Art Pope: a one-man Republican equalizer

The Raleigh executive is linked to groups donating millions to negate Democrats' traditional edge.

Staff writerOctober 27, 2010 

  • The Democratic group, Real Facts NC, did not include the name of its top donors in a mailer attacking Republican legislative candidates.

    Michael Weisel, attorney for Real Facts NC, said it was not necessary to include the name of the top donors because a new state law requiring disclosure had not been "precleared" by the U.S. Justice Department.

    After the Justice Department approved the law, Real Facts NC listed the N.C. Association of Educators as the top donor to the group.

— ### CORRECTION: The News & Observer incorrectly reported Wednesday that the family foundation of businessman Art Pope has provided more than $17 million to finance a network of conservative think tanks through the years, according to the Institute for Southern Studies. That figure only applies to the John Locke Foundation. The Pope family foundation has spent more than $28.7 million on the think tanks, according to the institute. ###

The voters in Democratic Rep. Chris Heagarty's western Wake County district of have been inundated with mailings portraying him as a big spending, anti-education politician who wants a pay raise for himself, along with a host of other political sins.

Targeting Heagarty were five mailings from a group called Real Jobs NC, three from a group called Civitas Action Inc., and two from Americans for Prosperity.

What all three groups have in common is they are connected to one individual: Art Pope, a Raleigh retail executive who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his company's money to help Republicans win control of the legislature next week.

Pope's influence is omnipresent this election season, with groups tied to Pope spending $2.1 million so far to influence the legislative races, according to state and federal campaign records filed in recent days.

His involvement comes at a time when Republicans feel they have a good chance of winning control of the legislature for the first time in 112 years. A new crop of lawmakers could hold the balance of power in North Carolina for the next decade, drawing new congressional and legislative districts.

For Pope, this is a crusade to throw out a corrupt Democratic regime. For Democrats, this is a case of one of the richest men in the state trying to buy the legislature. But despite the charges and counter charges, it is all legal in the new world of campaign laws where the decades old ban on corporate contributions and strict limits on individual contributions is being replaced by free-wheeling and free-spending committees.

Besides sending streams of campaign literature as well as beaming TV advertising into targeted Democratic districts across the state, Pope-connected organizations conducted a bus tour across the state to build support for conservative candidates. And it was a Pope-connected group that held "tea party summits" in May in Hickory and Wilmington to help organize conservatives.

Pope's activism has angered Democrats. The state Democratic Party today plans to announce a boycott campaign against the stores owned by Pope's private company, Variety Wholesalers, Inc. Less than a quarter of the company's 440 stores are located in North Carolina, including Roses, Maxway and Super Dollar stores.

"Art Pope has been investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, funding organizations that attack Democratic candidates from Murphy to Manteo," said Andrew Whalen, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

"These groups are agitating for right-wing candidates that are bad for North Carolina," Whalen added.

Pope said he would not let a threatened boycott deter him from his political involvement, nor did he think any such boycott would be effective.

"The Democratic Party will threaten and intimidate anyone who dares stand up and opposes their corruption," Pope said. "They are not just trying to threaten me. They are trying to threaten any other North Carolina citizen or business, large or small, who dare opposes their corrupt rule."

Pope has been involved in three outside groups that are playing important roles in the fight for the legislature.

They are:

Real Jobs NC is a 527 nonprofit group based in Raleigh that was started by Pope. It has reported spending $1.7 million so far on the legislative elections. The group has sent out mailings and paid for TV ads attacking Democratic legislators across the state. Variety Stores put in $200,000.

But the biggest share of money has come from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which has contributed at least $850,000, according to Internal Revenue Service records. Ed Gillespie, the founder of the committee and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, met with Pope and others in Raleigh for lunch this spring and agreed to help, according to Pope. There is no way of knowing where the money originated. But according to IRS records, Pope's company contributed $36,500 to the leadership committee. (It was not the biggest North Carolina donor to the Washington group. Reynolds American of Winston-Salem has put in $144,000, Bank of America of Charlotte contributed $50,000, and Time Warner Cable of Charlotte gave $15,000, according to IRS records.)

