them precariously dependent on Pope for their very survival.
Take, for example, the John William Pope Civitas Institute, the Raleigh-based think tank that aims to “facilitate the implementation of conservative policy solutions.” According to tax records, the Pope Foundation has given more than $8 million to Civitas since its founding in 2005—which amounts to about 97 percent of the group’s total income.
But Art Pope’s influence doesn’t stop there. He also sits on Civitas’ board of directors. The organization’s president, Francis de Luca, was culled from the North Carolina branch of Americans for Prosperity, another group which relies heavily on Pope’s leadership and backing.
Art Pope enjoys a similar level of purse-string and organizational control over most of North Carolina’s leading conservative outfits. Pope’s connections can be visualized in this Independent Weekly chart.
A newcomer to the Pope fold is the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service, led by former Republican state auditor Les Merritt, which has received $300,000 from the Pope Foundation since launching in 2009. Merritt earned notoriety in 2007 when he called an emergency press conference (on the eve of a major Senate vote on state elections) to announce that North Carolina suffered from “widespread voting fraud,” but then retracted his claim just days later when he couldn’t find supporting evidence.
While grateful for Pope’s money and leadership, North Carolina conservatives chafe at the idea that he controls them. Last year, John Hood, president of the Locke Foundation, lashed out at critics who “whined that the Pope foundation had used its resources to gain an inordinate influence on the state through ‘puppets’ who did Art Pope’s bidding.”
“Art Pope doesn’t micromanage or dictate what these organizations do,” David Riggs, vice president of operations and programs for the Pope Foundation, told the Indy. “He hires excellent managers and executives to run these organizations, and he trusts them to do that effectively.”
But what happens if a group runs up against Pope’s purse-string and organizational power?
The short history of the Capitol Monitor may offer a cautionary tale. Launched in 2007 as a website to deliver state political news—and entirely funded by the Pope Foundation—Capitol Monitor was abruptly shut down in September 2010, right before election season.
According to North Carolina Independent News (another online news site which recently closed its doors), the website stopped when its editor, Perri Morgan, left after “resisting pressure to make the site more partisan.” Asked if this was true, Morgan replied, “I’m not going to confirm or deny it.” (Pope said the foundation cut off support because “it wasn’t reaching much of an audience.”)
Whatever the reason, the decisive role played by Pope and his foundation was indisputable. “Pope pulled the plug,” one state lawmaker observed, “And Capitol Monitor went away.”
The election machine
Nov. 2, 2010, was Art Pope’s big day. Years of hard work—and tens of millions of dollars spent—finally paid off, as Pope’s investment in conservative advocacy came together with his generous backing of GOP candidates to create the perfect storm: the Republican capture of the North Carolina Legislature.
In an election year already dominated by big money—in part thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which loosened rules on corporate political spending—Pope helped channel a record-shattering amount of cash into key state races.
Overall, more than $2.6 million was spent on North Carolina’s state legislative races in 2010 by independent, nonparty groups. Of that, 75 percent came from just three groups: Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC, which all benefited from Pope’s leadership and backing. (See chart, page 13.)
When combined with the $240,000 that Pope and Pope family members personally donated to Republicans in races targeted by the three groups, the total amount of Pope-related money flowing into the more than two dozen races exceeded $2.2 million.
Adding fuel to the fire, Pope’s Variety Wholesalers also gave $36,500 to the Republican State Leadership Committee last year, a D.C. group backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other large corporate donors. In 2010, the RSLC spent nearly $30 million in states like North Carolina to help Republicans take over state legislatures in time for redistricting, the redrawing of political lines that follows each decennial U.S. Census count.
The RSLC then funneled $1.2 million back into Real Jobs NC, which went on to run some of the most controversial political attacks in recent memory. In N.C.’s 41st House District, Real Jobs attacked Democrat Chris Heagarty with flyers accusing him of voting for “pork barrel” projects passed in a spring 2009 budget bill, when he wasn’t even seated until late 2009. Republicans followed with a missive using a racially charged photo of Heagarty in a sombrero, complete with digitally darkened skin, supporting “mucho taxo;” Heagarty says he supported a reduction in the income tax, and doesn’t own a sombrero.
While the groups’ ads exclusively targeted Democrats and supported Republicans in key races, Pope insists the outside groups didn’t aim to influence the 2010 elections. “The groups I was involved in did voter education and issue advocacy. They did not get engaged [to] elect or defeat candidates,” Pope told the Indy.
What about the Republican State Leadership Committee, whose website boasts it “is the only national organization whose mission is electing Republicans to state offices”?
“I would address your question to the Republican State Leadership Committee,” Pope responded.
Equally controversial have been the alliances Pope’s groups have forged with extreme elements of the tea party cause. In 2010, Americans for Prosperity co-hosted events nationally with Tea Party Express, whose leader Mark Williams was fired last summer after writing an online rant about “colored people.” Before that, Williams wrote a series of screeds referring to President Obama as a “Nazi,” “half-white racist,” “half-black racist” and an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare fraud.”
Even as others were backing away from the tea party (in April 2010, the Kochs issued a statement that “no funding has been provided” for tea party groups), Pope’s network seemed unfazed. The Civitas Institute hosted two tea party summits in 2010, and the Locke Foundation staff toured the state to be part of tea party events. After Locke staffer Becki Gray spoke at a Surry County Tea Party rally last summer—which also featured Dr. Ron Bailey, a fiery minister who preaches that our nation’s demise began in 1925 with the Scopes monkey trial and the teaching of evolution—she told the Mt. Airy News, “This is wonderful … John Locke is a part of events like this across the state, but this is a particularly good one.”
“Americans for Prosperity is against racism, against segregation and we condemn racist comments,” Pope told the Indy when asked about the association.
“Don’t forget what the left does,” added Riggs, Pope’s associate at the family foundation. “Look at Wisconsin today and what the union thugs are doing.”
Union thugs? Pope clarified: “That was Dave Riggs. I did not say that.”
Now, with Republicans—including many Pope-backed candidates—in control of North Carolina’s Legislature, Pope’s network enjoys a new level of access and influence in the halls of state power. The new GOP leadership kicked off this year’s legislative session pushing a passel of bills that, while unrelated to the GOP’s 2010 campaign themes of taxes and jobs, are favorite causes of the Pope network: raising the limit on charter schools, curtailing the use of eminent domain and requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls.
Greasing the wheels will be several former staff members of Pope-backed groups who now hold key positions in the General Assembly. In January, incoming N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis announced that Chris Hayes, a former legislative analyst with the Civitas Institute, will be his policy adviser. John Kay, who previously held the job of senior staff attorney with the Pope-backed N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, will serve as Tillis’ general counsel.
In short, Art Pope has finally seen the two wings of his North Carolina empire—the relentless, ostensibly nonpartisan conservative echo chamber and the well-oiled, very partisan Republican machine—triumphantly align, affording him more power over the state’s political future than ever before.
Pope himself seems to understand the connection. “I’m not looking for anything other than good government,” he said after the elections last November. “And ending the corruption of the Democratic Party over our state government.”