Charlotteans, as a rule, don't follow the ins and outs of the General Assembly in Raleigh. That is surprising, since Raleigh controls most of the available money for two things that are always on Charlotte's collective mind: roads and schools. With a new GOP majority in the General Assembly and a new House Speaker from Mecklenburg Country, maybe it's time to start paying more attention. A good place to start, if you want to learn more about who pulls the strings in much of the state, would be finding out about Art Pope.
He won't often be physically present in the General Assembly, but Pope's power will be wielded, and his influence felt, all through the halls of the legislature, as his new majority gets to work. We call the General Assembly Republicans "his" new majority, because Pope is the King of Kingmakers among conservatives in North Carolina. A number of conservative groups in N.C. try to affect public policy and influence elections. Almost all those groups are heavily influenced by their main benefactor, one James "Art" Pope, who largely built the web of organizations that push his ultra-conservative viewpoints.
Pope is a former state representative, and the owner of Variety Wholesalers Inc., a company that operates several discount retail chains, such as Rose's, Maxway and Super 10. A recent study by the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham revealed the links between Pope's fortune and the various conservative research and advocacy groups he bankrolls. Those groups are the John Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute, Capitol Monitor, the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
The ISS study, written by Chris Kromm, describes Pope's wide-ranging influence and his management and financial functions as "a level of purse-string power so dominant that the IRS classifies all but one of [the groups] as a 'private foundation,' a relatively rare designation used only by nonprofits who disproportionately rely on a single benefactor." In fact, ISS' analysis of tax records show that Pope set up his relationships with these conservative groups so that he holds a great deal of financial and organizational control. Pope sits on the board of directors of all but one of the organizations, and, moreover, he doles out at least 80 percent of the groups' operating budgets.
This year, Pope extended his influence into the general election, as his financial tentacles were put to effective use in electing Republicans to the legislature. Three groups with strong links to Pope — Civitas Action, Americans for Prosperity (to which, by the way, Pat McCrory has attached himself like a barnacle), and Real Jobs NC — led the aggressive effort. AFP spent more than $600,000 on nine state races; Civitas Action, a spin-off of Pope's Civitas Institute, threw just under $200,000 at 11 races; and Real Jobs NC, which received $200,000 from Pope's Variety Stores, poured $1.5 million into the targeted state races. Real Jobs NC, it must be added, gained a notorious reputation by airing often inaccurate attack ads. Together, the three groups targeted 21 state races that were top priorities for the GOP. It all paid off, as Republicans won 18 of the 21 contests.
When the ISS study was released, some N.C. conservatives complained that it made them seem like Pope's puppets. This writer is not implying that anyone who received money from Pope will automatically do his will, nor are we saying that Pope doesn't have the right to spend his money in any legal way he pleases. But N.C. Republican lawmakers and conservative advocates should at least acknowledge the deep debt they owe Pope for their own successes, and, in the cases of the advocacy groups, their very existence. One reason why that acknowledgement probably won't happen is that these groups routinely try to position themselves as independent, civic-minded organizations with no political axe to grind. Raleigh's News & Observer quoted Civitas Institute Director Francis DeLuca saying that he didn't believe Civitas Action's role in the election would hurt the credibility of the Civitas Institute. As Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch said in response to DeLuca's statement, "That's true. It simply confirms what we already knew."
So during the next year, when draconian budget cuts are being made, realize that much of the impetus, not to mention financing, for the slash-and-burn tactics came from the King Bee of N.C. Kingmakers, Art Pope.