Civitas Action Inc., the advocacy arm of the J.W. Pope Civitas Institute, a Raleigh think tank, is another group that Pope was instrumental in creating and funding. The group has sent out mailings against Democratic lawmakers and has spent $202,000 so far, records show. The group is funded by $190,000 from Variety Stores Inc. of Henderson, a Pope company, and $78,889 from Americans for Prosperity of Arlington, Va.

Americans for Prosperity is a national conservative group, of which Pope is one of four members of the board of directors. The group has sent mailings in state legislative races and reported spending $282,783 so far. The group is also conducting a $100,000 independent campaign against 7th District Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre of Lumberton.

In response to the Pope-driven efforts, the Democrats have set up their own committee, called Real Facts NC, which has raised $239,000 to help Democratic legislative candidates. All but $14,000 was raised from the N.C. Association of Educators, an advocacy organization for teachers.

For Heagarty, former director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education who was appointed to fill a vacancy in the legislature a year ago, Pope's actions raise questions about undue influence. "It's one person attempting to buy an election," Heagarty said.

"If he had chosen to give to the candidate of his choice, he would have been capped at $4,000," said Heagarty, citing the legal limit for an individual to give to candidate. "It allows him to be as negative and nasty as he wants to be without reflecting back on my opponent."

The mailings into Heagarty's district from Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action Inc. cost $70,979, according to state and federal filings made this week. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity reported spending $14,114 for his opponent, Republican Tom Murry.

Heagarty said the mailings were filled with falsehoods. One, for example, had him voting for a $1 billion tax increase, when he had not yet been appointed at the time of the vote.

For conservatives, Pope is a one-man equalizer who is seeking to overcome years of Democratic dominance when it comes to money raising.

"The Democrats have always had the ability to win the close races because they outspend the Republicans 3-1, 4-1, 5-1,'' said John Davis, a veteran Raleigh political analyst with Republican leanings.

"That disparity has been eliminated by the new independent expenditure laws," Davis said. "I know the Democrats are frustrated by the fact that they can no longer run over Republicans with their financial advantage, but frankly they have had an undue influence over the legislative politics of this state for decades because they were able to get extraordinary financial advantage."

Senate leader Marc Basnight, for example, has reported spending $1.1 million-money raised from contributors- to help keep the Senate in Democratic hands this election.

"Money flows to power, and Democrats have always had the power - the president pro tem of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the governor," Davis said.

"There has never been anyone to stand up to the union support for the Democratic Party and the business support for the Democratic Party," Pope said. "Part of my decision to give more than usual is to try to offset the advantages that the Democratic Party has."

Political past

Pope is no newcomer to North Carolina politics, having served in the state House and run as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. He also has worked in numerous Republican campaigns.

But Pope has taken on a broader role since 1989, using his personal fortune to bankroll a network of think tanks seeking to move North Carolina toward his vision of a more limited government. He has been the major funder of the John Locke Foundation, the J.W. Pope Civitas Institute, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education and the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.

Pope's family foundation has provided more than $17 million to finance the network over the years, according to recent study by the liberal-leaning Institute for Southern Studies.

He has been such an important funder of the state Republican Party, that the state headquarters is named in honor of his parents.

Pope said political contributions should be seen in the context of his family's larger philanthropy on a wide range of community projects such as $1 million for a new hospice building and $1 million to help move the new Campbell University law school to downtown Raleigh. His family also gives to local universities, food banks and indigent health care.

"What we give politically is a fraction of what we give to charity," Pope said.

He also said that his political giving is not large compared to the millions that many candidates are spending on themselves, including in recent years Democratic Senate candidates John Edwards and Erskine Bowles.

Pope said he views the recent record of Democratic rule as one of failure - citing corruption cases, a broken probation system, a troubled mental health system, a high school dropout rate, a recent tax hike, and budget problems.

If the Republicans win control of the state legislature, the array of Pope-connected think tanks can expect to play an influential role in helping recommend state policy.

He believes a Republican legislature would bring "good and honest government" to North Carolina. or 919-829-4532

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