After three weeks of national media attention about his efforts to buy political influence in North Carolina and beyond, Art Pope is fighting back. In letters to the Raleigh News & Observer and National Review, Pope says he has become the target of "false" and "hypocritcal" attacks, a failed political assassination attempt.
Pope's response boils down to one central argument: Pope says he is only spending tens of millions of dollars to influence North Carolina politics because everybody else is doing it, too. Several in the media have echoed Pope's claim, pointing to hypothetical and potentially real Big Money equivalents for Democrats and progressives in North Carolina.
But in reality, there are at least three reasons why Pope's network is unique and worthy of special scrutiny.
First, let's hear Pope in his own words. From the News & Observer:
In short, after spending millions of dollars more than their political and policy opponents, the Democratic Party, unions and progressive nonprofits simply could not admit that the voters actually preferred the Republican candidates and conservative policies. Instead, they went over the top to accuse one person of buying the 2010 elections.
It's the same argument Pope makes in National Review (although Pope spices up that piece with an ominous story about a violent blogger who once linked to the Institute for Southern Studies -- does Pope know how the interwebs work?):
What makes me different from George Soros, George Clooney, or George Sheridan — a National Education Association (NEA) board member — all of whom, personally or institutionally, support liberal-left Democratic candidates? The answer is: I’m a conservative Republican and I exercise my First Amendment rights ...
In other words: I'm just doing what everybody else does, why are you picking on me? The "everybody's doing it" defense is a bit of a non-starter, as any school child facing teacher discipline or individual facing criminal charges can attest. But there are also at least three reasons why Pope's network is one of a kind and deserves more attention, not less.
First: In North Carolina, there is no single person that orchestrates such a well-funded and influential political network as Art Pope. Period. There's a reason Pope has become the poster child for buying political influence in the state: No one individual in North Carolina channels the same level of personal, corporate and foundation wealth into such a coordinated network of political groups, candidates and causes.
As ArtPopeExposed reported earlier, Art Pope has an unmatched network at his fingertips to exert influence. These include:
- The Family Fortune: A multimillionaire born into a wealthy family (who nonetheless believes he's part of the 99%), Art Pope makes generous personal contributions to Republican candidates and committees, typically bundling his contributions with family members. As elections watchdog Democracy North Carolina has detailed, the Popes have given more than $3 million to Republican candidates and committees over the last 10 years.
- The Corporate Treasury: As CEO, Chairman and President of Variety Wholesalers, the discount retail chain started by his father, Pope steers large contributions from the company to an array of conservative and Republican groups. In 2010, this included at least $506,500 in contributions to Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and the Republican State Legislative Committee, groups which together accounted for 75% of the outside spending in the 2010 legislative elections. (The full level of Pope and Variety Wholesalers' support is unknown, because AFP and Civitas Action aren't required to disclose their donors.)
- The Family Foundation: Pope is also the President of the John William Pope Foundation, which holds more than $140 million in assets. From his leadership position, Pope channels more than two-thirds of the foundation's money into grants to conservative advocacy groups like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Civitas Institute, John Locke Foundation and Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Pope's foundation accounts for about 90 percent of the income of North Carolina's leading conservative groups; he also sits on the board of many of those groups, giving him an unusual level of purse-string and organizational control.
Here's a challenge for Art Pope and his defenders: Name one other unelected figure in North Carolina who spends that much money and single-handedly orchestrates such an extensive network to exert political influence. Send your nominations to ArtPopeExposed.com by email or Twitter, and we'll look into it.
As one Raleigh insider told ArtPopeExposed this week: "There's nothing like [Pope's money and network] in North Carolina, and Pope knows it. That's why he has to keep blowing smoke."
A HIDDEN AGENDA
There's another reason that Pope's network deserves special scrutiny. For years, Pope was allowed to operate in the shadows: Outside of a handful of Raleigh insiders, few were aware that one man was bankrolling and leading an entire constellation of think tanks, advocacy groups, polling and media outfits, electoral campaigns and other efforts to promote Republican and right-wing politics.
Before Pope started getting more attention over the last year, how many knew that fellow Republicans called Pope the "architect" of Wake County, N.C.'s effort to dismantle its school diversity policy? That his foundation has pumped $24.1 million into groups that deny the scientific consensus about climate change?
Even today, how many shoppers at Roses and Maxway -- which target communities with high African-American populations -- know Pope’s network has led the push for a restrictive voter ID bill that would disproportionately hurt black voters? Or that Pope’s network frequently partners with Tea Party Express, a group embroiled in ongoing controversies over accusations of blatant racism by its leaders?
By staying behind the curtain, the Pope-funded echo chamber has been able to make it appear the policies and agenda they push have broader support than they actually do. And in many cases, the agenda has been to maintain a system in which Pope's money can reign supreme.
PROTECTING BIG MONEY'S POWER
Lastly, Pope deserves the attention he's getting because of his leading role in maintaining our money-driven political system. In his N&O letter, Pope says that what he’s doing is “perfectly legal.” Unfortunately, he’s largely right: It’s all too easy for powerful interests to buy influence in our broken election process. But what separates Pope from many other big benefactors is his lead role in keeping the system broken -- and even trying to make it worse.
In 2011, Pope's groups -- Americans for Prosperity, the Civitas Institute and John Lock Foundation -- led an all-out assault on North Carolina’s “Voter-Owned Elections” programs, which give public grants to judicial and other select state office-seekers who also raise money from small donors. It makes running for office more affordable for everyday people; it also makes it so candidates don't have to rely as much on big donors like Art Pope.
In the legislature, it was hard not to see the attack as political payback: The bill to kill the programs in the senate was sponsored by none other than Sen. Bill Davis -- a political newcomer who significantly benefited from Pope's money in 2010.
Pope of all people should know better. When he needed a helping hand to run for office in 1992 (Lt. Governor), he put his ideology of self-reliance aside and took a $330,000 loan from his parents for the campaign; there’s no record it was ever paid back.
In short, it's entirely undestandable why Art Pope doesn't want to be in the spotlight today; working behind the scenes has been a key ingedient to his success. But if Pope wants to use his vast wealth to buy and exert influence in the North Carolina public debate, he also has to accept the public scrutiny that follows.